Accessibility and Comfort – The Revitalization of the Shaftesbury Theatre

By Kat Mokrynski

This past week, Curtain Call was invited to take a tour of the Shafestbury Theatre with James Williams, the Chief Executive. The Shaftesbury Theatre was built in 1911 and was originally called the New Prince’s Theatre (this name would change to simply the Prince’s Theatre three years later in 1914). Charles Core and EMI would acquire the building in 1962, giving the theatre its current name, the Shaftesbury Theatre. In the 1980s, the Shaftesbury was bought by the Theatre of Comedy, a company that continues to run the theatre to this day.

Currently, the building has six floors in total, with two floors located underneath the stage. Construction has been relatively unintrusive to the Shaftesbury, with the theatre going dark from thirteen to eighteen weeks at a time, with some construction even going on while shows were still open. The fly system was actually built on top of the theatre while Memphis was still running! This new system is an incredible feat as it was literally built on top of the theatre, giving the space the ability to hold up to 35 tons and to have more room to accommodate the shallow stage. The Shaftesbury Theatre was the first steel-framed theatre building in the West End, with each steel beam holding up the theatre being able to hold up to 200 tons. During the renovation, steel-frame walkways were also added and connected through to the roof structure that contains the new fly system.

There will be a new entrance to the Shaftesbury that opens to Princess Circus, creating a more welcoming space for pedestrians once new landscaping is revealed in February 2023. While the area is currently a thoroughfare, it will be transformed into a catering facility outside of the theatre, with visitors becing able to purchase pastries and coffee on the go.

Many of the changes that have come and will be coming to the Shaftesbury focus on accessibility and comfort. Each floor will have its own designated color that will be displayed on the ticket, making it easier for audience members to find their way throughout the theatre.

A comprehensive AC system has been placed in the theatre, with the dome being used for many of the vents to spread air throughout the stalls and circles. Vents have been built on the roof of the theatre, allowing air from the outside to be brought in and cooled or heated, depending on the needs of the people inside at the time. Air will also be reused from inside the theatre itself, saving money and making the vents more efficient. The vents will also be able to open in case of a fire risk, essentially becoming a large chimney. 

There are plans to reseat the building – 74 of these new seats have already been installed! These seats will be raised and will give people more legroom. While this construction is going on, thirteen positions have been established in the stalls for wheelchairs. Even though the seating capacity has been decreased to between 1,300 and 1,500 from its original 1,800, the company believes that the decrease in capacity will be made up for by its increase capacity and comfort. Along with the building itself, performances of & Juliet will remains accessible as well, with closed-captioned, signed, and audio-descriptive performances continuing. 

But along with accessibility and comfort, there has also been a focus on the history of the theatre itself. There will be a change from the current pink color to greener hues, making the theatre appear more calmer while also returning to what the theatre looked like in the early 20th century. The Shaftesbury is a Grade II building, so construction must be approved by Historic England in order to prevent the history from being erased. There is a focus throughout the theatre’s reconstruction to keep its history, with the architect keeping much of the original building original. For example, when walking up the stairs to the administrative offices, much of the original brick remains exposed, reminding the staff of the theatre of their office’s origins.

Even though there is a desire to keep the history of the Shaftesbury intact, comfort and safety must still be a priority. To quotes james, the Shatesbury is a “Factory for creating the magic of theatre,” with a “need to be able to do what we need to do on stage and in the auditorium.” An unnecessary staircase that had been used to keep the social classes separate was removed and is going to be replaced with more toilets and space to relax and mingle with other audience members.

One of the major problems with theatres, especially those from the early 20th century like the Shaftesbury, is the lack of toilets, especially for women. Luckily, a major part of the renovations is going to be adding more toilets for men and women, with gender-neutral accessible toilets also being established.

When audiences go to the theatre, one of the highlights is being able to congregate at the bars, drinking and talking before the show and during the interval. The number of bars in the Shaftesbury Theatre will be reduced from five to three, but the footprints of the new bars will be larger and more accessible than the previous bars. The main bar is the 1911 Bar, which is located in the stalls and is actually underground! The room is lit with both lights and windows opening up to the streets above. There is an acoustic barrier between the 1911 Bar and the auditorium, leaving plenty of space for people to move around.

Along with the three bars, there will also be two new suites added to the theatre. We were given a chance to see the first, the Taffner Suite, named after Don Taffner Sr. Taffner was an American Anglophile who helped fund the Shaftesbury in the 1980s before taking over in the 1990s. His son, Don Taffner Jr., is now the chairman of the theatre and was the one who gave James and the company the liberty to do work to do the building. According to Taffner, there is a strong focus on family and connection, with James stating that the family has “a real passion about the building.” The suite can be hired by the theatregoer for added pleasure, with room for dining and relaxing as well as a private water closet. The Ray Cooney Suite will be established in the Circle in the coming years, giving theatregoers in that section the same privilege as those in the Stalls renting the Taffner Suite.

There is a strong focus on giving people choices, regardless of their accessibility levels. Accessibility has even been brought to the cast and crew, not just audience members. There is a lift, an accessible water closet, and an accessible dressing room just for the cast and crew backstage.

Along with accessibility during performances, there has also been more accessibility established for when shows are being moved in and out of the Shaftesbury Theatre. As James said, the company is “Thinking about the detail of safety and how to make a space that’s workable.” For the orchestra, air conditioning has been established, including inside the percussionist box. Extraneous pipes and cables under the stage were stripped, being replaced by trays in which the crew can safely organize the necessary technology for the show currently running. Production and administration offices are on the 5th and 6th floors, but everyone goes through the dressing room area, emphasizing the focus on unity throughout the Shaftesbury Theatre, regardless of someone’s role. 

And we can’t forget about comfort for the cast and crew! A rooftop deck was created for people to go up and get some fresh air, especially between shows on two-show days. The wardrobe department also has an outdoors area as well as roof lights inside of their studio, giving them natural light instead of the stereotypical wardrobe department stuck in a theatre’s basement.

One of the major benefits of renovating the Shaftesbury Theatre is to make it more appealing and open to shows of all sizes, not just small comedies like the ones it played host to back when it opened in the early 1900s. Part of the stage is “demountable,” meaning that crew caa lift sections out, so that it can be used for different shows by the different groups. Up on top of the grid holding the fly system, the center can be removed, making it easier for crew members to take out and put in new shows.

Ultimately, for James and the rest of the company at the Shaftesbury Theatre, the goal is to have an accessible theatre while still keeping ticket prices affordable. I cannot wait for work to be complete and to see the Shaftesbury Theatre reach its full potential of accessibility, comfort, and of course, great shows!


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