How Accessible Are Houston's Theaters?

My wheelchair seat view at the Alley
My wheelchair seat view at the Alley Photo by Aaron Wattam
Doors, dogs, and a demi disaster. It’s alliteration, sure, but it’s also an accurate snapshot of the challenges I faced this past month as a post-surgery wheelchair/walker/cane user trying to navigate shows at several of Houston’s theaters.

Notice I said challenges, not roadblocks. The good news is that theaters in this town are, for the most part, conveniently accessible. At every theater, securing special seating was a breeze and as a bonus, these accessible seats are generally some of the best views in the house. The less wonderful news is that even if you have a well-researched plan of attack, attending the theater in various states of mobility is not as smooth sailing as it could be.

This first became apparent at the Alley Theatre Or more specifically in the underground garage adjacent to the Alley. The reserved parking spaces for the otherwise abled were plentiful and close to the theater entrance. The issue was, how to open the doors and get in?

Picture this, you’re in a wheelchair and you arrive at a door without an automatic open feature. How do you both open the door and wheel yourself through? Even having a plus one, as I did, didn’t help much as I needed someone to push my chair, which required both hands.

Thankfully it was a busy night in the district and we didn’t have to wait all that long for someone else to come along and help. Even still, it was frustrating and more than a little humiliating to sit there helpless and at the mercy of someone else’s potential arrival.

Not that this is the Alley's fault, mind you. They're well aware of the situation. Problem is, the Alley doesn't own or control the parking lot; the city does. And according to the Alley, the request that something be done to make the doors more accessible has so far not had any traction at the city.

While the Alley was my first theater post-surgery visit, it was certainly not the last time I had to do battle with doors. Other than Stages, none of the theaters I visited had automated entrances to their facility. More problematic however were the manual doors to the restrooms.

Whether it was private accessible restrooms (Alley, Stages, TUTS/Hobby Center) or accessible stalls in public restrooms (4th Wall, Classical Theater, Main Street Theater), the issue was the same. How to navigate opening/entering the door when using a wheelchair/walker or even donning a cane for support? And what if your plus one isn't the same gender as you and can't come in to help out?

To be clear, it’s not that theaters aren’t complying with accessibility building codes. They most certainly are. However automatic doors, whether on the entrance of the theater or the restrooms, are not mandated by the Texas Accessibility Standards (which are consistent with the Americans with Disabilities Act) and are therefore overlooked. I'm no architect/builder and so I can't say how much it would cost to retrofit a couple of doors per theater, but if it's within the budget and theaters want to make their space welcoming to people of all abilities, I would highly recommend looking into it.

Of all the theaters visited, there was only one minor disaster, mostly, but not entirely of my own making.
Anyone that’s been to a show at 4th Wall at Silver Street Studios knows well the rough gravel parking lot and set of stairs that lead into the building. Neither of which are wheelchair-friendly. No problem, I was told, there’s a ramp entrance in the back. They were even kind enough to send me a video of what it looked like.

We arrived at the theater as usual, to the front entrance, and I assumed that all we needed to do was drive around to the back to find the ramp. Problem is, thanks to construction, you can’t get to the back of the building without completely leaving the property and taking a different road altogether to get behind the large complex.

Not knowing this at the time and since no one from the theater mentioned it, we drove around the side and found a ramp leading up to a door. But because it was dark, it was hard to tell if this ramp was the entrance filmed in daylight and sent to me for reference.

We should have known something was amiss when we took a look at the ramp. Rickety, poorly lit and made of metal slats just wide enough to potentially trap a wheelchair tire, it was a terrifying climb to the top. And of course, the door was locked.

The scary and incorrect accessible ramp at 4th Wall
Photo by Jessica Goldman

Leaving me at the top of the ramp (there was no way I was going to roll back down that thing) my husband ran around the building, explained our predicament, and got someone from 4th Wall to open the door for me. It was then we realized we’d chosen the incorrect entrance, but in our defense, we were assured that we weren’t the only ones who’d made that same mistake in the theater’s history.

Then there were the dogs. The collarless, possibly feral dogs I encountered in the parking lot right before a show at Classical Theater.

To be clear, I like dogs. Not usually afraid of them. But sitting in a wheelchair in a secluded parking lot behind the Deluxe Theater (where Classical performs) being stared down by two dogs who could take me out in just a couple of strides was fairly daunting. At first, I didn't want to get out of the car at all. But curtain time called, so fear be damned. I just gritted my teeth in the hope they wanted nothing to do with me, which they ultimately didn't. The things we do for theater, huh?

Obviously stray dogs aren’t an accessibility issue, it was just one of those things to add to the pile of challenges of getting out to the theater when otherwise abled.

By a stroke of scheduling luck, the theater I most dreaded navigating came late in my recovery when I had progressed to a cane. TUTS at the unwieldy Hobby Center poses numerous issues for anyone with mobility issues, not least of which is parking which, even on a good day, seems like it's in a different zip code than the theater itself.

For patrons with accessible needs, there are two options. Valet (which is what I was instructed to do) or, as I found out later, a golf cart service that runs patrons from the parking garage to the theater that TUTS wasn't sure was still operating but most definitely is.

I wish I could report on how the golf cart experience was. Does it work for someone in a wheelchair? Or using a walker? How many people can they fit and does it feel safe and secure? How long do you have to wait for it? Things I do not know.

What I do know is valet is a fine option. But only if you're willing to pay $25 plus tip and are prepared to wait post-show for your car. Waiting that might require standing for a good stretch if the minimal bench seating outside the Hobby is already spoken for.

While the Hobby has managed to relieve the daunting parking situation, once you're inside the large theater, there are still some things to consider. Yes, there are elevators that take you fairly close to your accessible seat, but those elevators took ages no matter when I used them. Not a problem if you arrive with time to spare, but a huge roadblock if you need to use the restroom at intermission.

Without question, the most frustrating thing at the Hobby is that the restrooms aren't on the same floor as the seats. They're on the main lobby level, one big flight of stairs down from the theater itself. Normally I'd stampede down with the throngs of other small-bladdered women in hopes that the line snaking well out of the restroom into the lobby would move quickly.

The Hobby Center does have private accessible restrooms as well as accessible stalls in the main restroom, however good luck trying to reach them if you don’t move like an energizer bunny and have to cool your heels waiting for an elevator.

To make matters worse, the ladies’ room (private or not) is on the side of the lobby with a few stairs. Meaning you need to make your way across the long lobby to take the small ramp up for the elevator on the other side. It's not undoable, it's just not ideal. And if I found it challenging, I can imagine that those with more severe issues would find it somewhat difficult as well.

Let's end however on the positive news – as someone with mobility issues, I successfully managed to see seven shows in just over a month. It can be done without too much fuss in most cases. And the folks working in the theaters were unanimously helpful and accommodating at each stage of my attendance. They want to welcome accessible patrons and try their best to make the experience go as smoothly as possible.

More can surely be done but it's not as though we're starting from zero or even close to it.

As someone that adores theater in every ounce of her being, I'm well aware that it's an effort to go and see a show. You need to brush your hair, put on shoes, drive, battle traffic, park, pay attention, and money. For something you may or may not fancy in the end. It's a choice that requires exertion. As such, I've always had a deep appreciation for audiences. They came out and did it.

But knowing what I now know, if the general audience deserves my appreciation, the otherwise abled audience members deserve a standing ovation. These are the true theater lovers letting no challenges great or small get in their way of seeing a show.

I hope for their sake, theaters in Houston continue to think about and adopt ways to make these valued audience members even more welcome and comfortable.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman