Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Guys Sing Dolls at The Space West End

Every now and then as a disabled person you come across a business that really surprises you with their access and my most recent surprise was Studio 88 (now known as The Piano Works) in the heart of London's West End. When I tweeted The Space at Studio 88, a new theatre and entertainment cabaret venue, I really expected to receive a tweet back saying that unfortunately they weren't accessible, I couldn't have been further from the truth though. I am so used to bars and small entertainment venues being inaccessible to me a as a wheelchair user so it was so refreshing to come across a venue I could access with ease and even more exciting when recent Bat Out Of Hell cast member Ryan Anderson announced he would be singing there as part of Guys Sing Dolls with Adam James Dawson (Spring Awakening, Seussical) and Alyn Hawke (42nd Street). The theme of the night was Leading Ladies songs and what a treat it was to hear these songs in a completely new light.

All 3 joined together to kick things off with an iconic song, One Night Only, it was at this point I knew we were in for a good evening as their voices melted together beautifully, but each one brought something different to the table. The songs choices throughout the night suited the small venue perfectly, it felt personal, but I think the arrangement of One Night Only in particular fitted the space so well.

Alyn impressed me with both his vocals and the way he acted and performed the songs, he made me smile and laugh with Broadway Baby and I Feel Pretty but then took me on such an emotional journey with See I'm Smiling. I had tried to go along to see Seussical over Christmas but just couldn't fit it into my schedule so I was delighted to get the chance to hear Adam sing, and he certainly lived up to my expectations. His version of  I'm Not Afraid Of Anything was simply stunning, it showed off how delicate but how powerful his voice can be. And how he made me smile with The Life Of The Party! I really hope to see them both in a show in the future!

Having seen Ryan perform in the role of Blake more times than I can count over the past 4 months at Bat Out Of Hell I assumed I was used to his voice, but this night showed me a completely different side and it was wonderful to see him performing as himself. What I am definitely used to is him making me cry, he sings with so much emotion and his rendition of She Used To Be Mine was packed full of raw emotion, I really believed what he was singing and it brought a tear to my eye. His duet with Alyn, Take Me or Leave Me, was one of my highlights of the night. Ryan brought out his inner diva and Alyn complimented him well with his facial expressions and reactions. They looked like they were having a lot of fun and as an audience member that just makes the experience even more enjoyable. They finished the night off together in the only way possible, as Disney princesses singing Let It Go from Frozen, it was the perfect end to an evening of the most gorgeous music.

A little about the access now! Access into the building is step free and there is a lift that takes you down to the bar area and The Space itself. There's a little bump down to get into the bar area from the lift, I wouldn't even call it a step as it's so small but it's something to be aware of. The accessible toilet is easy to access from both areas and was plenty big enough for me to turn around inside, with my pretty large mid-wheel drive powerchair! The Space, where this was held, is separated off from the bar with it's own small bar inside. It really is a very small space, smaller than I anticipated, but there was still plenty enough room for myself and most importantly, I could sit with my friends rather than being separated from them like so often happens at shows or concerts. Part of the space is up a step but there were at least 4 tables on the step free level so you've plenty of seating choice. The good thing about it being a small venue is that you don't need to worry about having a restricted view of any kind, something I know myself and many other wheelchair users often experience when trying to enjoy theatre and live music. The intimacy of the venue was something I really enjoyed since I mostly find myself in a box or back of the stalls when I'm in a theatre, so I'll definitely be looking into future concerts at The Piano Works and The Space.

Follow The Space on Twitter, find out more about The Piano Works on their website and check here to view and buy tickets for upcoming concerts.

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

In Conversation With Louise Sertsis, Creator Of The Handi Pac

Back in 2017 I started a series on my blog called 'In Conversation With' where I interviewed and talked to a wide variety of disabled people and those connected with disability, I've spent many years sharing my own experience of disability on my blog but that is just one experience and I wanted to widen my readers understanding of disability by talking to a range of different people. It's been quite a while since I last posted an interview but I'm hoping that the series will make a comeback this year, starting off with an interview that I've been meaning to post for far too long!

Photo: Louise Sertsis

I came across Louise Sertsis through her business, Advanced Freedom, last year when I was looking into bags that would work for me as a powerchair user, after having not much luck with anything from the mainstream market. I wanted to be able to travel from A to B with a bag without needing assistance from someone else and so I was delighted to hear about the bag that Louise had designed, The Handi Pac, a bag specifically designed for wheelchair users to give them freedom and independence when travelling. It's a bag that attaches to you, not your wheelchair, and sits on your legs rather than on the back of your chair allowing for easy access. Sometimes you come across things that you just want to shout about and this was one of those things!

I talked to Louise about the bag, it's importance and the future for herself and other disabled people looking to start up their own business. The Handi Pac is like nothing else on the market currently, Louise told me about what sets it apart from other bags.

'The Handi Pac is made specifically for wheelchair users, designed by someone who uses a wheelchair! It is the only front facing bag and the only bag that is secured to you rather than your wheelchair. It is a large bag to allow the user to use the bag for food shopping, school or travelling and it is the only bag that is flexible enough to detach into two. It uses magnetic closures rather than velcro or cumbersome clasps/connectors, and includes D-rings for easier grip for those who require it.'

  • Similar to a backpack for the able-bodied individual, but made especially for the seated person.  
  • The only bag that fastens directly onto the person, alleviating the need to retrieve items at the side or the back of the individual. Disabled people often do not have the capacity or the strength to turn around, let alone the ability to raise their arms while performing a specific task. 
  • Runs the length of your lower leg, with magnetic closures that fastens the bag around your calf area.  
  • All zippers/buckles on traditional bags are replaced by magnets.  
  • It's the largest wheelchair bag on the market; accommodates an array of items when shopping, going to school, or travelling the globe.  
  • Top portion of the bag is attached by magnets to the lower portion of the bag. This part of the bag allows for easy access to smaller items such as a phone, sunglasses, purse, wallet, sunscreen, magazines, calculator, notebooks, tablets, and more. 
  • Lap portion of the bag has a quick release seatbelt that fastens to the mid-thigh area and allows for easy removal, and is adjustable to the user. 
  • Water resistant to withstand changing weather conditions. - Advanced Freedom 

  • Photo: Louise Sertsis

    We also talked about where this all began and what made her want to start Advanced Freedom and go on to design and create The Handi Pac. 'I always found myself searching for items that were truly accessible for wheelchair users, the items available to date aren't completely functional for wheelchair users. I craved the independence I lost when I first started using a wheelchair and that's when Advanced Freedom was born. The Handi Pac is the first of many ideas I have to make life easier for wheelchair users but I started with The Handi Pac as I needed a bag that I could use completely on my own. I wanted a bag that I could travel, shop or run errands with without needing anyone else to hold on to my belongings.'

    I think this is a struggle a lot of wheelchair users share, I want to be independent but there are only so many bags I can hang off my powerchair meaning I either limit the amount of food shopping I do, for example, or I take someone with me to help. Many of us result to adapting how we do things, or adapting products already on the market so I asked Louise how she would like to see various industries change to adapt and cater better for disabled people.

    'I really feel that the disabled community have been forgotten when designing products, it's almost as if we are an afterthought or completely shunned from the mainstream markets. Many large chains just don't believe there is enough money or disabled people to warrant providing accessible lines. The internet is really the only option at the moment and even that is very sparse, I feel this won't change until a large corporation paves the way for others to follow.'

    I would love to see more disabled people following the path that Louise has gone down, taking matters into their own hands and designing products that work for themselves and other disabled people but it's no easy process, I spoke to Louise about challenges and barriers she's faced.

    'This journey is very exciting but at times overwhelming. It is very gratifying to see your idea come to life whilst helping others, I'm a sole proprietor and I'm learning as I go. I was very lucky to find a mentor, someone who truly believes in my product and especially in me. I'm beyond grateful for all his help, or else I probably wouldn't have gotten to this point. My recommendation would be to form relationships with like minded people who share the same vision as you. By building a team of people, things move a lot quicker and cause less stress.

    I think that if there were more disabled people creating products for the disabled market then I believe there would be a greater spotlight on disability as a whole. As they say 'necessity is the mother of invention' and unless you're in need of something it's difficult to create something completely new. That's half the creative process, if it's something you need then chances are many other disabled people would benefit as well.

    For me I'm still struggling with financial barriers, especially since I don't work and haven't in quite some time. I've found that I was unable to get a job because I am a wheelchair user so I made the decision to hire myself. I think hard work and never taking no for an answer has given me the chance to connect with the right people, to turn my dream into reality.  I really can't say how to make this process easier, but access to a computer has been my saviour as I'm able to do most things on there.  It's a lot easier to work from home, to be able show my product through Skype or messenger has been wonderful.'

    I was lucky enough to try The Handi Pac out recently and was really impressed by how high quality it was, as well as it being far easier to use than I imagined! The magnetic closures are simple and don't require too much strength to undo and the bag sits comfortably. Unfortunately for me it doesn't fit into my lifestyle, I would have trouble getting on the bus with it but I did speak to model, Samanta Bullock, who has found the bag to be very useful in her life.

    'I use the bag whilst travelling and it is a great concept, what I liked most is that it's very practical as everything you need is in front of you. It also comes with the lap bag that is a handbag attached to your lap giving easy access to the things we use often. With all the new improvements I am really looking forward to seeing it on the market. I believe it will help many disabled people.'

    The Handi Pac Kickstarter will go live towards the end of January/beginning of February, follow Louise and myself to keep up to date with when it's available

    Monday, 7 January 2019

    A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic | Review

    Christmas might be over but the festive spirit is more than alive still and can be found in The Old Vic until January 19th!

    Start as you mean to go on they say, and so I kicked off my 2019 in the best way possible, with a theatre trip! I was very kindly invited along to The Old Vic to see A Christmas Carol and to hear about all of the access improvements they are making in the theatre this year. It was my first visit to The Old Vic and my first play and let me tell you, neither of them disappointed.

     Photo by Manuel Harlan
     Photo by Manuel Harlan
    Photo by Manuel Harlan

    A Christmas Carol is a classic that has been done time and time again and in so many different ways but for me this production adapted by Jack Thorne, who has credits like Harry Potter & the Cursed Child to his name, truly is up there with the best versions of this timeless story. Having never seen a play before I wondered whether losing concentration would be a problem but I couldn't have been more wrong as I gripped from start to finish.

    This isn't just a show, it's an immersive theatre experience like nothing I've experienced before. It's a treat for all of the senses as you're offered a mince pie and orange as you take your seats, the room quickly being filled up by the smell of both. The music used is enchanting and I found myself looking around the whole stage with a smile on my face as I soaked in the atmosphere. It truly felt like the audience were part of this production.

    The staging and set was simple but memorising, the words the actors spoke were enough on their own to capture the audience but the set just gave it that little extra magic and wonder. Stephen Tompkinson quite frankly gave a masterclass in acting, the emotions he conveyed and the way he played Scrooge to me just made so much sense and gave a completely different angle to the story. He is on stage for so much of the show and yet not once did I find myself not being completed engaged in what he was doing or saying.

     Photo by Manuel Harlan
    Photo by Manuel Harlan

    Prior to doing some research before the show I was more than expecting Tiny Tim to be played by non-disabled actors, as so often happens within these industries, so when I found out that all 4 children who play Tiny Tim are in fact disabled themselves, I was over the moon. As a disabled theatre fan there are not enough words to describe how much it means to see a disabled person being booked for roles like this, roles that should always go to someone with a lived experience. I hope other theatres and creative teams see this and follow suit because it's about time. I had Luka Petrovic on as Tiny Tim and I was just completely blown away, as I always am by child actors, by his talent and professionalism.

    I don't want to ruin anything for those who are going, and to those who aren't you should book tickets right now, but there are some truly heart warming and beautiful moments and some wonderful surprises that just made me so happy I was on the edge of tears. It was simply one of the most breathtaking pieces of theatre I've had the pleasure to witness.

    The Old Vic are putting on 3 access performances of A Christmas Carol, an audio described performance with a touch tour on January 8th, a captioned performance on January 10th and an open/relaxed performance at the matinee performance on January 12th.

     Photo by Manuel Harlan
    Photo by Manuel Harlan

    The Old Vic is just over 200 years old and also an Grade 2 listed building so I think I just always assumed that as a wheelchair user I couldn't even get in, when actually their access is better than some newer theatres I've tried to visit! I was invited along to see the show and also to learn more about the current access and the plans to improve it this year and in the future. I have to say it was one of the most refreshing conversations I've ever had about access in theatres.

    Wheelchair access at The Old Vic is via a side entrance, which is a fairly common experience for me and many theatres are more than happy to offer that kind of experience to disabled people. Not being able to access a theatre foyer, box office or bar has become the norm for many wheelchair users but The Old Vic are leading the way by saying that isn't good enough. So, starting this month after raising the funds needed work begins to make the foyer and the basement cafe accessible for disabled patrons. They are going to be taking out a whole wall to make this happen, as well as installing a lift to allow access to the basement. They'll also be doubling the number of ladies toilets, which I'm sure is a very welcome improvement! They hope to take the number of wheelchair spaces they have from 2 to 10 eventually too, which would be incredible to see since they are a 1,000 seat theatre, a lot bigger than it appears.

    View from wheelchair space (P7)

    The long term plans for the future could see The Old Vic become one of the most accessible theatres in London for patrons, staff and actors, it was exciting to hear about but it's all very much long term ambitious plans that rely on a lot of outside funding since they depend so heavily on public support. Which I think is why they see the importance of access, they want to give an equal experience to every person who supports them to stay open.

    As said before, the access for wheelchair users and other disabled patrons is currently via a side entrance and a very steep ramp, because of the pavement the ramp can't be very long which means as a result it's steep so it's something to keep in mind if you're visiting. The disabled toilet is right by the entrance, it's not very big although I still managed to turn around in it in my rather large mid wheel drive powerchair. The door slides across rather than outwards or inwards, which really helps. There are currently 2 wheelchair spaces in the stalls, I sat in P7 which was less than 10 metres from the stage. Photos on Seat Plan had made it look a lot further away than it is, in fact I think it's the closest I've ever sat to a stage.

    The wheelchair space was on a platform that levelled out the floor, not something I need since I have a tilt function on my powerchair but being a little higher than others was something I enjoyed and I think manual wheelchair users especially would appreciate the extra height. Staff were able to get me a programme and drink and came and checked on me during the interval which I appreciated, as well as communicating with me about the plan to get me out as where the wheelchair space was meant I got caught up in a big crowd so that communication was greatly appreciated. It really was up there with some of my best theatre experiences, in terms of access and the production. You can learn more about their current access and the future plans on the website.

    I really am so excited to follow the progress of the renovation work this year, it should be all finished by Autumn of this year which is impressive considering they've a whole lift to put it! I can't begin to tell you how encouraging it was to have a conversation with a theatre so dedicated to access, they are even beginning to consider things like having a Changing Places eventually but again due to space, these are very long term plans. They are more committed to access than most London theatres and I can only hope others witness the benefits of improved access and follow suit, The Old Vic are proving that a listed status building shouldn't be a barrier to equal access.

    A Christmas Carol is still playing at The Old Vic until January 19th so if you're looking to cling on to the festive season for a little longer then get yourself over there to see it, it is well worth the trip! It's a real shame that such a high quality piece of theatre is only on stage over Christmas but I cannot wait to see more productions at the theatre this year!
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