New Wolsey Theatre #AccessDay visit

The New Wolsey Theatre is a producing theatre based in Ipswich, Suffolk. It is a midsized regional theatre with a capacity of 400. The theatre combines their own productions with other partners and touring performances. They work to create high quality performances and creative learning opportunities. The theatre strives for maximum diversity and the greatest possible accessibility, both for the audience and for the performers.

I visited the theatre as part of Disabled Access Day, where I ran through my Access Checklist. They ran an evening event where they talked about the access features of the theatre and gave a tour of back stage. I was really impressed with the amount of  effort they had put into the event.

The Theatre is well sign posted and clearly laid out, the ramp and steps are almost stylish and I know they are well liked by free-runners. There is all the correct tactile paving and the ramp is as shallow is possible. I arrived at the theatre running a little late but I made it though quickly, the reception area is well-lit and clearly laid out with logo signage and high contrast door frames. The main desk is split level to suit wheelchair users, there is a clear line of sight between people on either side of the desk. I later learnt that reception has an infra-red hearing enhancement system and can provide written information in large print, and limited info in braille too.  To the left of the main entrance there is a seating area with a range of different chairs and a small catering stand. At the main desk you can hire a range of adaptations for use inside the theatre including audio description units, wheelchairs and more.

I was shown through to the main stage by a very helpful member of staff, who was not patronising in any way. There were a good number of people there, mainly people with a range of disabilities and their families.

At the start of the presentation each member of the Wolsey team introduced themselves in BSL (British Sign Language) as well as verbally, the BSL interpreter spoke for those who could/did not communicate verbally. The entire presentation was given in both spoken english and BSL.

The introduction began with the seating area we were in.  The Theatre has a range of accessible seating, the first few rows of fixed seating can be removed and a series of platforms can fill the space. This platform comes up level with the stage and provides an option that not many places can boast. Wheelchair users can sit next to wheelchair users. Not just one gap next to a companion seat but a whole row! This is great, I very rarely go somewhere where I can sit with my disabled friends.

After an introduction to the seating areas we were taken on a tour of back stage. I grew up as a stage kid, amateur dance shows and a few parkour and street dance performances at posh venues before my Ehlers Danlos side-lined me. I’ve been back stage at a number of Theatres and this one was easily the most accessible I’ve been to. They have ramps and a lift up to the changing rooms and green room. The backstage rooms are cozy, well furnished and in all honesty pretty darn nice. A few of the turning circles were a little tight but in my manual chair I could navigate backstage easily. The ramp up to the rooms is suitable only for the most adventurous wheelies, even with my power assist I needed a hand! The up side of this is a fantastic ride back down!

After the tour we headed back to the seating area to learn about some of the accessibility features the theatre has in place. I’ll do my best to summarise but they offer loads of options so I’m sorry if I miss any, you can read more about everything on their website.

First up, support for Visually Impaired or Blind audience members. Programmes and cast lists are available in large print, audio and braille. Audio description is available throughout the performances, it gives you a live commentary about the action happening on the stage through a pair of small headphones. The Audio description is done in sync with the script so that the description isn’t talking over the actors. The audio description is designed to help visually impaired audience members keep up with the action on stage.

To help VI (Visually Impaired) or blind audience members immerse themselves in the performance the theatre also offers touch tours, you can visit the theatre in advance and explore the stage, set and costumes before the performance starts.

Audio Description headsets can be pre-booked at the Box Office for a returnable deposit of £10.

When we were learning about these features we were also shown a small-scale model of the stage, like a little dolls-house version of the theatre. Blind and VI guests can feel their way around the mini stage to give them an idea about their surroundings.

The next access feature is BSL interpretation designed to help Deaf people who communicate through sign language. An interpreter stands near the side of the stage in view of the audience and interprets the spoken word and sound effects for Deaf audience members. The theatre recommends telling the box office you’ll be using BSL Interpretation when you buy tickets, that way you’ll be seated nearer the interpreter. In a number of shows BSL is actually incorporated into the show. One of the Wolsey team members is herself Deaf and I think this has worked wonders for the team, everyone I spoke to during the tour knew at least a little bit of BSL!

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Option number 3 is Captioning.  This converts spoken words into text, it provides people with hearing loss access to live performance and can also be useful for people who struggle with certain accents or elements of the english language. Captioning also provides an alternative to lip-reading when the actors turn around or wear masks etc. In captioning, the words appear on a screen at the same time as they are sung or spoken. The screen is displayed on either side of the stage, orange words on a black background.

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The final option is Relaxed Performances. In these performances the show is carefully tailored to remove stressful or anxiety inducing situations. Performances like this are designed to support people with autistic spectrum disorders, sensory or communication needs, anxiety or learning disabilities. The house lighting is left up slightly, the are fewer tickets available and there are no loud, sudden noises. In these performances, there is a relaxed attitude towards the audience moving around and making noise during the show.  Members of the audience also have the option to watch the show on the TV in the bar if being in the auditorium becomes overwhelming.

Although these performances are tailored to meet the needs of disabled people, the staff made it clear that even their standard performances have a relaxed attitude. Staff are clear that people are welcome to vocalise and move about in any of the performances.

After talking about all of the performance options we were treated to a talk from one of the young audience members. The young lass in question has worked at the Theatre as part of her school work experience. She was, in her words ‘blind as a bat’ and used a guide cane. She talked about her experiences on work experience and how fantastically supportive the Wolsey team had been. It was a great little talk and it really highlighted how many extra miles the Theatre team have been going.

We also heard talks about the youth theatre clubs and the support available for kids with disabilities who want to get on stage.

After the talk we moved out to the foyer to have biscuits and do some networking. I took the opportunity to ask the few remaining questions I still had about the Theatre facilities and staff training.

Fist up, catering. The Wolsey does provide both Gluten and Dairy free food options, they are in the process of compiling detailed dietary information about all of their food options. They do provide a children’s menu (which adults can order from). The staff are willing to prepare liquid foods and if they cannot cater for a specific diet then people are welcome to bring their own food and drinks.  The only suggestion I would make is to provide a large print and braille menu.

Staff training sounds incredibly thorough. The staff I spoke to know all about assisting wheelchair users, they also received detailed information on disability equality, autistic spectrum disorders and anxiety. There are always a minimum of two first aiders on site and they all receive the full three-day first aid training.

I even asked if there was somewhere quiet I could lay down (theoretically) and staff informed me I could rest up in the office as long as I didn’t complain about the mess!

My last job before leaving was to take a peek at their accessible bathroom. The room is bigger than the recommended minimum 1.3m space. They have a raised toilet seat with a fixed hand rail and an additional drop don rail on the free side. The bathroom has a sink at a suitable height for wheelchair users, though it might be a little low for walking disabled people. They have a sanitary disposal bin and a changing table for kids. The bathroom door and taps can both be operated with a closed fist so they are suitable for those with limited dexterity. There is an emergency pull cord and nobody had tied it up out-of-the-way (a pet hate of mine).

All in all I’m seriously impressed. The team have gone above-and-beyond the basic needs of most disabled people. The addition of so many staff members with disabilities has (in my opinion) made the entire team much more accepting and open-minded about disability. Even the website goes the extra mile. You can call, text, email or even instant message via the website to get in touch with the Wolsey team. If you’re a local and you’re visiting Ipswich I fully recommend that you do get in touch, check out what’s showing and pop over.

I know I’ll be paying much closer attention to what’s showing now that I know just how accessible the theatre is.

I hope this has been helpful and as always I look forward to any questions or comments.

JBOT

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