How Peterborough theatres have made themselves disability friendly

“It’s really important across arts and culture that it’s accessible for anybody to come and see shows or activities or events.”

By Joel Lamy
Friday, 2nd July 2021, 4:55 am

Those were the words of Richie Ross, theatre director at New Theatre Peterborough

Mr Ross was speaking to the PT as part of its Peterborough Unlimited campaign as works resumed at the premised in Broadway to get it up and running again in August

Peterborough Unlimited has shone a light on the struggles for people with disabilities to access the city centre, but huge efforts are being made at New Theatre to make sure it is fully accessible for all.

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Theatre director Richie Ross in the viewing area for people using wheelchairs

The PT took part in a recent tour after being informed by someone who supports people with disabilities that the theatre has “absolutely wonderful facilities to welcome their disabled customers”.

Sitting down with the PT after the tour, Mr Ross said: “We were really lucky when this venue got redeveloped that Peter Boizot had the foresight to put in the facilities to make that happen.

“We have lift access from the ground floor to the first floor, we have a fantastic viewing area for people in wheelchairs or with poor mobility, and we have backstage access with disabled toilets.

“Part of it is also working with people with hidden disabilities. We’re working with the Alzheimer’s Society at the moment on addressing that and will be going through training sessions with new staff who join, and also will be holding Singing for the Brain sessions here in the not too distant future which will be really special.

The lift which takes people into the ticket/bar area where they can also access the seating

“People remember this venue from years gone by when it was the Odeon cinema. And everyday on social media we get people posting memories about when they came here to see films.

“For those who have memories of back in the day when it was a cinema, to be able to work with the Alzheimer’s Society and relight some of those memories will be really special.”

Singing for the Brain brings people affected by dementia together to sing a variety of songs they know and love, in a fun and friendly environment.

As the trip to the theatre showed, there are six wheelchair spaces at the back which can be booked for a show, while there are also plans for a British Sign Language performance of Aladdin later this year, and a fuller roll-out of relaxed performances, which first featured in 2019.

The Key Theatre in Peterborough

A relaxed performance, Mr Ross explained, is a show adapted to suit people who might require a more chilled environment when going to the theatre, for instance people with learning difficulties, autism or sensory communication disorders.

They do not have loud bangs or flashes, while the cast introduce themselves beforehand, the lights are on at half frequency and the doors are open so people can move in and out with freedom.

Meanwhile, the theatre’s new website, which has gone live, will make booking easier for people with disabilities.

Samuel Biscoe, ticket and operations manager, explained: “We’re working towards launching an access membership so that no longer do people have to call the box office and present themselves with a disability.

“They are able to sign up online and manage it themselves. They can let us know what their disability is through a range of tick boxes on there in their account.

“We try to make sure we have accessible seats available for everybody all of the time, and because of the fantastic access to the building it makes it really easy for us to recommend seats to people who are unsure.

“There’s always somebody on the phone as well who is happy to chat through what the different options are and be descriptive of what the auditorium looks like if they’ve not been before.

“Equally, we are happy to arrange times for people to visit us to take a look if they’ve not been before or are feeling nervous about coming to the building for the first time with a lot of people.

“We can arrange it so it’s quiet and they can get a sense of where the good seats are for them.

“There is also an excellent wheelchair viewing platform.

“The new website will make sure all of the information is there and we’re working on that at the moment, and that should be public at the beginning of July.”

The PT was also informed by a campaigner that the Key Theatre is excellent at supporting people with disabilities.

Theatre manager Jag Singh explained what the Key does to make its accessible:

. Facilities and Disability Discrimination Act compliance - There are induction loops in both auditoriums and public areas, and in 2019 an audio description system was introduced.

. Inclusivity - Jag said: “We’re proud of our relationships and the growing network of professional touring companies who specialise in making theatre more accessible for audiences.”

An example was ‘Frozen Light’ which visits the Key each year, creating multi-sensory theatre for audiences with profound and multiple learning disabilities.

There are also British Sign Language (BSL), captioning, audio description and subtitled shows.

. Carer tickets - Customers who need the support of a carer on their visit can obtain a free ticket for their carer.

. Panto production - A number of performances are specially adapted, such as BSL and audio described shows.

There are also touch tours, where audiences can explore the stage and handle selected props, costumes and furniture which can help provide extra detail and allows them to better engage with the production.

Relaxed performances have also been introduced.

. Dementia friendly shows - launched in 2018 in collaboration with the Dementia Resource Centre with prices as low as £2 to watch classic films, including complimentary tea, coffee and biscuits.

Carers were free to attend and adjustments were made such as raised lighting and reductions in sound levels.

. Sub-titled family films.

. Public space - The auditorium was completely reconfigured following public feedback to deliver a better experience for those requiring wheelchair spaces.