Creating enabling environments in historic buildings – the challenges and the benefits.
Many of us love going to the theatre and the arts, but what happens when people who may have enjoyed theatre all their lives find themselves living with dementia? Our staff at the King’s and Festival Theatres in Edinburgh started to notice this happening. Friends of the theatre who had been avid supporters over many years suddenly stopped visiting. After contacting them it was discovered that they had had a diagnosis of dementia and no longer felt confident coming to see shows. So the theatres starting asking the question ‘Is there something that we can do so that people can still come to the theatre?’ As a result last year the Festival City Theatres Trust applied for Life Changes Trust funding and were awarded £320,000 over three years to explore how our venues could become dementia friendly communities.
‘What makes a theatre dementia friendly?’
Many venues around the UK are now offering dementia friendly events and shows as a part of their programme, adapting their procedures for these shows; putting up extra signage; having more frontline staff and/or volunteers working in key areas front of house and in the auditorium. Some venues now offer adapted dementia friendly performances of major touring productions as a part of their programming. We started to ask ourselves is this something we can do all the time? Could we adapt our venues and procedures and enable our buildings to be more accessible and user friendly 24/7?
Key to any of this work has been and will continue to be the inclusion of the voices of people living with dementia, their carers and our wider audience as well. We also took the decision to have our buildings audited by the DSDC to give us a clear indication of the task ahead. So over the course of two days last September Chief Architect Lesley Palmer from DSDC visited the Studio Theatre and the Festival Theatre. One of the main challenges here is the age of the buildings and their differing levels of accessibility. The Festival theatre was rebuilt in 1994 with its iconic open glass frontage while retaining the original Milburn Brothers 1928 auditorium. The Studio theatre opened in 2013 and is the most accessible of our buildings. Our sister venue The King’s Theatre is a grade A listed building and opened in 1906 and is the least accessible building with its own set of challenges. So for this article we’ll focus on the Festival Theatre.
Armed with our DSDC building audit we invited our first groups of people living with dementia for a walk around the Festival Theatre foyer spaces and corridors. It became clear very quickly that it was the environment that was the disabling element in the equation. Not necessarily the person’s dementia. As we walked round and I was explaining some of what we were proposing to do, like improving signage one lady said, ‘so you’re just making it better for everyone then?’
The process of adapting our buildings for people living with dementia will ultimately make them friendlier and more supported environments for many more people. The comprehensive audit from DSDC identified seven key areas for adapting the Festival Theatre and three areas for the newer Studio Theatre.
The café at the Festival Theatre was already due for a refurbishment before the project began and was number seven on the audit hit list. Not a huge priority but it gave us a great opportunity to implement some of the findings from the audit before taking on the bigger chunks.
Here is the café as it was. There are lots of hard surfaces on the back and front of the bar which coupled with the slate flooring made the space very noisy even with just a few folk in and even more so with a sell-out show and 1915 people milling around the foyers. The lights were old fashioned directional spot lights that at night threw confusing shadows around the space and onto the tables and chairs. The tables were also quite reflective and the seating, with its grey seats and black backs which were contrasting in tone there wasn’t a sufficient contrast between the chair seats and the black flooring for them to be as visible as they could be for people with dementia and also people with visual impairments.
The Director of Operations at the theatres, Brian Loudon, was able to liaise with appetite direct, the company who run the café, their designers and come up with a design that fulfilled the cafes desire to have a stylish environment for diners to enjoy their food and drink in and at the same time fulfilled our desire that the space should be as supportive as possible for a broad range of customers, but particularly those elements highlighted in the audit to support a more dementia friendly design.
The new space has improved lighting, wooden surfaces on the bars to help deaden the acoustics, along with drapes and a new sofa style seating area to extend the café capacity and provide a more social seating area that has proved very popular with wheelchair users and some of our larger consultation groups with the dementia friendly project. It is a much more accessible space and the confusing menu written on the back of the bar wall has gone and has been replaced by a large glass fridge so that you can see the food before making a decision what to eat.
As the project moves forward we will continue to work with our consultation groups on the implementation of the building audits and the group will now be assisting with the formal audit of the King’s Theatre this year. We want our theatres to be as welcoming and as supportive an environment as is possible for all our audiences. Not just our current audiences and for our future audiences as well.
Paul Hudson is the co-ordinator for Forget Me Not at the Festival & Kings Theatres.
This project has been funded by the Life Changes Trust and is supporting the Festival & King’s Theatres in making Dementia Friendly Communities. This includes programming events and performances which are suitable for people living with dementia and their carer’s.
This blog first appeared on the Stirling University Dementia Centre website.