Wow! I can’t believe how long it’s been since my last post. I’ve been working on it, but I’ve been having a difficult time figuring out how to present Part 3. So…I’ve decided to share this letter, to give you a glimpse into the consequences of a recent event. I’m guessing most of you haven’t thought about the issue at hand in this context, just like I never had before my Cervical Dystonia diagnosis.
October 18, 2015
Hi, Nathan. I didn’t think I would be writing to you again, other than to say thank you for what I’m hoping will be a wonderful experience at “Beautiful” in November. But unfortunately, the Ringo Starr concert on Friday night is something you should know about. Being on long-term disability, I saved for months to be able to take my dad to the concert. As you know, those seats are well over $100, so most people expect to have a positive experience. Like my dad said after the concert on Friday night, “It was a great show. Too bad we weren’t able to enjoy it!” I’m pretty sure the band was amazing, but the staff was not.
I’ll break it down into 3 issues of equity regarding
*the expectation for everyone to be able to SEE a concert, in addition to having access to the same quality of sound
*the unwillingness or lack of skill for staff/management to do problem-solving on the spot
*the unwillingness of the “for-profit” company that does the staffing for HTT to admit that the lack of Accessibility Seating at The State Theater is a problem
To begin, I do not know what the State Theater offers in the form of Accessible Seating. In fact, when I bought our tickets months ago, I did it with the expectation that we would be sitting in our seats. As you know, I need to be able to sit to see a show, because I can’t hold my head up, nor can I stand for more than a few minutes. I was so excited to see Ringo Starr and His All-Star Band, especially seeing them with my dad who had been listening to the Beatles since before I was born.
So on Friday evening, when people were still standing after the first few songs, I walked back to the lobby to ask an usher what could be done. I told her I had bought tickets with the expectation that I would be seeing and hearing the show (in case you haven’t experienced it, when you sit down and everyone else is standing, the sound changes dramatically for the worse). I explained about my disability, which was pretty obvious with my neck pillow holding my neck temporarily in place. This woman was trying to be helpful and went searching for the event manager. When she finally appeared (looking very much like the woman at the Orpheum who didn’t do anything when I brought my concerns to her about the bathroom attendant), the usher filled her in.
“Gee, it’s a sold out show. I don’t know what to tell you.” This was her response, every time the usher proposed a solution. “Can you stand?” she asked. “No, that’s why I’m leaning against this wall,” I replied. “Oh, I can see that standing would be really hard if you have neck issues,” was her final response.
After hitting a dead end where she obviously wasn’t going to pursue finding us alternate seating, I asked her if she would come find my dad and I when they came up with a solution. I gave her our seating information, knowing there had to be a solution. Isn’t that one of the jobs of an event manager?
One question about equity is this, “What kind of plan B can the Hennepin Theater Trust put in place for people who can not stand for an entire show?” I have never been to a show at The Orpheum or The State where people stood the entire show (and I’ve seen MANY shows at both venues), so I’m guessing this is not common. However, while 96% of the audience could physically stand for two hours, I could not. This is where the issues of accessibility and equity come in. It isn’t fair for those of us who can’t physically stand more than a few minutes, and we shouldn’t have a crappy time at a concert because we have a disability. I truly felt like I was being punished for having a disability, not only physically but financially. I don’t know if the people in Accessibility Seating fared much better, unless they were considerably higher than everyone else so they could see over their heads. I also don’t know if anyone else brought this problem to Carrie’s attention. But if they did, it should have been easy to solve. Here’s why.
About an hour and a half into the show, I noticed that all the seats on the right side of the balcony were empty. Why weren’t we offered the option to sit up there? I know that Hennepin Theater Trust has high expectations for their staff. Those high expectations should include the ability to think on your feet to come up with a solution for your patrons, right? Carrie clearly lacked that skill and had almost 2 hours to come up with something, which she neglected to do.
As you can see, it was not the wonderful evening I had envisioned spending with my dad. We had seen Paul McCartney many years ago together, and this was the only remaining Beatle we could see together. We should’ve both been able to see and hear the show. Migraine headaches are a part of the symptoms of my neurological movement disorder, and the stress of all these things combined created one of the worst headaches I’ve had in years. As I’m writing this, I still have it. If a patron with a disability cannot count on being able to sit in a purchased seat to enjoy an incredible show, then there has to be a Plan B for those few of us who fit into this category. Even at a sold-out show!
