I withdrew from competition for the Les Enfants Terribles Awards at Greenwich Theatre yesterday live on stage. This was as a result of the wheelchair inaccessibility of the main stage, and the decision to programme me, alone, in the studio space, with the other acts on the main stage.
This was the strongest recourse I had to protest the ableism and inaccessibility in the industry. It is unacceptable to treat wheelchair users differently from everyone else. We deserve better than separate and lesser facilities.
Withdrawing from the competition was a statement about more than the competition itself. I wanted to draw attention to the ableism throughout the theatre industry, ableism which operates and programmes people on inaccessible stages. Ableism which excludes wheelchair users from countless opportunities.
I am tired of being treated as if I am second rate by the theatre industry. We deserve better.
What did I say?
While I planned some words in advance I can’t remember exactly what I said. This is my best guess:
I don’t have equality. I can’t do this, and am withdrawing from the competition.
I didn’t know until the moment I started speaking that I would have the courage to do what I had been considering, but I am doing this because, as a disabled person, I have been placed in a situation that is not equal to that of the other performers, and I owe it to other disabled people to say that this is unacceptable.
I am performing in the studio because the venue booked doesn’t have wheelchair access to the main stage, so I could not perform there. It doesn’t have a dressing room, or toilets I can use. The organisers were mortified to learn this, but the event proceeded.
They considered moving everyone to the studio, but said the other performers had planned their tech and shows for the main space. We all had.
Only I had to spend hours redesigning the tech and movement for the more limited space and spec here. Only I had to also spend hours resolving these access issues.
What does that say about the relative value implicitly placed on my work and time? This is an industry that will never offer disabled performers equality of access.
I consistently expressed my discomfort, but when I laid the situation out in full to the organisers in full, they apologised sincerely and in good faith, and made what last-minute changes they could.
The situation I have experienced here is not unique. There is ableism at the heart of an industry where inaccessible venues are commonplace, and the work of securing accessible ones is rarely considered. I’ve spent my career trying to change this.
I believe the organisers’ assurances that they would try to ensure equal judging. That is not why I’ve decided to withdraw.
I’m doing it because I built that career on an ethos of fighting for equality of opportunity for disabled artists. Remaining in this competition shows industry, and other disabled creatives, that disabled people should, and will, accept unequal treatment.This betrays my morals and ethos for personal gain.
Therefore, while I believe in my show and would love to develop it further, I am withdrawing from this competition in protest at how unacceptable the industry-wide ableism is.
I wish the very best of luck to the other performers, who, as far as I know, knew nothing of this.
I hope this action helps make a change. I hope we can say that venues and programming that exclude, marginalise, and sideline disabled people should not be allowed to persist. It’s 2023. We deserve better.
I hope I never have to feel this second-rate again.
I also tweeted about my withdrawal last night, sharing my initial thoughts.
Ableism in the industry
The theatre industry is a nightmare of inaccessibility
Experiencing ableism in the theatre industry is inevitable. I have experienced it as a neurodivergent person, someone with energy limitations, with mental health problems, as someone who uses hearing aids, but mostly as a wheelchair user. I have experienced it turning up to venues with no access, or unsafe access. Many performance spaces don’t have wheelchair access to the auditorium. I have missed so many shows. I have so often had a friend tell me that they wish I could see their work, but the theatre is inaccessible. This is an industry in which disabled people have never had a fair chance.
Greenwich Theatre has, in their Google Excerpt, that they are “fully accessible for people with mobility issues”. This is untrue. There is barely access for audience members, the toilet is too small for many wheelchair users. The only wheelchair spaces are at the very back of the auditorium. There is no wheelchair access to the main stage for performers.
The industry presumes disabled people are always the audience, and never to be the performers. Inaccessibility is everywhere.
(image: Google result for Greenwich Theatre’s contact page. It says “https://greenwichtheatre.org.uk>contact:
Contact – Greenwich Theatre
We also have coach set-down and pick-up facilities and the theatre is [bold] fully accessible [end bold] for people with mobility issues. The venue is ideally suited to serve…)
When Les Enfants Terribles told me I had been shortlisted, I was delighted to be shortlisted for these awards with a section from my show NOT DYING (aka Quality of Life is Not a Measurable Outcome). Haven’t most theatre-makers dreamed of taking a show to Edinburgh? As a disabled creative with high support needs, doing it without institutional backing would be almost impossible. I’ve heard lots of stories about the inaccessibility of the Fringe. I had discarded the idea entirely until this opportunity came along. I cleared my calendar for the tech and performance days. It made my Christmas.
When Les Enfants Terribles told me that the main stage was inaccessible, they offered me the studio. I was initially upset, but accepting about it. “At least they’ve tried”, I thought. As a disabled person I have come to expect so little from the industry.
How I felt changed over time. I became far less comfortable with the situation. I can’t recall exactly when this really hit me.
It might have been when I discovered that the other nine acts were using the main stage, and that while us all using the studio was considered, the organisers decided against that, as it would mean the other acts also having to replan their tech. When I discovered how different the technical specifications for the two stages were.
Maybe it was when I told other people what was happening, and they were shocked. I was, and am, so used to unequal treatment in some spaces, and being barred from access to many, that it took non-disabled people telling me the situation was unacceptable for me to realise.
It might also have been when I started paring my tech down further and further, to fit the less technically capable space. Even the day before performing I was being told that agreed-upon tech could not be provided.
However, I think my mind really shifted when I viewed the space. The studio was smaller than I thought. Key features like wings were missing. There was no dressing room I could use. There weren’t even any toilets I could use, due to the minute size of the theoretically accessible one.
When I saw the main auditorium from the back (the only place wheelchair users can get to), I was stunned by its size. This really highlighted the difference in how I was being treated. I started to seriously consider withdrawing with a public statement. I couldn’t see how I could be judged fairly under the circumstances.
Instead of withdrawing, I had pointedly selected a section of my show, written five years ago, talking about discrimination and inaccessibility, ending “fuck those excuses, I’ve heard them a thousand times before from people who don’t bother to mention they’re upstairs, or the lift is broken and ‘sorry, there were no alternative venues’, and if I get pissed off at them it’s always my fucking fault, when it’s their lift that’s broken. No, I’ve heard enough sorries and I’m not seeing any action. I don’t have equality“. I chose it to make a point, and one I hoped the audience would receive. I started considering saying something about the situation from the stage, but was terrified of this course of action.
I expressed discomfort about this inaccessibility with Les Enfants Terribles throughout in private. When I laid all my concerns out in an email they were sincerely apologetic, and worked very hard at the last minute to make what changes they could, though persisting with me in the studio and the other acts on the main stage. They gave me extra tech and rehearsal time, and after discussion, capped ticket sales to ensure the whole audience could see my show.
Our engagement was in good faith, but it also took a lot of time and labour for me, when I could have been preparing. I very much believe that they didn’t realise the severity of the lack of access in advance, and that they are sorry, and have committed to access for next year. I believe that they understand why the situation was so unequal and wrong.
Les Enfants Terribles assured me that the judging would be fair and I would not be disadvantaged. I believe them when they say this.
Why did I withdraw?
I equivocated a lot on whether withdrawing, publicly, from the stage was the right decision. I didn’t want to burn bridges – or my career. As an individual artist, I desperately want to take my show to the Edinburgh Fringe.
However, my decision to withdraw from the competition was for wider reasons.
I’m not just a solo artist. When I founded CRIPtic Arts, I did so to create opportunities for disabled artists to develop and showcase their work, with access at the heart. However, I also did so to try and force change within a deeply ableist theatre industry. In doing that, I have always tried to make my work an example of centring access, including when it’s terrifying and difficult.
At CRIPtic, I have always tried to ensure our opportunities meet people’s access requirements. To ensure that we have measures like BSL interpreters, captions, and audio-describers, to organise live-streaming and digital events. We have worked, trained, and campaigned to improve access in the industry. Wheelchair access has always been non-negotiable for us. The idea of staging one performer, alone, separate from the others because the venue we had booked wasn’t accessible to them runs contrary to everything we do, say, and believe. Doing this hasn’t been easy. It’s involved difficult conversations. It hasn’t been cheap, but it’s important.
The theatre industry is full of venues that are inaccessible to audiences and performers, and the work of seeking and creating accessible ones is rarely undertaken. This inaccessibility needs to change. I withdrew, publicly, on stage, because it was the only way of showing the wider industry – and all the people present – that disabled people cannot be treated this way. That we deserve better.
To stay in the competition out of a desire to take my show to Edinburgh would have presented to everyone attending, to disabled people, and to the wider industry that the way I was treated as acceptable. I could not morally do that. Separating disabled people – more specifically, those of us who are wheelchair users – from the other performers, and giving us lesser facilities, should not be seen as normal or acceptable. It still stuns me that this was ever considered an appropriate solution, just as it stuns me that venues are still allowed to operate inaccessible stages.
We are in 2023 and it is unacceptable that theatres do not provide wheelchair access to performers. It is unacceptable that the event was held in one of these theatres. It is unacceptable that only I, of all the acts, had to replan my work for the studio space, redesigning lighting and movement until the last minute. It is unacceptable that we are in an industry so ableist that incidents like this go unremarked. Inaccessibility is unacceptable.
The only thing I could morally do was withdraw and highlight what had happened.
What should happen next?
If this is taken as an opportunity to blame Les Enfants Terribles or Greenwich Theatre, without looking at the industry that supports this, then this protest has failed. I have had positive and constructive conversations with Les Enfants Terribles about the change that needs to happen. I believe in their commitment to making that change.
I withdrew in protest to highlight more than this situation. I had to draw attention to the way the arts sector fails disabled people, and the way its inaccessibility affects us. We need individual organisations to change for individuals, but we need the whole sector to change for the disabled community.
Lots of people have asked me what they can do to help make a change, and the answer is simple. Every time you’re booking, or using, a space #AskForAccess. Ask if it’s accessible for audiences. Ask if it’s accessible for performers. If it isn’t, challenge them.
Keep the pressure on the industry. Show that people not in wheelchairs care about wheelchair access. That they’ll take their money elsewhere if access isn’t provided. Demonstrate solidarity by pushing this point, at every opportunity. Without pressure nothing will change. With pressure, it might.
At CRIPtic Arts – the disabled-led arts organisation I run, we are striving to improve access across the sector, and to create opportunities for deaf and disabled artists, and you can learn more about us here, or sign up to our mailing list here.
To be part of the change, please also participate in CRIPtic’s research into the point at which art is so inaccessible it has become unviable and should be shut down.
Press and media enquiries should be sent to email@example.com