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Copyright: Sidonie Ferguson

Theatre Access Schemes – Part 1

Theatre is continuing to become more inclusive, doing everything to reduce barriers and make attending the theatre as accessible as possible to all.  The term “Access Customer”, meaning those with additional needs, both physical and mental, has become an important part of theatre vocabulary.

As someone with experience as both an Access Customer and a Box Office Assistant, Sidonie is able to inform us about Theatre Access Schemes from both sides.  We hope these articles will introduce an important, but often overlooked, area of theatre going that many audience members are unaware of.

What are they 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.

Part Two will discuss the experience of attending a performance as an Access Customer. In the meantime, please get in touch if you would like to share your experiences as an Access Customer with us, we would love to hear from you.

About Sidonie Ferguson

Sidonie Ferguson
Sidonie has a BA in Theatre Studies, and an MA in Arts Administration and Cultural Policy. Describing theatre as her ‘home’ she is never happier than when she is wandering around a theatre. One of her first theatre memories is watching Victoria warm up before a performance of Cats in Blackpool in 1989 - in the eyes of a 5 year old, Victoria was 100% cat. Now, sadly, some of the magical way a child sees things has faded, but that doesn’t stop her enjoying as much theatre as she can. She is partial to a good musical and has a love for the integration of digital technologies into live performance. On the rare occasion she gets to go to Broadway Sidonie is a firm believer of go big or go home, with the 2014 record of 11 shows in 8 days not yet having been beaten – but there is always next time.