Improved Access At The Old Vic | A Look Inside

Disclaimer: This was a press event. I have been gifted tickets to Old Vic productions in the past.

At the start of the year I was invited along to see my first play at The Old Vic, as well as to learn more about their future plans to improve their accessibility. When I first visited, their access compared to other theatres of their size and age wasn't terrible, in fact the wheelchair space having a really good view of the stage put them above others. However, from just one conversation with some of the the team it was clear to see that similarly to me, they believed this wasn't good enough and they knew they could be doing more. They understood that access isn't just about getting in the front door, it's about being respected and feeling welcomed and vitally, being part of the conversation. Their plans seemed ambitious for a 201 year old Grade II listed building, but 9 months on and they have truly outdone themselves. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the newly refurbishment theatre at the start of the week and it really did blow me away.

 Photo: The Old Vic

Firstly, we have the brand new second entrance. Not a tucked side entrance down a dark alley, but a second main entrance that has not only allowed step free access but will also serve greatly to decrease crowd sizes upon entry. Access is usually this tucked away thing, you wouldn't even know some theatres are accessible because their side entrances are barely visible, but not at The Old Vic. This second entrance is not to be hidden. The automatic doors lead you to their brand new lift, yes that's right, a 201 year old Grade II listed building were able to put in a lift. A short journey up takes you to the new foyer which has been made significantly bigger by taking 3 rows of seats out from the stalls. The step free area includes the box office with a lowered counter, meaning I can now choose paper tickets if I wish and pick them up myself,. There's also a seating area and the most incredibly gorgeous curtain that has to be seen to be appreciated. The old foyer area is still unfortunately inaccessible to wheelchair users, as much as they wanted to make it all accessible there really was just no possible way but they have shifted the layout to make sure that things like the box office are in the step free area. It means that when I enter the theatre, in theory I would not need any assistance from staff, which is a rare experience for me.

Something that was so odd to me as someone who has only ever been on the left hand side of the theatre, was being able to access the right hand side. It sounds like something so small but being able to wheel around the whole of the stalls meant I was able to see the beauty of the theatre in all it's glory. It also means more seat choice, with the number of wheelchair spaces going from just 2 to 10. You will have great difficulty finding other theatres in London of The Old Vic's size with 10 wheelchair spaces, or even more than 2. Two of those wheelchair spaces are sat together as well, meaning 2 wheelchair users can sit together to watch a production for the first time in the OV's history. I cannot even express how needed and appreciated this is. The wheelchair spaces are scattered across the stalls, catering for those who want to sit close to the stage and those who'd rather sit a little further back. They've also increased space in the aisle's seats to make wheelchair transfers easier.

 Photo: The Old Vic

One whole area of the theatre that I had never seen before was Penny, their cafe bar that not only serves the theatre but acts as a hub for the community. The brand new lift allows access to this area for wheelchair users and other disabled people for the first time ever and it did not disappoint. It is such a gorgeous space and as a gin fan their extensive collection is more than enough to satisfy my gin needs. Their menu and drinks list is also dedicated to sustainability, local suppliers and equality so you can enjoy a pre-show drink knowing it's doing some good in the world. You can also find the brand new second accessible toilet down here. It is so much nicer than the other one that can be found in the stalls, a lot more spacious and up to date. It's super helpful to have two in different places in the theatre now though, it means I can visit Penny for a drink without having to request access to the toilet in the stalls.

Photo: The Old Vic

Alongside improving the accessibility, The Old Vic were also adding and updating their toilets, something that was much needed. They've also taken the incredible step of removing binary language labels such as 'male' and 'female' on the toilets, replacing them with 'urinals' and 'cubicles'. This language change will help so many people, including trans and non-binary people, parents and children of different genders and carer's. They also have one specific gender neutral toilet too, as the rest of the toilets aren't being called gender neutral, they've simply had a language change. I think this is a such a huge step for the industry that must be celebrated, theatre is for everyone and small changes like this open up the doors to so many more people.

The Old Vic have also introduced a free Access membership, allowing those who need access specific seats to book online for the first time. I tested this out not so long ago for them and I absolutely loved it, I always prefer booking online when I can so I'm over the moon about this. It means no more waiting until the phone lines open to book tickets and actually being able to see where your seat is when booking. It gives disabled people more choice and autonomy, something we need a lot more of in this industry.

I knew that these changes would be huge but it didn't quite hit me until I saw them all in person. It really made me realise that disabled people do not need to be putting up with poor access anymore. It isn't just the physical changes that make The Old Vic a leader in accessibility, it's their attitude too. The sky's the limit for them, they will never stop asking questions and striving to do better. Even now they are already thinking about what more they can do to improve their accessibility, for them it's a necessity, not a box ticking exercise. I really cannot applaud for them enough for how welcome they make myself and others feel within this industry.

Phase 2 of their plans now begins, the building of The Annex which will house a learning centre, a playtext library, a cafe-workspace, more back of house space for staff and a brand new studio theatre. You can learn more about these plans and donate to make them possible on their website.

1 comment: