Making theatre accessible for all

2nd August 2021

You may have seen recently that the musical ‘Six’ has relocated to its ‘forever home’ at the Vaudeville Theatre in the West End. 

Since the announcement, both the production and the theatre, owned by Nimax Theatres, have come under some scrutiny due to the theatres lack of accessibility.

Fans of the show have spoken out to say they are “heartbroken” with the decision, and disability activists have described the move as “deeply disappointing”.

Nica Burns, Chief Executive at Nimax said in her statement: "When we bought the Vaudeville I thought, ‘No problem, we can sort out disabled access’. It’s six steps to the auditorium. Just six steps which are the only accessible route in to or out of the auditorium. We have conducted a number of feasibility studies on solving these six steps and on installing an accessible loo but the particular dimensions and layout of the Vaudeville continue to be a challenge." You can see the full statement here

I understand that the majority of theatres in the West End aren’t built for those with accessibility needs. These theatres are listed buildings, with huge volumes of stairs, windy corridors and narrow doorways, and I get that it can’t be easy (or cheap) to make these updates. 

However, I strongly believe that everyone should have access to the arts. Theatres shouldn’t be having the last word on who can enter the venue to see a performance and who can’t. Our theatre industry is world leading, but we can’t make our venues accessible to all. 

Writing in The Stage in 2019, freelance writer, photographer and disability activist, Shona Louise said that one of the first things she thinks about when she wants to see a show is “can I get inside?... I cannot even get inside many theatres I want to visit. Whole shows are off-limits for me and many others.”

Shona had previously been working alongside Kenny Wax, producer of Six, in making the sing-along production of the musical more wheelchair friendly. For her to learn of the venue move she said, “I am well used to poor accessibility but Six markets itself as being welcoming to all - it’s meant to be a safe haven for so many, and this is why this move is so disappointing.”

When we think of disability, we often think of it as physical but that of course is just not the case. According to World Health Organization (WHO) earlier this year, there are approximately 466 million people with disability hearing loss (expected to rise to 1 in 4 by 2050), 123 million people with severe distance vision impairment/blindness, and just over 65 million people need a wheelchair.

How can this number of individuals fall through the cracks in theatre and production planning? We need to start recognising the need to prepare for those with disabilities and give this the attention it so desperately needs - from ramps, level access and lifts, to audio enhancement services, captioning services, audio description and more. Every person sitting in theatre auditoriums needs to feel valued, respected and cared for. After all, everyone has a right to be there. 

The older theatres can’t put excuses down to the architecture of its venue. There are ways around it. Who better to ask to improve accessibility to theatres then those who require the access? Get the experts in and start having those access improvement conversations. 

Look at these theatres who are putting their disabled customers at the heart of their business and adapting their venues to help them enjoy theatre as it should always be - Nimax’s Apollo, The Barbican and Theatre Royal Drury Lane, which has just undergone a £60 million transformation.

Having these conversations about accessibility and putting in measures is a start, but it is not enough. There are a lot of things to think about when planning accessibility in the theatre, but we need to make a start on putting these discussions and ideas into action, and quickly. We want to make it easier for customers with disabilities to attend performances. Not feel like they are forced out. Accessibility matters. We must do better.