Monday, 24 February 2020

A Look Inside The Leeds Playhouse | Accessibility & Inclusion | AD

This post is an AD. 

Over these past few years I've experienced both ends of the spectrum when it comes to accessibility in theatres. There's been theatres I can't even get inside, theatres that are doing just enough and then there are those that set the bar higher than I could ever imagine. The theatres that make me feel like any other patron visiting to see a show, places where I don't necessarily need help from staff and don't have to use side entrances down dark side roads. When I find such a theatre I shout about them from the rooftops and that's exactly what I'm doing today after a recent trip to Leeds introduced me to somewhere that has an enthusiastic amount of passion when it comes to access.

The beginnings of the Leeds Playhouse came about in 1970 but the building that stands today was opened in 1990, back then it was called the West Yorkshire Playhouse with them making the decision to revert back to their original name in 2018. From the beginning they have been about more than just putting on shows, always pushing to be a producing theatre that serves it's local community. And often you'll find that an attitude like that is often accompanied by an attitude to open your doors to everyone, and this couldn't be truer when it comes to the Leeds Playhouse. After just over a year of refurbishment work they reopened their doors in October 2019 and I recently visited them to learn more about the astonishing physical work they've done, but also to see the other ways in which they champion accessibility and inclusion, including their upcoming co-production with Ramps On The Moon. 


The £15.8 million refurbishment had a key focus on improving access across the board, as well as creating a new city facing entrance that gives the theatre a contemporary feel to fit in with the rest of the city. The building itself is absolutely stunning and so welcoming. There are now several entrances to the theatre, all of which have step free access. The space inside is light and bright with spaces for the local community to enjoy the building, and having spoken to staff at the theatre about what they are striving to achieve, it sounds like the new space fits that vision a lot better now.

Of course, it's the access I'm interested in though, and the list of what they've achieved is impressive to say the least. There are lifts to all floors, plenty spacious enough for a powerchair user like myself. A total of 8 accessible toilets can be found throughout the building, as well as family cubicles and a Changing Places, something that is somewhat of a rarity to find in a theatre. There are 8 wheelchair spaces in the Quarry Theatre and the Courtyard Theatre, with more available on request, and accessible spaces in the brand new Bramall Rock Void theatre. There are also plenty of transfer seats with removable arms available too, so this is one theatre where booking a wheelchair space shouldn't be difficult! They also have 8 level access parking spaces, braille signs (with service dogs being more than welcome), low counters, hearing loops and more. Wheelchair users can now enter the theatres through the main auditorium doors as well for the first time. The whole space is such a breeze to get around as a wheelchair user!


When it comes to accessible performances they are ticking all the boxes once again too. Where possible all of their own productions have audio described, captioned and British Sign Language interpreted performances and as much as possible, a relaxed performance and dementia friendly performance too. They also try and schedule their show's press nights to be BSL interpreted to make reviewing of their shows more accessible, something that as a disabled theatre reviewer as I was over the moon to hear about. And this is where the second half of this post starts, it was amazing to tour the theatre and learn about the refurbishment but I was itching to get into their rehearsal room to take a peek at their upcoming production of Oliver Twist that is potentially the most accessible and inclusive show I have come across to date.

Oliver Twist is a co-production with Ramps On The Moon, a project that strives to make a positive change in the industry when it comes to the employment of disabled performers and creative teams, as well as encouraging a cultural change to make accessibility a central part of an organisations thinking. The show itself will feature the use of integrated creative sign language, audio description and captioning, and vitally it features disabled performers. In just the few hours I was in rehearsals I was utterly blown away. From a personal perspective it meant a great deal to see actors with such a diversity of disability perform a piece of theatre. I came away from it with a sense of joy and hope, but also a sense of frustration towards the industry because they demonstrated how easy it is to employ disabled actors. How easy it is to have several different BSL interpreters in the room, to describe things for someone who is visually impaired, to choreograph a chase scene with a wheelchair user. Everything worked and happened so flawlessly.


Speaking to Amy Leach, the director, I could see straight away how passionate she is about this production and accessibility in general. It was one of the most refreshing conversations I've ever had. Whilst this production isn't without it's challenges, it also isn't as difficult to put together as people might imagine. I was one of the only people in the room who didn't have at least a basic grasp of BSL, in the show Fagin, the Artful Dodger, Oliver and Bill Sikes are all deaf and so BSL is their dominant language which just works so well, as the idea of a gang having their own language is not a new concept. Everything just works so seamlessly. They have a cast of 13, with 3 BSL interpreters in the room, as well as a BSL consultant to help with visual storytelling and an audio description consultant to make sure visually impaired people always knows what is happening. They even have the most wonderful access dog, Ronny!

Productions like this are about proving to people that access is something that should just be part of the creative process. It's something I've talked about before from the perspective of physical access when seeing a show, when considering a venue for a show or even just a one off concert I'd love for accessibility to be up there with the financial aspect, capacity etc when it comes to choosing somewhere. Ramps On The Moon and the Leeds Playhouse are proving that access isn't about compromise, in fact it is something that can add to your production. Actors and creatives alike often come into the industry to be pushed and stretched, to see what can be achieved and accessibility and inclusion offers that opportunity. Everyone in that rehearsal room was having an immense amount of fun playing around with what worked and didn't work, and there was so much laughter when there were mishaps like one of the visually impaired actors bumping into a wheelchair user. To be in a room where no one is intimidated by the presence of so many disabled people was a joy.


I am so excited to see the progress they've made when the show opens and I implore you to give it a watch. It opens at the Leeds Playhouse this Friday, playing until 21st March, before embarking on a tour across the UK to the 5 other Ramps On The Moon theatres. If you want a glimpse at where theatre should evolve to in the future, this is where it's happening.

Book your tickets to see Oliver Twist at the Leeds Playhouse from Friday 28th February and visit the Ramps On The Moon website to book tickets for Ipswich, Nottingham, Birmingham, Sheffield and Stratford. 
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