It’s been two months since I headed to New York for my weekend of Birthday Broadway adventures and beyond. As you know if you’ve read that blog, a brilliant time was had by all, particularly on Broadway. The reason for this, at least for me, was twofold: not only were all three of the shows brilliant, but the views were also. Being in my wheelchair, I don’t have the luxury of being able to choose where I want to sit when I go to the theatre, as most will; I have to sit where I’m put and generally, these seats are either at the back of the theatre, or in the Boxes off of the Dress Circle. So, imagine my sheer joy when my New York adventures gave me the opportunity to watch my favourite show (Jersey Boys) in Row D of Stalls, and Les Misérables from Row K of Stalls. When I booked my access tickets, I also admired that you can book online (something which only two venues that I know of in the entirety of London will let you do if you have particular needs, otherwise you have to phone) and also the fact that you can choose between the higher price and lower price seats. Being a special trip, we decided to go for the higher price seats at both of these, and particularly with Jersey Boys it was like watching the show for the very first time all over again.
Now, it would be wrong of me to say that the views I experience in London theatre’s are awful – there are two venues that I absolutely adore (the St James Theatre Studio and the Donmar Warehouse) because I’m really close to the action there, and since my beloved Jersey Boys has moved home to the Piccadilly theatre, though I’m further away, the view is much more comfortable on my back and neck, and you can see the entire stage. It’s just… New York is so much further ahead in terms of their facilities and access theatre wise. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that it’s all to do with the simple fact that the majority of London’s theatres are all ancient, sometimes listed buildings and so by law no changes can be made. Though, knowing that being in my situation doesn’t make it any less frustrating, even though I know I’m incredibly lucky and get to see lots more theatre than some do. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to articulate why it makes me so upset and frustrated effectively, so let me take you to my most recent trip to London with my friend Jo, who I took on her inaugural trip to see my beloved Jersey Boys, where when I was telling her all about NY and how I was feeling after the trip, she said: Your life is limited in ways most people take for granted, there are certain things you can’t do. So, when you find something you love but your choices are limited further, it frustrates you moreso.’
That’s exactly it. When I came back from my trip, even though I had an awesome time, for the first couple of weeks, I was in a pretty dark and disillusioned place. I was so frustrated and angry that now I’d had a taste of what it felt like to be down in the front Stalls and experience a show up close, and the lengths particularly the August Wilson theatre have gone to in terms of better disabled access (a lift that takes you down the small staircase to the door into stalls), I’d have to go back to sitting up top or right at the back in major West End musicals. I was so down about it that I had said that, after my final trip of the year this coming December, I didn’t want to go to London anymore. I was incredibly bitter and wondered how it was fair that I (or any disabled theatre-goer) don’t have the choice in London that Broadway offers, and I dreaded the thought of returning to Jersey Boys in particular as I feared I’d grow to resent being there in the seat I have when I’ve experienced the show from four rows from the front, and with the talented and insanely lovely gents and ladies that reside there at the moment, I couldn’t bear that. That in mind, I resolved to make a clean break, which horrified my friends and my dad. I’d spout out: ‘it’s a waste of money, paying all that to sit where I have to sit in London when Broadway is better’, ‘I’d miss it a lot more than I’d be missed’ and so on. Nothing any of my friends was saying was seeming to pull me out of the mood I was in, though it did help knowing that there were some of my friends who have had the experience of sitting with me at the theatre understand how frustrated it can make me.
Now, a couple months on, I’ve been able to reflect with a clearer head and have come to the conclusion that London means too much to me to have a totally clean break. It is essentially the only time that I get to see my closest friends, and even if only for a few hours, allows me to forget how lonely I can get when I’m at home, and the fact I’m struggling to find a job and really wanting to move out of my parent’s house and be more independent. That said, I think a bit of distance will help keep me in that good frame of mind. So, from January, I intend to put more space between visits and only make the really regular trips for a couple of performers and of course all my friends who might want me there and also try and see more shows that I haven’t before, mix these in amid all my favorites.
Of course, the difference in ease of access still does frustrate me, and I don’t think that’ll ever change. I have to miss things that I would love to see, because I can’t negotiate stairs, and part of me still longs to be allowed to sit closer than I am in the majority of theatres. I know the reason and the logic as to why I can’t, but that doesn’t mean I’m ok with it. I admit I don’t know what the best solution is, because as I’ve said these buildings are ancient, so it’s not practical to demolish and refurb them so it the access is better, and admittedly beyond venues having stairs I’m pleased that, in a way, my disability is ‘easier’ to cater for, because I’m starting to see that it isn’t always so for others. Recently, this piece came to my attention from a blogger who talks about their experience with the Barbican – and was fuming to hear they were getting passed from pillar to post and jump through hoops just to get the seats they genuinely need. I implore everyone to read it – it’s lengthy but incredibly insightful: http://www.peskypeople.co.uk/2014/09/barbican-access-tickets-for-hamlet-jumping-through-hoops/
Since it’s impractical for my wish of complete refurbishment of theatres to come true, what I wish there was more of an open dialogue between disabled patrons and the theatre staff, owners and all the important other people involved in putting a show onstage, at least then we’d get a chance to talk about our concerns and maybe find other little ways the access for those of us with particular needs can be made better, because there are ways in which it could be, and for people with all kinds of disabilities and impairments.