What Does It Mean?
The dictionary defines access as: ‘the means or opportunity to approach or enter a place’ which implies that it only refers to overcoming physical limitations. So is easy access simply describing entrances or exits which have been modified for wheelchair users? Is access made easy by the addition of a ramp, a grab rail or a widened doorway?
If this were the case, the concessionary tickets for disabled people at performance events, regardless of their specific needs, surely wouldn’t all be referred to as accessible tickets.
To make something accessible is to give people the opportunity to experience it, despite the barriers they may be faced with. In that sense, calling tickets accessible is extremely logical.
Now hold that thought, and forgive me while I take a slight detour to illustrate the purpose of this post.
Notes of Nostalgia
Ask any music-lover what their first festival experience was, and they will tell you in technicolour detail. They will, more than likely, be able to describe the smells coming from the food trucks, the people in the tent next to them and every act they saw. They will probably even have an accurate memory of the weather at each stage of the festival and just how much mud they took home with them at the end.
For Theatre-lovers, the same rule applies to the first taste of the Edinburgh Fringe.
Mine was just over twenty years ago. I was sixteen, but I felt like a proper grown up. My friend and I had decided we wanted to experience the biggest Fringe Festival in the UK. So, we had booked tickets to take the first train out of Leeds, and the last train back down from Waverley. My mum dropped us off at the station a little after 5am and we buzzed all the way. I will never forget the feeling of excitement as we dashed from show to show, making snap decisions based on flyers that were thrust into our hands by performers touting for audiences on the Mile.
The Festival was much smaller back then, with far fewer venues and more of a hierarchy in terms of what was staged where. That definitely made selecting shows a little easier. As did our teenage lack of discernment. I have crystal clear memories of the street performer we saw, the henna tattoos we had done, the terrible damp smell in the basement where we endured an awful production of Shakers and the stunning mime act at the Gilded Balloon that followed. I can even remember scrabbling for change to call my mum from the pay phone on the platform at York. It was just after midnight and I needed to tell her our connection had been delayed.
Every part of the experience sticks in my memory, because each component contributed to the overall magic.
Working the Fringe
Some years later, as a brand new graduate, I was a member of a fledgling company taking a piece of new writing to the Fringe. We decided there was no better time than immediately after university, before the pressures of real life or post graduate qualifications set in, to take a production to Edinburgh. There was no risk attached; we had nothing to lose and everything to gain.
I was stage managing, taking an essential step in any aspiring actor’s professional development by gaining backstage experience. We were in a tiny peripheral venue, in a graveyard time slot, but it didn’t matter. We were working the Fringe and we loved it. I could write an entire book about our exploits, but that would be too much of a detour from the purpose of this post. Instead I will tell you that I had the time of my life, broadening my horizons creatively every day that I was there.
Almost a decade later, I was lucky enough to have every actor’s dream come true – I had a play commissioned specifically for me. It was a touching Jewish comedy which premiered in London to 5-star reviews and sell-out audiences. All a-buzz, we decided we should try our luck at the Fringe. So we did.
After a great deal of fund-raising and a long process of application, we secured our place in one of the C-venues. We loaded the set, props, costumes and kitchen sink into my tiny yellow micra, until it was filled to bursting capacity. Myself and our director did the drive together, meeting my co-actor and our young production assistant up there.
Blood, Sweat, Tears and Flyers
For an entire month, we lived and breathed Theatre. When we weren’t performing or rehearsing, we were taking advantage of our performers’ passes and watching other people’s productions. We spent a good three hours of every day out on the Royal Mile, promoting our show. It was physically challenging and emotionally draining at times (performing with food poisoning was a particularly low point for me!) but it was worth it. Only twice did we play to an audience of single figures, which is quite an achievement by Fringe Festival standards.
That summer, I learnt an invaluable amount about putting on a production, and I vowed that one day I would go back to perform in an even more established venue.
For the next three years, I missed the Fringe completely. Each summer there was something that took me elsewhere in the world during August. In 2014, I finally found the time to go back wearing my spectator hat.
At the time, Lovelyman was my partner in crime, and his depression was at its worst. Needless to say, the bustling Fringe Festival was not the best environment for him. Despite my valiant efforts to make it manageable (camping in North Berwick instead of staying in the city, not attempting too many shows a day…) it was all a bit much and we curtailed our trip.
That was the last time he joined me. Having given myself a taste of it again, I was reluctant to miss out on any more years of it. The next three summers gave me stolen one-nighters at the Fringe. Not quite enough to satisfy my craving, but a damn sight better than nothing.
In spring this year, when circumstances changed, I made an uncharacteristically impulsive decision to book 5 full days up in Edinburgh. I told my mum, my sister and my friend that I was going anyway, but if they wanted to come with, they were welcome.
Mum joined me for a night, then my sister and friend came up for the remainder of the stay. In total, I saw twenty-two shows in five days, I walked the equivalent of a marathon and a half and I only got drenched once.
Any of you who have followed this blog from the beginning will know how long it took me to come to terms with the notion of Crohn’s Disease being a disability. Those same people will probably also remember the way my outlook shifted when I finally got my blue badge.
After thirty-four years of managing the pitfalls of the condition predominantly in secret, I have finally learnt that if there is any opportunity to benefit from the blasted disease, however minor it may be, I should grab it with both hands.
And Here’s The Point
That’s why I am so delighted that my status as a blue badge holder entitles me to a free companion ticket to almost all shows. It’s great news for everyone in my party, as splitting the cost suddenly puts a whole lot less strain on the bank accounts.
Something I hadn’t fully appreciated until this summer, is what a difference it makes when the onus to ask for help for taken off me slightly. It is no secret that I have always found it a challenge to ask for help. Any admission of a struggle feels like a failure on my part. I am working to change that way of thinking, but after a lifetime of a certain mindset, it is a slow process where baby steps are the only way I can expect to move forward.
Being a Friend of the Fringe meant all my details were logged with the first show I booked, including my access requirements. That meant that with each subsequent show I bought tickets for, all I had to do was answer yes please to the question: and are all your needs the same?
Not only that, but the box office team on the access desk remembered me, making me feel like a valid person, instead of a number.
Bending Over Backwards
Shows at the Fringe tend to work on an unreserved seating arrangement. That means early arrival at venues is essential if you don’t want to sit at the back. Given that one of the many short straws I drew from my parents’ collective gene pool, was to inherit my dad’s deafness, back row seats are definitely not an option.
At every venue, we would speak to the ushers on the door, explaining that ours were access tickets and we needed front row seats. At The Traverse, we were informed that seats had already been reserved for us with my name on. I was then asked how I was feeling that day, and whether I needed to be taken down in the lift or felt up to taking the stairs.
Not only did this ensure that I could hear, and therefore fully enjoy, the shows we saw at The Traverse, but it also meant I didn’t have to stand and queue for any length of time. As silly as it might sound, after walking across town several times from venue to venue, or when my pain is bad, standing for a period of time puts considerable strain on my body as well as using up a lot of energy. Energy that I sometimes simply don’t have in reserve.
In case you are thinking it was just The Traverse that took good care of me, on account of its being a theatre all year round, let me assure you that I had excellent treatment everywhere.
In the smaller spaces, I was offered a chair for the queue, we were taken in ahead of the rest of the audience and we were escorted out via a different door to avoid the post-show crush each time.
All in all, the Fringe team could not have made the festival any more accessible for me if they had tried.
So I suppose I want to say thank you to the Fringe. Thank you for enabling me to have the best experience possible. For making it easy for me to accept help. And for making me feel like a VIP instead of an imposition. Finally, thank you for doing your utmost to enable me to feel like this assistance is my right, rather than a luxury. Because, when I really think about it, why should someone with a disability be at a disadvantage in their leisure activities as well as their day-to-day life?
Surely everywhere should be considering ways to make easy access a priority.
Certainly more places could learn a thing or two from this model and follow the example set by the staff up in wee bonnie Edinburgh.
Now excuse me while I head to air BnB to book my accommodation for next year’s festival. One thing’s for sure – I don’t intend to miss another summer at the Fringe.