By Alison Besecker & Eunice Doroni
In 2022, Volunteer Alberta started the work of the Intersectionality Project through the support of Suncor Energy Foundation. The Intersectionality Project Team (IPT) asked, “How might we improve our understanding of how the intersections of identity, privilege, and discrimination influence people’s experiences with volunteerism and civic engagement?” Through this guiding question, we recognized that we needed to start connecting with organizations and grassroots groups that have already taken important steps in creating welcoming volunteerism and civic engagement spaces.
In line with Alberta’s breadth of indoor and outdoor festivals, concerts, and other events, our resident Community Connector Alison Besecker sat down with Sarah Barthel, Rapid Fire Theatre’s General Manager, to talk about how physical space can be shaped to welcome diverse identities, abilities, and needs, and how the design of their new space was shaped with accessibility with dignity in mind.
Inclusion & accessibility are not improvised
Since 1980, Rapid Fire Theatre (RFT) has been a key player in Edmonton’s improvised comedy scene. As a nonprofit organization and registered charity focused on “providing affordable, high-energy improvisation and alternative theatre audiences while providing exciting opportunities for participants,” RFT attracts spectators and cast members from all walks of life.
Though the RFT team are masters in improvisation, they recognized that inclusion and accessibility needed to be intentional and a foundation of their new theatre space, opting for deeper reflection rather than the usual quick response required in improv.
When RFT started dreaming of their ideal theatre space, they looked to their community – not just staff and board. They invited their audiences, volunteers, Indigenous Consultants, and diverse members of the Edmonton community to add their voices and contribute to creating a collaborative and accessible environment. Through this meaningful engagement process, they identified key considerations regarding how people would move and exist in the space.
Designing with dignity in mind
RFT’s new space includes various physical accessibility features to help accommodate some of the past needs that they have observed to be unmet in other spaces.
The new space includes wheelchair and stroller ramps, but also moveable rows in the front to address accessible seating that is often at the back of the audience. The seats are larger for more space and comfort, taking into consideration how people may wish to have more personal space between each other, as well as accommodating different-sized bodies. All the entrances also have a touchless wave function that makes every entry accessible to those with mobility challenges.
In addition to these physical accessibility features, RFT goes further by offering other accommodations like fidget toys and a mindfulness/sensory reset space where someone can decompress in private. The washrooms are gender-neutral, with the added comfort of floor-to-ceiling walls and doors.
These features are just a couple of examples of how the theatre goes above and beyond to create a welcoming and inclusive environment for all patrons.
Even when it came to the aesthetic choice, RFT wanted to ensure that there was more room for connection between the audience and the performers. Opting for white walls with graphics rather than the traditional black walls allows the performers to better see the audience’s reactions to help feed into their performances. In their main lobby as well, grooved panels represent the phone lines that used to run through their historic building and further symbolize the lines of connection that bring us all together.
Highlights of the Space:
- The first two rows can have moveable chairs, allowing any mobile aid to fit
- The stage, including backstage areas, are accessible by ramps
- The first two rows have 21.5-inch-wide seats for larger-bodied patrons, and all other seats are 20 inches across, with seats on the end of each row having raisable armrests
- Access to fidget toys
- Amplified audio signaling to send to earphones or hearing aids
- Mindfulness space – a space where you can have a private moment (for example, breastfeeding or prayer) or some quiet time for a sensory break
- Gender-neutral washrooms with floor-to-ceiling walls and doors
- Entrances have touchless wave-to-open functionality
Focusing on spaces for connections and joy
During VA’s tour, we asked Interim GM Quinn Contini about the dreams of the venue. He noted that as they learn more and gather feedback from their audience and cast, they will continue to evolve the space as it needs to. However, the standards for prioritizing accessibility and inclusion when designing and selecting meeting spaces provide the flexibility to make those changes.
Rapid Fire Theatre wants to encourage other organizations to include community conversations during the design stages of any project or event. In fact, should be considered an essential part of the design process. Through these innovations, your spaces can become more than “just a space” and a place for inclusive community connections and joy.
We wanted to extend a special thank you to the staff and cast of Rapid Fire Theatre who welcomed us into their space, and for Quinn and Sarah who retold the story of their process and shared their wisdom with us.