Friday, July 14, 2006

Even Will Shakespeare Had A Problem With People Coughing

Even Will Shakespeare Had A Problem With People Coughing*

Oh, I've always wanted to be like Random Acts of Reality and get to write this and, finally, it comes: the views expressed in this blog are my own and they do not necessarily reflect those of the WYP or its staff.

For a few weeks now there's been an ongoing debate in The Stage's letter page regarding theatre access, a debate which was sparked by Mark Shenton's blog. In a nutshell, Shenton attended a performance of Into the Woods at Derby Playhouse, a performance which was also attended by a group of seriously disabled people. And the problem? Shenton's theatre-watching experience was so damaged by the noises echoing from the group he complained to the Duty Manager during the interval. And then wrote his hugely controversial blog on the subject, a blog which at the time I read with some interest. Because how do I square my own pro-access stance with my equally developed strain of theatre snobbishness? What would I think in those circumstances? And, possibly more importantly, what responsibilities do I think a theatre has to all of its patrons?

Maybe this has been pushed to the forefront of my mind because in recent months - in the name of justifying the extra pay the addition of the word 'Senior' to my job title has given me - I've had to deal hands on with some of the WYP's access strategies. And as stressful as some of those times have been - let's not get into the story of my (almost) holding up a performance of Bad Girls last month - I've enjoyed the experience. Because it's an area of theatre I've never experienced before. It was rather enlightening to listen to the audio description of West Side Story, something I would never have thought of doing. But if I've seen where access is working with the audio description, the captioned performances, those community network nights, then I've also had to deal with carers/support workers taking people out of the theatre because they felt they were causing a disruption. It's something I consider to be a very difficult, thorny subject - and one which I suspect has many wrong answers but few unequivocally right ones.

Topically, yesterday I attended a training workshop with Mind The Gap, a theatre company for people with learning difficulties. It was all aimed at getting front of house people in all their guises (as well as three of us FoH-ers, there were duty managers, box office staff, receptionists, restaurant staff and even two sound men) to look at the experience of coming to the theatre from the point of view of someone with learning difficulties. The session started with a performance from Mind The Gap of 'Never Ever' - a short play about Anne-Marie, a girl with downs syndrome, attending the theatre for the first time. And whilst I giggled at the more outrageous moments of the portrayal of life in a theatre and I genuinely enjoyed the play we had to walk the line between what I could condemn (patronising, unhelpful attitudes which no one should be greeted with inside a theatre) and what is more difficult to deal with (the ever thorny issue of disruptions during a performance). It also pushed me to question how far is a theatre responsible for the attitudes of its audience. All staff can - and should - be trained to deal with the differing needs of audience members, we should be doing everything we possibly can to widen access to this brilliant and affecting medium and if that means paying attendants to specifically deal with such groups (as is starting to happen at the WYP) then we should. But can we train an audience? In 'Never Ever' we saw the tutting queue members, the annoyance at having to stand up to let people in to their seats, the desire to not be disturbed. And I've worked that. I've seen it. I've had to deal with it.

I think the notion of the "unwritten rules of theatre going" are probably very pertinent. And because these rules are unwritten there are whole swathes of people who don't know them, or who interpret them in different ways, people who see them loosely, people who live by them strictly. Me? I think those theatres in London which sell popcorn need a good talking to, I'm still generally a bit dubious by in-theatre whooping [though I have started to relax on this a bit, just a bit mind you] and don't get me started with the propensity of regional audiences to give musicals standing ovations. Hopefully new policies of inclusion are pulling more and more people into the theatre, people who may not have a history of theatre-going so does this mean that we - and I mean people like me - need to look at those unwritten rules? Do they need to be re-written? Heck, do they need to be written? Should theatres have mission statements that go on their websites, that along with highlighting that they are theatres of social inclusion, who welcome groups with a full range of difficulties and, yes, we encourage schools to bring lots of children, also put forward the "theatre going rules" of that particular venue. Rules sounds like such a horrible, perscriptive word, when really the most amazing thing that can happen in the theatre is the enjoyment of the audience, those times when it sparks something, some connection that is far away from rules as is possible. For there is nothing worse than a silent, unmoving audience. Well, nothing other than a mobile phone going off during the emotional climax, but we'll put that to one side and hope someday people will remember to turn the bloody things off. Rules, suggestions, codes of behaviour, whatever we take to call them - because it's pointless pretending they don't exist when we know they do - maybe there needs to be something about respecting all theatre-goers and their right to attend (and enjoy) the theatre at the top of them.

*If you believe the film.

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