After a while I stopped inviting my mother to come to the theater. Not because she wasn’t supportive of the shows that I was doing or had written, or that something in the show would offend her, but because I had grown tired of the fight to actually get her into the building. My mother has Multiple Sclerosis (MS) and has had to use a cane to walk or sit in a wheelchair while someone wheels her around. No matter what venue I was working at in my small town, I had to always wonder what I would have to do to push, pull, or drag my mother into her seat in the theater.
You may wonder why I would have to worry about all of this. In any good theater venue there should be some marvelous and knowledgeable staff ready to assist any handicapped patrons to their seats and help with whatever problems we had. And yes, there were a lot of those people who were as nice as they could be. At the end of the day, however, there is only so much that can be done by the sheer force of will of the ushers. If a theater fails to plan for the inclusion of all of their guests no matter what their ability, they might as well plan to fail when it comes to the box office and sully their reputation in the community. Here are some simple changes you can make before your next production to make the space where you perform more accessible.
First go to the parking lot of your venue and start to map the route that a person with a disability is going to have to take to get from their car to the box office, and then to their seat. If the route that someone with physical disabilities must take is very different from the route that an able-bodied patron would, then you have a major accessibility issue. You should assess what change in signage, addition of ramps, or other changes will be necessary temporarily while you address the issue permanently.
You should make sure that all of your staff know what to do to accommodate someone with a disability. I know that in an amateur production most of your house management staff are volunteers. As a former house manager, I know how aggravating it is to train new people almost every show (or every night in a worst-case scenario), but it is worth it when it comes to presenting a unified front. Your patrons deserve to know that an usher won’t panic when presented with a request for accommodation that they never heard of.
In the house itself ask, yourself where people in a wheelchair would sit. Assume that they will almost always have a second person with them. Is there a place where someone with a cane, crutches, or a walker can place them during the performance? Removing some physical seats and making them permanent wheelchair seating is a great idea. Make sure that you also have an emergency plan in case you have more people with wheelchairs than you have spaces.
Realize that there are all kinds of disabilities and not just ones that you can see. There are many theatre patrons that may have an invisible disability like autism, epilepsy, Tourette's syndrome, PTSD, depression, auditory sensitivities, etc. Some of these mean that if you have an effect like fog, smoke, gunshot, or a strobe light in your show it might cause them discomfort or induce a panic attack. A notice printed in the program and posted in the lobby about these things and when they show up in the play helps make patrons aware of them and lets them make adjustments. In my experience, most other patrons look right past them, so don't worry that the effect will be ruined. Those with a disorder that might be affected, however, will be very appreciative.
People with conditions like autism and Tourette's syndrome may have symptoms and behaviors that are beyond their control but can be seen as intentional or rude. You may get complaints about someone disrupting the performance or making a weird noise. Be aware that the person with this kind of symptom knows what is happening and knows that it can be annoying. You must be aware, though, that they have every right to be in the audience as a ticket holder, and that making them aware of the effects of their symptoms will not help remedy the situation and will make them feel reticent to spend their hard earned money at your venue next time. In this case the best accommodation you can make is your sensitivity to their problem and a dedication to make their visit a pleasant one.
The easiest step you can take is reaching out to your patrons and your community to ask them what is keeping them from attending your venue more frequently. It is possible that they will tell you something that you never thought of. For example, someone might tell you that they don’t like intermission because it takes longer to get from their wheelchair seat to the bathroom and back than the 15 minutes that the intermission lasts. Maybe there is a deaf community in your town that would love to attend your shows if there were an interpreter there. The more that you reach out to people and follow through with their requests, the more those patrons will know that you’re willing to help them support your art. The theatre community in my hometown lost my mother as a patron because they weren’t willing to help. Don’t let that happen to you.