We’re really pleased to repost a recent Blog from one of our Access Card holders, Sidonie Ferguson, centred around Theatre Access Schemes.
Originally posted on ‘Everything Theatre’ as a 3 part series these blogs give an insight into Theatre Access schemes and why they are needed from both a box office and “access customer” point of view…
What are ‘Access Schemes’ and why do we need them?
What comes to mind when someone says, ‘I’m a disabled theatre goer’? It probably wouldn’t me. If you passed me at a performance you wouldn’t give me a second glance – until you saw me heading into an accessible toilet or being helped by front of house staff to skip a queue, despite my looking perfectly ‘normal’. I am one of many theatregoers with a hidden disability who would find it extremely hard to enjoy the amazing theatre available if it weren’t for the services theatres now provide for ‘Access Customers’.
Services provided by theatres to Access Customers vary between venues, but can include:
- Signed, captioned and audio described performances
- Step free access to performance spaces
- Discounts for the Access Customer and companion (if needed) to enable them to sit in accessible seats
- Assistance trained front of house staff
- Relaxed performances
The services available continue to develop as the understanding of Access Customers’ needs grow and the skills and technology to implement them develops. On Broadway, the GalaPro app allows Deaf and hearing-impaired customers to view performance captioning on their smartphone at any performance, giving them a wider choice of dates to attend.
Booking online for most is as easy as 1-2-3. For an Access Customer, there is so much more to consider; how many steps to my seat, is there an exit nearby, am I on an aisle, will I need to stand in lots of queues? The list goes on depending on each individual’s needs; so many things that are a natural part of everyone’s day can pose as obstacles for disabled theatregoers. One of the biggest barriers to attendance for many Access Customers is that so many of our beautiful old theatres still do not have lift access. For someone who cannot climb steps, the only option available is to book seating closest to street level, which is usually in the stalls or front of dress circle. While great for viewing, these seats are a tad draining on the wallet – particularly if you also require a companion to attend with you due to the nature of your disability. Until I learnt that theatres offered Access Schemes, this was one of the biggest barriers stopping me from seeing as much theatre as I would have liked.
Over time I have learnt to articulate my needs when booking tickets, usually via a theatre’s Access line. These are dedicated phone lines where trained staff can advise on the best seating for an Access Customer’s needs. In many cases the call is quick and easy, but sometimes not. Some Access lines are only open Monday to Friday 9am-5pm – frustrating when you remember halfway through the weekend you meant to book something. The available number of Access tickets available per performance can sometimes also be limited; for a long running show this is less of a problem, but for shorter runs and one-off performances, this can mean that while ‘regular’ tickets are still available to book, an Access Customer will be unable to attend. Booking for a new venue can also be quite a daunting experience. Thankfully, booking staff are very well trained, extremely understanding and are usually able to answer even my oddest questions.
Like a lot of people these days I prefer to book online, and the number of venues that allow Access Customers to do this is gradually increasing. Booking sites are also now being programmed to show important information, such as the number of steps to reach the seat, if there is restricted leg room, and other useful information to help Access Customers make sure the most appropriate seats are selected. There is a significant need for more venues to offer Access bookings online, however. Registration as an Access Customer is fairly easy; it usually just requires you to complete a form, though be aware some venues will ask for proof of eligibility to stop abuse of the system.
I recommend looking into the Access Card – an increasing number of venues are accepting it, and with it you no longer need to carry copies of personal documents with you.
For more information about individual theatres’ Access Schemes, look for the Access page on their website. The theatres that I know currently offer online Access booking are ATG Tickets, The Bridge Theatre, the Royal Opera House, Sadler’s Wells and the Barbican – please tell us if you know of any more.
Booking tickets is just the start of an Access Customer’s experience; once the day of the performance arrives, several additional services are available to provide extra assistance needed while visiting the venue. Everyone’s use and experience of these services will differ depending on a customer’s individual needs, but all venues are committed to providing the best possible service to their Access Customers, and my experiences of these services can testify to that.
Experience as an Access Customer
So, what’s different for an Access Customer when they attend a performance? In many ways nothing, in others you can sometimes feel a bit like a VIP. Did you know that some theatres have ‘secret’ doors that allow for fully step free access, or that there are ‘hidden’ toilets that allow Access Customers to avoid standing in long queues? A whole exciting unknown world is revealed when you’re an Access Customer.
On arrival you’ll first need to identify yourself to a member of staff – many theatres now provide dedicated Assistance trained staff to support Access Customers during their visit. These staff meet you at the theatre’s entrance and will then escort you to you to your seats via the best route possible – be it step free, or via a quiet route, whatever is needed. They’ll also offer to help you get programmes, and drinks from the bar, and will always come to check everything’s okay at the interval – even if you’ve said they don’t need to worry, which is a lovely personal touch that adds to the experience.
My most recent experience of Access Services was attending Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, and it is amongst the best I’ve experienced. As some may be aware, entry to Hamilton is complicated due to strict conditions of entry, so there is often a long queue to enter the theatre – this was something that I was quite worried about. Before our visit, I’d called and explained my difficulty standing for long periods and was told to identify myself to a member of security on arrival and someone would be expecting me. Within a couple of minutes, a member of staff arrived and fast tracked me through the security process. After a quick chat with the ever important question of ‘how are you with stairs?’ asked, we headed to an area where I could sit and wait, as the auditorium had not opened yet. Once settled, as I had a companion, I was asked if I would be happy to remain where I was while the member of staff helped other Access Customers, assuring me that once auditorium opened he would return.
As promised, once the auditorium opened he returned and escorted us to our seats, pointing out the nearest bar and accessible toilets as we went. On reaching our seats he waited until I was settled, made sure there was nothing else I needed and chatted with us for a while about the show and theatre – his enthusiasm for both clear, adding to the excitement we already felt about attending the performance. At the interval he came by to check everything was okay and that we didn’t need any extra help then or later, and made sure to point out the most accessible exit for the end of the show before heading off to check on the afternoons other Access Customers – it was a full house so I expect he was quite busy.
What made the experience special was that at no point did I feel rushed or that I was an extra burden on already very busy staff – a feeling felt from every staff member I interacted with, not just the staff member who had been assigned to help Access Customers that day. The whole experience was extremely positive – so much so that I took the time on arriving home to email and compliment the staff on the service they had provided – something we as customers often forget to do but I know is really appreciated.
When I first started to use Access services I was always scared that someone would look at me and decide I was lying about my needs and refuse to help me, but this has never been the case. I have always been made to feel welcome and have never been questioned when I’ve asked for a little extra help. I’m very grateful for this acceptance and openness, it’s something I always aim to provide when working with Access Customers myself.
For further information about Access Services provided at the Victoria Palace Theatre and other Delfont Macintosh Theatres please click here. You can also call their dedicated access line on 0344 482 5137 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more personalised information.
Serving Access Customers
As I’ve previously discussed, it can be difficult to book tickets as an Access Customer, but it is also equally difficult to assist an Access Customer if they don’t let the booking agent know their needs in the first place. Having worked as a Box Office Assistant for many years, it’s surprising how many people don’t realise that Access needs really should be one of the first thing a booking agent needs to know. In some ways telling the agent that someone in the party has Access requirements is even more important than the date or time of the performance you wish to attend. I have often reached the end of the booking process when someone casually mentions that someone in their party cannot manage steps or is a wheelchair user. I really cannot stress just how important it is to tell the booking agent about any Access needs you or members of your party have at the start of your call – this ensures you will get the best experience possible, both whilst booking and then when you attend the performance.
It’s equally important that the Access Customer listens carefully to the advice given about the suitability of seats offered. I’ve had customers tell me they can’t manage stairs, but then insist on seats that involved climbing over 20 of them. Whilst an agent can advise them that they’ll have extreme difficulty reaching those seats, they can’t refuse to sell them – the most an agent can do is note the potential issue on their booking record so that others are aware of it.
I’ve also seen wheelchair users arrive for a performance to find that their friends have booked tickets without mentioning the need for wheelchair accessible seating – a lot of people assume that everything is accessible or if not, that it will be sorted upon arrive. Situations like this put unnecessaery extra pressure on the venue staff, particularly during a sold-out performance, and can cause unnecessary stress to the Access Customer. Remember, the agent taking the booking will always know the venue well and so can advise what would best accommodate your needs – please listen and trust them.
So that’s the booking side of things, but what about when you actually arrive at the venue for the show? Firstly, please mention immediately if you will need additional help getting to your seat. Front of house staff are more than happy to provide assistance if it’s needed, but they cannot do so without you asking them. While some disabilities are obvious, and so help can be offered without a customer needing to ask, as I talked about in Part One, some disabilities just aren’t so visible. So, if you need access to a lift, or even just an arm to help you get down some steps please say so and help will always be provided. But even more helpful is if you know you’ll need a little extra help, let the booking agent know when you book. Or if you forget at the time, contact the venue a week before to let them know what extra help is needed so someone from the Front of House team is available to assist when you arrive.
Theatres nowadays are working hard to provide the best possible service to Access Customers, but it is a two way thing and for the services to grow Access Customers need to get involved too. It is of upmost importance that if you have feedback – positive or negative – you give it, it’s the only way venues will be able to adapt and update their programmes to make theatre even more accessible.
A recent experience of Barnum at the Menier Chocolate Factory led me to a conversation with staff at the interval about how difficult customers on the Autism Spectrum would find the concession seats they had allocated for that production. These seats were in the front row (for step free access) but were also situated in places where the company would approach the audience, interacting verbally and physically with them. For someone on the Autism Spectrum being in a situation such as this can be very stressful and was something that I found difficult to manage. While I’m quite high functioning and can control my reaction, I understand how overwhelming it could be for someone who’s unable to articulate or control their feelings in that situation. This is something that would most likely not have been considered at the time of the concession seats being allocated. Having taken the time to feed this back to the member of staff I was offered an alternate seat. I also hope that this helped them see from the perspective of those on the Autism Spectrum and will inform the allocation of concession seating in the future. I was also advised that the next time I booked I should do so by telephone so that the Box Office were able to offer me more suitable seats as I had wrongly assumed that the concession was immoveable and so booked online from what was available. Even I still have things to learn when navigating around the world of Access bookings.
In some theatres Relaxed performances are now offered – these are performances that are carefully adapted in terms of lighting, sound and overall experience inside the theatre to accommodate customers who can become overwhelmed by the experience of attending a performance, for example people on the Autism Spectrum – all customers are welcome to attend Relaxed performances, but the experience will differ from a ‘normal’ one. At a Relaxed performance the house lights will generally stay on at a low level, loud sounds are often removed or toned down, customers can exit and enter the auditorium as necessary and a ‘quiet’ space is provided for customers who need to take a break from what is happening around them. They are often planned with the help of The National Autistic Society to ensure the best possible experience is provided. However this is not something that every theatre and every production is able to provide so awareness of how a production could affect those attending is something theatres should really be considering – particularly in terms of where Access seats are offered in relation to the exit, should a person need to leave quickly, and if there is any performer interaction with the audience as there was in my previous experience.
So in summary, listen to the agent, tell them everything that might be relevant and this way you will hopefully get the best out of your theatre experience.