I have never written letters of this sort before the Kinky Boots debacle. But Nathan, we both know that the Hennepin Theater Trust can do better. You showed this in the way you worked to solve the issues that occurred with my disability discrimination at The Orpheum, not only in how you communicated with me but also how you brought in a speaker to talk to the volunteers about people with hidden disabilities. The way I see it, training is also needed for the administrators, board members and staff of The Historic Theater Group. If Carrie had the skills to solve this as soon as I brought the problem to her attention 15 minutes into the show, I wouldn’t be writing this letter to you.
I’m so disappointed and frustrated that these issues have now arisen at both theaters, which I’m sure you can understand. I appreciate you taking the time to listen and work towards making the Hennepin Theater Trust an organization my friends and family can rely on when we buy tickets to a show. We want to know that all that money spent on tickets will provide us with a high quality experience. Like my Dad said, “It was a great show. Too bad we couldn’t enjoy it!” I doubt those are the thoughts you want people to leave with when they are supporting the arts at one of your venues.
While you can’t control an audience standing the entire time, there are many things you can. Having a back-up plan for those of us who need it is one of them.
Thank you, Nathan.
Nathan was there for me, once again. And while he was very supportive and aware of the fact that The State Theater does have problems regarding their lack of Accessibility Seating, the woman in charge of the “for-profit” Historic Theater Group he connected me with was not. In fact, when I told her that Nathan had said to call the box office to make sure they could set up a Plan B in advance for people like myself who have disabilities, she told me that wasn’t how “it” worked. “Nathan is still pretty new so he really doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” replied Gail. She obviously wasn’t going to be there for me or any of us who have disabilities. She also wasn’t there for Nathan, which sounded very unprofessional to me, to say the least.
Why wasn’t she there for us? She had spoken with her staff, who all agreed they didn’t have a problem with Accessibility Seating at this venue, contrary to what Hennepin Theater Trust board members felt. I asked her how many of the staff or administrators had a disability. There were none. “We have regulars who come all the time and sit in those seats. (all 10 of them–only 4% of the seats at The State are for people with special needs, I learned, a venue that can hold almost 2200 concert goers.) We’ve never had any problems,” she concluded.
I can’t imagine I’m the only one who’s had an issue at this theater due to a disability, which got me thinking deeper. Perhaps, people with disabilities don’t even go there because they assume they will have a negative experience. Perhaps, those who have gone have sucked it up because they think “That’s the way it goes when you have a disability”. Perhaps, people left the show when issues arose, thinking that buying a ticket was a risk they took. Paying the cost of a concert ticket should not be a risky endeavor equivalent to gambling. 96% of the people don’t need to take a risk. Why should we? With all ten of the seats being on the main floor, there is no possible way that anyone in Accessibility Seating could have enjoyed that show when everyone was standing.
Gail went on to insult me by comparing my neurological movement disorder to her inability to see over people’s heads at times because of her height. But I would give anything to be able to stand through an entire show and have the opportunity to peer over and around people’s heads, just like Gail can.
The company “running the show” does not have any desire to admit and address the fact that these are problems. If they knew people were most likely going to stand throughout the show based on past rock concerts, then they should’ve either had a Plan B in place or been proactive and had the show at a Standing Room Only venue like First Avenue. They could have done two shows at a club that holds 1600 people. Plus, First Avenue does have a seating section for those of us who need it. I have no trouble seeing a show there because they put us right up against the balcony in chairs. That should be one solution for The State, but they refuse to listen.
Here are MY HOPES: If you have a bad experience yourself, you go to a HTT venue with a friend who encounters an issue with seating, or you simply notice “strangers” struggling, please please please SAY SOMETHING. And be sure to ask for Gail! If you don’t say something to the Hennepin Theater Trust or The Historic Theater Group (or whatever venue you happen to attend), then the staff will continue to ignore these issues. You can prevent painful experiences in the future by speaking up the minute it happens to you. Doing this will accomplish a number of things: convince them they do have problems that need their attention, make them tackle the issue so future patrons won’t have the same negative experience, help ensure that we will have the same opportunity to enjoy the show as all those attendees who don’t have a disability, and create a bottom line that says “It is not okay for people to be punished because they don’t have the physical capabilities everyone else does.”
Even if it doesn’t affect you directly now, shouldn’t we all be there for one another? If someone falls, shouldn’t we help them get up? If we see someone get in an accident, shouldn’t we pull over to make sure they’re okay? The important part is this. Be there. Be there for your friends. Be there for your family. Be there for people you’ve never met before. Being there involves words of support AND a call to take action on their behalf. .
There are many injustices, and we have not come very far since the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed 25 years ago. You don’t need to get a disability in order to see it from our points-of-view. Spread the word. Stand up for yourself. Stand up for others. One day you just might find that you are a recipient of the equity you helped create. That is a commitment we all need to make.