Disabled, non-disabled? We’re all just theatre-goers in the end says New Wolsey’s agent for change

The New Wolsey Theatre's new Bradbury platform, which can accommodate many wheelchairs

The New Wolsey Theatre's new Bradbury platform, which can accommodate many wheelchairs - Credit: Archant

Amy Nettleton is one of two agents for change at Ipswich’s New Wolsey Theatre. She spoke to entertainment writer Wayne Savage about their continuing work to make theatre accessible for all.

Amy Nettleton, one of two agents for change at the New Wolsey Theatre. Photo: Su Anderson

Amy Nettleton, one of two agents for change at the New Wolsey Theatre. Photo: Su Anderson - Credit: Su Anderson

Things are changing, but there’s still work to be done, says Amy, recalling a visit to the theatre in London last year.

“The space provided as a so-called wheelchair accessible space... I became a fire hazard so was moved to the rake, an area that was so steep my partner had to hold on to me to make sure I wasn’t falling out of my chair. That blew my mind when I think I work here, it’s insane. The way people are interacting with those who have disabilities is changing (but) I go into shops and they’ll talk to my support workers - completely ignoring the fact I’m here.”

Amy, who has used a wheelchair for the last 11 years, works in the relationships section of the communication team, connecting with deaf and disabled communities across Suffolk via talks, theatre tours, school talks and making the venue more integrated. Jamie Beddard works with the artistic team, making sure shows are accessible from their inception be it via audio description, captioning, etc.

The project started in 2013, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. The aim was to work with D/deaf (sign language users and those who are hard of hearing but who have English as their first language and may lip-read and/or use hearing aids) and disabled audiences who didn’t see see theatre as an option, with artists and staff - teaching them basic British sign language and communicating better with such audiences.

Fellow New Wolsey agent for change Jamie Beddard. Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts

Fellow New Wolsey agent for change Jamie Beddard. Photo: Matt Cetti-Roberts - Credit: Matt Cetti-Roberts


You may also want to watch:


That work will continue and grow after the foundation announced this week it was giving the project £140,000 over three years.

It gives the team - which also includes several BSL interpreters, audio describers, and a captioner - more scope to work even closer with existing and future audiences whose disabilities range from hearing, sight and mobility impairments to those with dementia and Tourettes.

Most Read

Jamie adds: “Our new initiatives include incorporating audio description into our next production The Last Five Years, creating an equality of access for our visually impaired audiences; attending shows as and when they choose. There are a number of national programmes, including Ramps on the Moon and Act for Change aimed at placing D/deaf and disabled people centre-stage and this funding ensures the New Wolsey Theatre can continue to lead the way in bringing about lasting change for disabled artists, audiences and participants.”

The theatre has seen dramatic improvement in the amount of engagement with D/deaf and disabled audiences and artists since they both started in 2014, building on the work of their predecessor Ali Briggs. Staging more BSL interpreted shows and audio described, captioned and relaxed performances for example.

The New Wolsey Theatre's new Bradbury platform, which can accommodate many wheelchairs

The New Wolsey Theatre's new Bradbury platform, which can accommodate many wheelchairs - Credit: Archant

“I’ve been to both (types of performance) and I actually like the relaxed one. I find it easier with my condition just because I struggle with the lights, the noises,” says Amy.

“It’s the most inclusive performance we have and we’re running more and more.”

Grace Hill, the theatre’s agent for change work experience student, who is visually impaired, has put together a Braille introduction to the New Wolsey. There are also PECs – pictorial guides to the theatre – available.

Meanwhile, the new Bradbury platform - funded by the foundation of the same name - has created 16 extra wheelchair spaces. By removing the first two rows of seats, either in groups or pairs, it means wheelchair users can sit together.

A British sign language interpreted performance of the New Wolsey panto

A British sign language interpreted performance of the New Wolsey panto - Credit: Archant

“You can sit in any combination of wheelchair user and companion... So I can come with my boyfriend and have him on one side and my two stepchildren on the other both in regular seats,” says Amy.

It will be installed for certain shows, mainly the relaxed performances. There’s also capacity for two extra wheelchair users either side of the auditorium now, so if you want to come with a friend who’s also a wheelchair user you can now sit next to them rather than across the theatre.

Earlier this week there was another boost in the shape of three new wheelchairs. Two were provided by Ely-based Bartrams, which will also help maintain them for free. The third came from an anonymous donor.

“We really do appreciate Bartrams and the other donor hugely. (Now) there’s no anxiety (for people) about ‘it’s going to be a long way to walk or I’m in pain’. If you’re someone who struggles to stand for long periods or if you’ve got hidden disabilities it’s really important you don’t feel embarrassed at peak times to ask someone else to move or to explain your disability - which is something we definitely don’t agree with here.”

Amy Nettleton, one of two agents for change at the New Wolsey Theatre. Photo: Su Anderson

Amy Nettleton, one of two agents for change at the New Wolsey Theatre. Photo: Su Anderson - Credit: Su Anderson

Regular New Wolsey visitor Phyllis Everett, from Ipswich, was delighted with the new chairs.

“We come with (husband) Roy’s blind men’s club. I can’t walk much further than our gate. I use a chair most of the time and this means my husband Roy doesn’t have to trouble about getting mine here. It’s much easier and nicer for him to have one waiting for us.”

Ramps on the Moon - inspired by the 2014 show Threepenny Opera, which consisted of able-bodied and disabled cast members - is also cause for excitement.

Led by the New Wolsey, it, Birmingham Repertory Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East, Nottingham Playhouse, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Sheffield Theatres will work together, with Graeae Theatre Company as a consulting partner. Funded by Arts Council England, the first three productions will tour each venue working with and for D/deaf and disabled artists, audiences and participants. The first, Birmingham Repertory Theatre’s The Government Inspector, comes to Ipswich between April 6 and 16.

The new agent for change website - where resources and findings will be published to help inspire other theatres into embedding disability awareness into their work - also launches soon. Agents will be able to share ideas, there will be a live Twitter stream and audiences can share their experiences too.

“We pride ourselves on being completely accessible and we aim to be the most accessible theatre in the country... We’re not there, there’s still so much to do. Jamie and I have books of ideas, then it’s partly down to funding, partly down to time - we could do with a nine-day week,” she laughs.

They don’t claim to be the gatekeepers of knowledge, telling people what to do and when. They’re a resource for others to draw on.

“I really feel we’re paving the way for pure integration within the arts and other people are starting to take notice which is great. I’m getting emails from people all over the country saying ‘I’ve heard about this, how do you do that’. Sharing information is really important,” adds Amy.

“It’s really about integration, not disability and non-disability; it’s not add-ons - that’s really important to us. We do a lot of work in-house to make sure everyone (here) understands (what we’re aiming for). (For example) you talk to the person with the disability, you don’t talk to their carer or support worker; it’s them who have booked... If people have guide dogs and they don’t want to take them into the auditorium they can stay with the front of house staff who really love that,” she laughs.

The New Wolsey prides itself on being proactive in not just talking about accessibility but making it a reality. Things have moved on, says Amy, adding years ago she would most likely be in a home being looked after instead of living independently with support workers.

“The world’s moved forward a lot, becoming more integrated and (we’re) getting rid of this whole separation of disabled and non-disabled people. Thirty years ago you didn’t see people with disabilities around, working in shops, in any environment; or even out and about day to day.

“Jamie and I realised, actually, there are lots of pockets (of people with accessibility issues). We’re working with young deaf children, a men’s blind society whose eldest member is in his 90s and they’re coming to shows which is fantastic. My job really is to go out and tell people - we’re just one altogether.”

For more information or to contact Amy and Jamie, visit www.wolseytheatre.co.uk/accessible-performances or call the box office

Accessible performances across the region

Infra-red hearing system, radio-based assisted listening system or induction loop

Available at: The Apex and the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds; Mercury Theatre, Colchester; Civic Theatre and Cramphorn Studio, Chelmsford; Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich; Haverhill Arts Centre, Jerwood DanceHouse, Ipswich; the Regent Theatre and Ipswich Corn Exchange, New Wolsey, Ipswich; The Cut, Halesworth; Snape Maltings, The Avenue Theatre, Ipswich (Red Rose Chain).

Wheelchair access

Available at: The Apex, Bury St Edmunds; the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, including four chair spaces; Mercury Theatre, Colchester, including two new viewing areas with up to six customers in wheelchairs accommodated per performance with additional spaces available during relaxed performances and a wheelchair is available which customers can use with prior arrangement; Civic Theatre and Cramphorn Studio, Chelmsford; Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich; Haverhill Arts Centre, Ipswich Regent (no lift to circle) and Corn Exchange, New Wolsey, Ipswich; The Cut, Halesworth; Snape Maltings, Jerwood DanceHouse, Ipswich, The Avenue Theatre, Ipswich (Red Rose Chain).

Audio-described performances

Live commentary about what’s happening on stage via headphones.

Available at: Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds; all in-house Made in Colchester shows at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester, with pre-show touch tours; Civic Theatre and Cramphorn Studio, Chelmsford; New Wolsey, Ipswich, with pre-show touch tours; Snape Maltings, occassionally; The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, is looking to introduce these.

Captioned performances

The spoken word appears as text on a screen at the same time as they are sung or spoken and who by. Ideal for those who find it difficult to hear.

Available at The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds; all in-house Made in Colchester shows at the Mercury Theatre, Colchester; Civic Theatre and Cramphorn Studio, Chelmsford; New Wolsey, Ipswich; The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, is looking to introduce these.

British sign language interpreted performances

An interpreter stands on or at the side of the stage, translating the spoken word and sound effects.

Available at: The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, which also permits guide dogs to the dress circle boxes; Civic Theatre and Cramphorn Studio, Chelmsford which also permit guide dogs; Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich; New Wolsey, Ipswich, which permits guide dogs; Haverhill Arts Centre occassionally, which also permits guide dogs and offers large print versions of its brochure or will send out a PDF which can be auto-read or enlarged; The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, is looking to introduce these. Some tours visiting the Ipswich Regent and Corn Exchange offer programme material in Braille or large print, just ask at the box office.

Relaxed performances

Carefully adjusted to reduce anxiety or stress for those who may have autism, sensory and communication needs and or a learning disability. Changes are made to sound and lighting to eliminate surprise and soften their impact and there’s a relaxed attitude to noise and moving around the auditorium during the performance. At the New Wolsey, audience members can watch the show in the bar if being in the auditorium becomes overwhelming.

Available at: The Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds; selected Made in Colchester shows, now dementia-friendly too, Mercury Theatre, Colchester; Civic Theatre and Cramphorn Studio, Chelmsford, which permit guide dogs; autism friendly cinema screenings, Haverhill Arts Centre; The Apex, Bury St Edmunds, is looking to introduce these; selected shows at The Avenue Theatre (Red Rose Chain), Ipswich; New Wolsey Theatre, Ipswich.

Access concessions

Available at: The Apex, Bury St Edmunds; Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds; Mercury Theatre, Colchester; Civic Theatre and Cramphorn Studion, Chelmsford; Sir John Mills Theatre, Ipswich; Haverhill Arts Centre, New Wolsey, Ipswich; Jerwood DanceHouse, Ipswich; Snape Maltings.

For full details about these and other venues, visit their websites or call their box offices.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter