On Disability And Chronic Illness Inclusion In The Theatre Industry

pippa sat in box at royal albert hall, looking back towards the camera. pippa is in a formal pink dress and olivier awards stage is visible in background

Back in 2017, before my work began revolving more around chronic illness and lifestyle, I started this blog to share my theatre reviews. As a former dancer, theatre became one of very few ways I could still engage with the performance industry after my health declined… but as somebody with a chronic illness, attending shows even as an audience member was still full of challenges.

It was these experiences that made me begin writing ‘chronic illness-friendly’ theatre reviews. These posts would not only communicate my personal reflections on the show, but also discuss any implications of the venue or the production on my health condition. These posts drew in a huge community of individuals, people who also adored musical theatre but struggled with the impact this had on their own illnesses… and almost immediately, what I was doing began resonating with people. To date, one of my proudest achievements as a blogger is opening up that conversation so that like-minded people could connect and share not only their passions, but also their frustrations. For the first time, we were openly discussing barriers that are often much-less visible to those in the industry… and even to the wider disability community sometimes too.

Spurred on by the positive response, I threw myself into this world. I gained experience attending press nights and reviewing professionally for a well-known theatre platform, and at the same time indulged in creating content for my own blog and social media as my audience continued to grow. It was tough to keep up with at times, especially alongside managing my debilitating health condition and moving into employment at the same time, but the hard work paid off. The press night invitations began to come to me directly, and in 2018, something beyond even my wildest dream happened. I won a #BeInspired award at the Olivier Awards, for my work in accessible and inclusive theatre. It was truly the most surreal few days of my life and something that even now I still can’t quite believe even happened.

Now, what I’ve written so far sounds rather self-congratulatory to me. But what I want to share with you now is the realisation that’s dawned on me over the last couple of years: a realisation that has caused me to quietly but significantly take a step back from my involvement in the theatre industry and, for now, turn my limited energy elsewhere.

Up until this point, I think I’d deluded myself into thinking that the reviews I was sharing would have further reaching implications. I knew the shows and the venues were reading the reviews, as well as others in the industry, but what I’ve come to realise is that people weren’t clicking off my reviews committing to make changes. They weren’t viewing them as a call to action to become more inclusive. Instead, I’ve realised that I’ve possibly been perpetuating the role of the token disabled person. Production teams and venue owners see the fact that I attended the shows at all, that I personally was able to access the venue and spent time writing the review, as a tokenistic sign that they were doing something right. I was a disabled person, and I was there – so they must be accessible, hey? After all, all disabled people are exactly the same, right? [/sarcasm]

This is where the difficulty lies. Though I’m not afraid to be critical of the shows I see, I think I’ve been ameliorating my experiences of reviewing venues as somebody with a chronic illness. Even all these years later, I still try and make myself ‘fit’ in an environment that wasn’t designed for me – and if I could personally make myself fit, then I communicated that as a positive thing. I was so busy looking inwardly at the experiences of people with illnesses like my own that I think I lost sight of the bigger picture about accessibility.

It’s only in the past year or so that I’ve begun to question myself and check my privilege here. Maybe it’s easy for me to turn negatives into positives because I myself, more often than not, have been able to access venues? Because I’m an ambulatory wheelchair user with some mobility, I’ve generally been able to find a way around the numerous barriers and make things work for me. Has the situation been ideal? No. Have I been able to manage regardless where other disabled people wouldn’t necessarily be able to? Yes. Has that been made clear in the content I share? Not always. And now I can see that that’s a problem.

After sitting with this thought a bit more, it finally dawned on me. Over the years, I think I secretly stopped believing that this industry was capable of or ready for change. Instead, I’ve been trying to make myself fit around attitudes towards accessibility that are still deeply flawed. I’ve been focussing on being grateful for the crumbs of good practice that currently exist, instead of questioning why these things are seen as a bonus rather than a fundamental right.

Even as somebody who cares deeply about inclusion in theatre, especially for people with long-term illnesses, to an extent I stopped believing that change was possible. I stopped trying to make the sector open their eyes and become more inclusive, and instead (whether rightly or wrongly) turned my focus to how people like me can just make the best of what’s already out there.

If I’m being truthful, I think that I’d mentally checked out of all of this long before I realised I had. Because let me tell you, it hurts to know that I matter less to the theatre industry. That myself, and others like me, still aren’t as welcome in spaces that in many other ways are the most diverse and inclusive of all. That even though we’re willing to give our valuable time and energy to help make things better, our lived experiences still don’t seem to be heard. That the constraints of my chronic illness mean I often don’t even feel like part of the community at all. All of it felt futile, and that in itself was emotionally exhausting.

However, over the last few weeks, there has been something of an online uprising. Six The Musical announced their big news, that they would be transferring to the Vaudeville Theatre… a particularly inaccessible venue rife with barriers for disabled patrons. And what surprised me more than anything is that it wasn’t only disabled theatregoers making noise about this – many non-disabled fans and industry professionals spoke out too. It was this response, and seeing how these actions (admittedly slowly and somewhat reluctantly) began to spark change, that prompted this post. It made me want to reflect on where I am with it all right now, and how I want to learn from this and move forward from here.

Above all else, I’ve been questioning whether it’s my voice the theatre world needs at this moment in time. These last few weeks have been slightly agonising, as I’ve been watching the situation unfold and constantly evaluating when and how to step in so that my own audience knows that what’s happening now is important, and when to pipe the heck down and elevate the voices of others instead. I worry that people think I’m being complacent by not speaking about it more… but the more time that’s passed and the more the situation has developed, the more I feel as though this is the right way to be doing things.

Whilst disability is becoming hot on the agenda, it’s more important that those who experience barriers that I don’t take the lead in the discussions about accessibility, especially with regard to venues and adaptations. I know I have value to add, but right now is not the time for me personally, with my particular lived experiences, to be the most vocal. It’s not been an easy thing to navigate, and goodness me I’ve been having all kinds of FOMO, but what I’m trying to remember is that sometimes stepping back can be the most proactive response of all.

All of that said, I still strongly feel that we have a heck of a lot of work to do when it comes to theatre and long-term health conditions. Many of the challenges of being a theatregoer with an energy-limiting chronic illness are unique and not necessarily reflected in wider discussions about disability by default… and believe me, when the time comes to consult on these issues, I’m ready and raring to go. I have to trust that when the moment is right, people will come to me, or allow me to come to them, and we can initiate these conversations with a renewed strength and rigour. Heck, after many years of ad-hoc consulting and advising for free (which I was more than happy with at the time), if things continue in the right direction, we might even get paid for it one day. What a concept, right?

What I do want to say in conclusion, though, is that all of this has reignited the hope in me that one day, disability and chronic illness will no longer be the elephant in the room when it comes to inclusion in the theatre industry. It’s still going to be an uphill battle, but my goodness, it’s going to be worth it. Change is coming.

Where To Next?

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