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Theatre’s role in the community: why access is important

Across the media spectrum, it appears that, just as everything is geared towards making us only interact with our screens, communal gatherings and experiences have become all the more important and popular. That's why it's imperative that we pay close attention to who that audience is, and make sure it's as inclusive as possible.

By Imogen Sarre

The effects of the Digital Age

No one could have predicted this.

The ways to entertain yourself from the comfort of your sofa nest at home multiply every day. Social media becomes ever more pervasive and the internet has wholly entrenched itself in our lives. Even ‘google', ‘facebook' and ‘wikipedia' have become verbs. Most people spend more time with their computer than with their friends or families. Yet, perversely, as the high street record store struggles, exposing the inability of CDs and DVDs to compete with internet downloading giants, gig attendance goes up. Despite the overload of film and TV programme options at home, only a click of the button away, cinemas are thriving. Across the media spectrum, it appears that, just as everything is geared towards making us only interact with our screens, communal gatherings and experiences have become all the more important and popular.

With cinemas lining high streets up and down the country, and musicians and comedians doing one-night-only performances to better get round the whole music/comedy circuit, what is theatre doing to make sure that it reaches everyone and anyone?

Well, firstly, theatre's trying its darndest to overcome its geographical limitations. 2013 is the year that the West End takes to the regions, as you can see in this blog post about the vast array of big shows that are going to tour the UK extensively. Live streaming of theatre is becoming more and more entrenched in our cultural framework, with NT Live (where National Theatre productions are shown in the cinema - many of which we show at our Second Space Cinema at Aylesbury) and Digital Theatre (which enables you to watch online and download the best recorded British theatre).

And, along with this emphasis on reducing the physical barriers to attending theatre performances, there is a real determination to remove other hindrances for those with additional needs, so that we can all share the value of having live experiences.

The importance of access schemes for those with special needs or access requirements

If the importance of having these shared experiences is a given, it is even more critical that these are as inclusive as possible. Ironically, ‘Access', the label given across the UK to this focus on inclusivity, doesn't lend itself to being easily understood by those not in the know.

What does 'Access' even mean?

Misconceptions abound. No, it's not about how to reach the venue, nor does it deal with how to make ticket prices more accessible to all demographics. The title 'Access' refers to everything ATG does to enable everyone with additional needs or access requirements to come to its theatres and have the best experience possible.

More obvious Access services on offer range from wheelchair access into the venue and seating in the auditorium, to signed, captioned and audio-described performances for those with visual/aural impairments. What is less well known, but just as important, is the whole spectrum of services in place to enhance the theatrical experience for those with sensory and communication disorders (see more information below about our most exciting recent development: 'Relaxed Performances').

The biggest problem we have is not ensuring that patrons with additional requirements have a great time at the ATG theatre they visit; it's that too few people know about the benefits there are available. Please help us to overcome this by sharing this information around and make 2013 the year for inclusive theatre.

Our initiatives and Access policy:

- Relaxed Performances

ATG launched its Relaxed Performance scheme in 2012 with three hugely successful performances of different Christmas pantos around the country. These autism-friendly performances were introduced to provide the best experience for anyone who would benefit from a more relaxed environment. Everything possible is done to reduce anxiety and ensure a safe and enjoyable theatre visit for all concerned. There is a more relaxed attitude to noise in the auditorium; small and practical adjustments are made to the surroundings and ambience; there is a designated 'chill-out' area for use during the performance; and staff members have been trained by the National Autistic Society. Furthermore, anyone who books for these performances is sent a visual story (with detailed information and photos) and is invited to attend a familiarisation meeting at the theatre. We have great plans for the rest of 2013 and 2014, so watch this space!

Autism-Friendly Performance of The Lion King

In addition, after the success of the first Autism-Friendly Performance of The Lion King at the Lyceum earlier this year, ATG are delighted to be supporting The Walt Disney Company and National Autistic Society again as they present another Autism-Friendly Performance of The Lion King- this time at the Edinburgh Playhouse. To find out more about the performance, which will be taking place on Sunday 24th November please see the official Lion King Austim-friendly website  and book tickets for it here.

- Making your visit and experience better

Our staff and Access Champions work with the restrictions of our beautiful, historic venues to make your visit as smooth as possible.

Orientation visits:
We offer orientation visits for patrons with access needs. For example, those patrons with autism may want to come with their families to familiarise themselves with the venue, or to identify possible suitable seats for their group. Likewise, those with a visual impairment may want to come and have a touch tour around the set before an audio described performance.

Bespoke services:
We can identify a quiet area if necessary and offer an at your seat service for interval drinks, programmes and merchandise. If you have any other requirements please let us know and we will do our very best to cater to them.

Other services available:
Wheelchair spaces and access into the theatre
Guide, hearing and other working dogs are welcome
Audio described, signed and captioned performances
NB: check out STAGETEXT's lovely video about how captioning in theatre works. Captioning offers 1 in 6 people who are deaf, deafened, or hard of hearing access to plays and performances. Pretty good eh?

BBC News went behind the scenes to find out how ATG audio description and touch tours work. They take a good look at panto Peter Pan, which starred Russell Grant at the Aylesbury Waterside Theatre during the 2012/2013 festive season.

- Access Champions

Every one of ATG's 39 theatres has identified someone within the venue who has a passion for Access. These Access Champions are charged with the responsibility to campaign for access provision within the venues, build relationships with external agencies, and liaise with producers to programme the assisted performances.

Theatre and the community

Theatre is not only part of communities; it also works towards creating and celebrating them. Sometimes the link between small Fringe theatres and the big West End flashy show is forgotten: it took Danny Boyle's opening ceremony ' which he says came from his creative education at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton ' to make explicit the link between grass roots creativity, a community of volunteers, and the kind of spectacle it was. Not only a celebration of individual talent and what can be achieved as a collaborative effort, the shared live experience had by spectators defines and contributes to the magic of the moment. Plays are unique because they only properly come to life when they're put in front of an audience. That's why it's more important than ever who that audience is.