Omid Djalili (Tevye) and Company in Chichester Festival Theatre's production of Fiddler on the Roof. Photo: Johan Persson
It began with a chance conversation with a long-standing member of our audience. She was 92 and loved the theatre but sadly didn’t feel up to coming on her own any more.
That got us thinking. So much focus today is on finding the “new” audiences and theatre-makers of the future: at Chichester Festival Theatre we have the biggest youth theatre in the country and work extensively with young people. But there are many other people who might love to come to the theatre but for various reasons aren’t able to do so.
Thus the CFT Buddies scheme was born. Potential users of the scheme may include elderly and socially isolated patrons; those with learning difficulties or who are on the autistic spectrum; and individuals with physical disabilities or with eyesight and hearing difficulties.
CFT Buddies will assist patrons in booking and collecting tickets; meet them on arrival at the theatre; guide them to their seats and sit with them through the performance; help buy any refreshments and locate washroom facilities; and stay with them until the patron is safely on their way home. Generally the aim is to ensure the individual has a really enjoyable time.
The free scheme was piloted at our Relaxed Performance of Fiddler on the Roof in July. After an initial meeting with the volunteers who had signed up as Buddies, we chose the six who had most experience of caring for others or who had previously worked Front of House or as chaperones. The original plan was to assign them to individuals who needed support; but as the majority of bookings for the Relaxed Performance were groups, we decided it would be more advantageous for the Buddies to act as general helpers.
They welcomed the audience into the Theatre and positioned themselves around the auditorium and in the chill-out area to help out where needed. They assisted groups from care homes in and out of the auditorium and one Buddy was assigned to an individual in a wheelchair.
One care home in particular, who required considerable assistance with looking after some of their residents, found the Buddies’ help invaluable. The feedback was enormously encouraging.
Our next step is to launch the scheme for regular performances in the Festival Theatre on a one-to-one basis. This month, a pool of 30 volunteer Buddies will be available for the three plays which make up Alan Ayckbourn’s The Norman Conquests between 2 – 13 October.
The scheme is being publicised through our Access list and we will also be asking the Theatre’s 10,000-strong Friends to find anyone who might have come regularly in the past but now struggles to do so. We will offer the opportunity for patrons to meet or speak to their Buddy prior to the performance.
We’ll also be producing a guide to make clear exactly what a Buddy’s role is: they are not a replacement for a carer in terms of medical or personal needs but are there to assist and provide companionship. This will be given to patrons and Buddies to manage expectations from both sides.
Our Access members receive a 40% discount for their ticket and for their companion. A supporter’s donation has funded the Buddies’ tickets for the first phase of the scheme, and we will be seeking further donors for the future.
Ultimately, we see the Buddying scheme as a way to open our whole programme to a wider audience who currently feel unable to attend by themselves. We’re very much hoping it will become an important extension of our mission to welcome as wide and diverse an audience as possible.
For further information, visit cft.org.uk/your-visit/access