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How TDF Is Expanding the Transformative Power of Captioning at the Theatre

By: Raven Snook
Date: Feb 23, 2024

Why companies dedicated to showcasing artists with disabilities are so thankful for TDF's TAP Plus program

"I feel like access is one of the most vital issues facing our field," says Bill Rauch, the artistic director of downtown's newest culture hub, the Perelman Performing Arts Center (PAC NYC). That's why he's thrilled his institution received one of TDF's TAP Plus grants, which award up to $5,000 for open captioning (OC) and closed captioning (CC) services to eligible cultural organizations throughout New York State.

According to the Hearing Loss Association of America, approximately 48 million Americans have some degree of hearing loss. All of them could benefit from captioning at the theatre. TDF pioneered the service in New York City, presenting the first open captioned performances on Broadway in the fall of 1997 as part of our Accessibility Programs. Two years later, the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA) approached TDF about launching a statewide program to provide grants for captioning. The result was TAP Plus.

For the 25th anniversary of TDF's partnership with NYSCA, TAP Plus doled out a total of $135,000 to 28 organizations throughout New York State. Fourteen were first-time recipients, including PAC NYC. Rauch is particularly excited about the grant because it helps his theatre provide the same access to audiences as it does to artists.

"There are 62 configurations of stage and audience that we've discovered so far, but it's important to us that all of those configurations be accessible for everyone," explains Rauch about PAC NYC, a 129,000-square-foot, multi-level building offering flexible layouts in three performance spaces. The legendary singer-songwriter José Feliciano, who is blind, played a free concert at the venue to celebrate its opening last fall. The dance-theatre piece Is It Thursday Yet? was co-created, co-choreographed and performed by Jenn Freeman, who has autism. And PAC NYC is commissioning a play about FDR's legacy that features a lead actor who uses a wheelchair.

Rauch notes that productions with multiweek runs offer select performances with open captioning thanks to the TAP Plus grant. PAC NYC also hosts American Sign Language-interpreted and audio-described performances and touch tours on its own. As the head of a nonprofit institution dedicated to "cultivating bonds between extraordinary artists and communities," Rauch knows it's essential to include individuals with disabilities, both on stage and in the house.

God of Carnage
Theater Breaking Through Barriers' 2023 production of God of Carnage. Photo by Carol Rosegg.

For Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), an Off-Broadway company dedicated to advancing artists with disabilities, accessibility is critical. "The TAP Plus grant has been such an incredible gift for us as a company, and we've been fortunate to receive it for more than 15 years now," says Nicholas Viselli, TBTB's artistic director.

While most theatres only offer select performances with accommodations, TBTB (which was founded in 1979 and originally known as Theater by the Blind) integrates captions and audio description into every single performance. "For me the question was, 'How can we make our work more accessible to everyone all the time?'" says Viselli. "The fact that we were getting support from TDF that was earmarked specifically for captioning allowed us to really think about how we could build accessibility directly into our productions."

Viselli works with the set and lighting designers to ensure the captions are front and center and visible to everyone in the audience. "It's exciting because the tools of accessibility have become an aesthetic of our shows," he explains, adding that the captions don't just benefit those with hearing loss. They are "an element within the show that all audiences experience. I can't tell you how many people came up to us after our productions of God of Carnage and Brecht on Brecht and said, 'I'm not hard of hearing, but I loved the captioning. It allowed me to absorb the material in a much richer way.'"

This season, TBTB used the TAP Plus grant to provide captions for its Hybrid Playmakers' Intensive, which is available to stream on YouTube. There will also be captions at every performance of the company's upcoming revival of Neil Simon's I Ought to Be in Pictures, which runs from April 20 to May 25 at Theatre Row. "The fact that the Simon estate is letting us do the show is a huge coup for us," says Viselli. "All of the captioning that we build into the production is going to be done thanks to TDF. I feel very connected with TDF because you have been a major influence on us and given us the support to be able to take chances and grow."

EPIC Players' 2023 production of Into the Woods. Photo courtesy of the theatre.
EPIC Players' 2023 production of Into the Woods. Photo courtesy of the theatre.

Founded in 2016 by artistic director Aubrie Therrien, EPIC Players is a neuro-inclusive theatre company that hires a mix of actors and artists with and without disabilities. Last year was the first time EPIC (which stands for Empower, Perform, Include, Create) applied for and received a TAP Plus grant.

"We had just started expanding our reach beyond the developmentally disabled community and into the Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities," Therrien says. "So, this really aligned with what we needed, especially for Into the Woods, which was the first time we used captioning."

EPIC's mainstage musical this season is Spring Awakening, which runs May 9 to 19 at A.R.T./New York Theatres. "There are a lot of parallels between our community and the issues the characters are struggling with as they try to come into their own," Therrien says. "Every single actor in the production identifies as neurodivergent or disabled, which is a first for us. And the goal is to have captioning at every performance. We definitely couldn't do that without the grant. There are too few grants out there for access, unfortunately."

Rauch from PAC NYC concurs and is glad that TDF is committed to supporting greater inclusivity in theatre on both sides of the footlights. "I really applaud what TDF is doing in terms of moving the needle for the whole field," he says. "I really am grateful."


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Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages. Follow her on Facebook at @Raven.Snook. Follow TDF on Facebook at @TDFNYC.