Theatre access is always a compromise for those with a disability

The message is that, at best, we are a nuisance; at worst, we are not welcome

The Abbey and Peacock theatres in Dublin.   “That profound, awkward ignominy of introducing someone new to your cultural capital is excruciating.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The Abbey and Peacock theatres in Dublin. “That profound, awkward ignominy of introducing someone new to your cultural capital is excruciating.” Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

As wheelchair users we had to make a decision. Either to go in the back entrance of The Gate or go in the main entrance of The Abbey. Both options means being seated away either side of the auditorium.

A weekly column by writers with a disability.
A weekly column by writers with a disability.

Not sitting together – no handing holding.

Feels antiquated; the fallout of segregation.

The inference being that your companion will be a non-wheelchair user is telling in terms of stigma and association. Holding my face close to his while we were sitting outside the Gate Theatre he whispered: “Side or back entries: as a black man, using a wheelchair, it’s not who I am.” Both of us acutely aware of the mixed race female actor on the poster for Hamlet hanging behind us.

Theatre is my love. Access is always a compromise and the anticipated response is always appeasement and gratitude. Having a companion who is settled or non-disabled in these environments increases dependency and encourages the optics of infantilisation.

There have been moments when collusion with discrimination felt like the only access route in.

The phrase “change from within” is trite. Diversity often seems like a dirty word; a concept for something beyond a post-modern institutional group-think mind set. The infrastructure of the arts sector in Ireland has a way of undulating the personal and the political.

Rosaleen McDonagh. The bar in neither The Abbey or The Gate has disability access. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Rosaleen McDonagh. The bar in neither The Abbey or The Gate has disability access. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

The justification regarding inherited protected buildings was followed by the statement, “are they paying homage to bad architectural structures that continue to give access to privilege”?

Years of being placated and tolerated had made me repeat the rhetoric of the oppressors. In an effort to defend my profession, I highlighted the fact that both theatres claim to have access policies. In 2018, the Abbey received €6.8 million funding with an additional touring fund of €200,000. €80 million is allocated for the new national theatre. This will be housed on the same site where the Abbey currently sits. Tearing down old structures, gives rise to new opportunities and possibilities. The question of participation needs to be framed by way of reconnoitring one dimensional. Aesthetics. Refractive reflections of ourselves must be more than a passive repository of limited audience membership which is perpetuated by caricaturing.

The Gate Theatre’s core funding from the Arts Council was €960,000 in the same year. We sat in silence for a long time. Him the actor, and me the playwright, contemplating how these venues put their access policy into practice.

In an effort to be part of a move toward change, my involvement in the judging panel for The Abbey’s 5x5 program was fruitful. This programme facilitated five underrepresented groups to develop a project of their choice and to build a relationship with their National Theatre. Under new management the Abbey is acknowledging access issues. However, the question of the public sector responsibility as defined by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission Act 2014 needs to be at play in this particular context. The ‘reasonable accommodation’ clause as my friend pointed out is discriminatory and therefore is unreasonable and somewhat redundant.

Finally, at my insistence we booked tickets for a show at The Project Arts Centre. The blue building, which was developed more than 50 years ago by an artist collective, gives me a great sense of pride at being one of the present board members.

The Project receives €718,000 in Venues Funding from the Arts Council and €27,000 in Revenue Funding from Dublin City Council Arts Office. We had a pre-show drink. We sat close together during the performance.

In 2018, the Project has begun to deepen the partnership with Arts & Disability Ireland on a number of initiatives – including the development of the Realise Production Award. This is a major commission to an artist with a disability to create a new performance work which will be presented as part of Project’s 2019/2020 season. The Arts Council should encourage a similar initiative for Travellers, Roma, Black and other ethnic minority groups. There is however, a need for a paradigm shift in all areas of Irish life related to platforms and representation.

My country is my home. Contextualising histories of abuse, discrimination, racism and exclusion is futile. That profound awkward ignominy of introducing someone new to your cultural capital is excruciating. He comes from a place where universal access and affirmative action is the norm.

Reflecting on the piece we both saw in The Project, ‘Assisted Solo’ by Company Philip Connaughton, the words of the playwright James Baldwin kept reverberating ‘not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced’.

Platform Series: Rosaleen McDonagh
1) ‘He’d lean over looking for a kiss from his gypsy girl’
2) Perniciousness of racism and ableism
3) Life should be about living, not merely existing
4) The disabled spoil the presentation
5) When will there be an official apology?

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