Eleanor Dewar misses the feeling of belonging that comes from attending the theatre but she doesn’t want things to go back to ‘normal’. Praising Flute Theatre for their work, she hopes that in the move forward, those with access needs are not forgotten.

Though the battle for the survival of theatre is far from over, there does appear to be (some) sort of light at the end of the tunnel with an emergency fund of £1.57bn to save the arts, though rightly criticised for being too little too late, a step in the right direction. However, with this hasty desire to return to normal or a ‘new’ normal, there might just be a risk of forgetting what has been learned during lockdown.

As someone with autism and other learning difficulties, ‘normal’ theatre – though I adore it –  has never been easy for me. A lack of warning about flashing lights and mostly unnecessary loud noises risk a sensory overload and even before I get to my seat, the busy queues prove uncomfortable and act as a challenging environment for someone who struggles in social situations.

I’ve found watching theatre online very helpful. If a, say, weak attention span is a problem for you, then being able to view this way – at your own pace is ideal. Likewise, for those with sensory issues, the use of subtitles, screen lighting and volume makes for a generally more relaxed experience.

Watching theatre digitally can also be advantageous for those who find physical access difficult and who might have unpredictable medical conditions and allergies. Instead of an over expensive monopoly of eating something that will not agree with you, at home I have far more control over what I can eat (I have spent many a theatre night in agony from chronic stomach pains but decided to battle through it due to the cost of the ticket).

Additionally, for those whom the theatre experience is almost completely inaccessible, such as those with severe learning and physical disabilities, organisations like Flute Theatre have been able to continue their fantastic work across the country, bringing Shakespeare’s stories to life for people with severe autism. Their performances on Zoom, which I have had great pleasure in watching, have been continuously playing since 18 March – just when all major theatres closed to stop the spread of COVID-19. Their electric, joyful performances have given audiences and their families just as much happiness as the theatre we are used to, proving that it simply does not have to be rigid and rule ridden to give the same satisfaction and joy.

During an online Q & A last month, Kelly Hunter, artistic director of Flute Theatre described autism as “a little tiny world of humanity,” and this little tiny world alongside many, many others has arguably been excluded from the traditional forms of theatre.

On 12 June, The Guardian revealed that only 12% of people want things to go back to the way things were pre-COVID . Though I can only imagine that those working in the industry are desperate to return to some form of normality and those waiting patiently with tickets that are constantly being pushed back are also keen to reconnect, I am definitely with the minority who thinks change is necessary.

This ‘normality’ has given me great comfort and happiness over the years but it has often been a space where those with disabilities have been left behind. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Many shows use painfully bright lights and loud noises and there is often no indication or warning on either website or ticket. Both myself and other people have complained about this, only to be told that both could not be changed for fear of ruining the artistic vision.  
  • I have had actors flings arms around me, touch my hair and force me onto the stage like a prop. Thankfully, I’m okay with such scenarios now but there are plenty of people who, for various reasons are not.

I hope that theatre goers passionate about ensuring its survival, understand that the ‘normal’ theatre experience for them potentially excludes so many others and are willing to accept that in order for the industry to come back stronger than ever it must adapt.

One sure way for theatre to survive is to open its doors to those who have previously struggled to access it. Since the halting of their main source of profit, theatres have truly realised how dependent they are on audiences and their ability to attend shows, as well as proving that they can be flexible and innovative in the way that they showcase their art.

Hopefully once all of the doors finally open on live theatre again, they will continue to adapt to the most extreme of circumstances and reflect on the fact that when things finally get back to ‘normal’, there will still be a large audience struggling with the same sensory and physical barriers as before. Hopefully theatre will become even more accessible for every type of theatre goer.

There needs to be small changes such as detailed warnings about potentially sensory triggering moments, bright flashing lights and loud noises and changes to the snack menu (more than chocolate and crisps please) to more fundamental changes like relaxed performances aimed at an adult audience. There is an opportunity here for a post-COVID-19 theatre to strive towards a far more inclusive audience than before. No excuses.