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Inside the First-Ever Symposium on Theatre Accessibility

Date: May 01, 2017


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TDF hosted a day-long conversation about the future of access


Note: This article describes a recent symposium that TDF hosted on accessibility in the theatre. If you'd like to read a thorough description of the accessibility services that TDF provides, just go here.

On Monday, April 24, Theatre Development Fund hosted an inaugural symposium on accessibility in theatre at the Romulus Linney Courtyard theatre at The Pershing Square Signature Center.

Entitled "TDF Access for NYC Theatre," the symposium addressed a variety of issues germane to meeting the needs of theatregoers with disabilities. Approximately 70 attendees both from the New York City area and beyond represented not-for-profit theatre companies over the course of the day, during which sessions on ADA ticketing, captioning options, and sustainable audio description were discussed. The goal was to ensure4 that audiences with unique needs – including those on the autism spectrum and those with hearing, vision, and mobility challenges loss– are allowed given the same theatregoing experiences as everyone else.

The overall themes of the sessions underscored the need to provide a sense of empowerment and inclusivity for all theatregoers. Betty Siegel, Director of VSA and Accessibility at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, elaborated how theatres can best accommodate disabled audience members in observance of the Americans with Disabilities Act. For example, wheelchair and companion seats are required for all theatres, but it is at the discretion of those managing a specific theatre to determine the specific layout of those seats. Additionally, theatres must price seats for disabled theatregoers proportionately, just as they would for typical seats. This ensures equal treatment for all audiences. "You are not discriminating if you priced proportionately," Siegel advised. "Disabled audience members must have the same choices as everyone else."

Several speakers addressed techniques regarding captioning in theatres, and just how far the understanding of accessibility has come. "We were naïve – we thought that having a ramp meant that we were an inclusive theatre," acknowledged Erica Foster, Operations Director/Accessibility Coordinator at Lifeline Theatre in Chicago.

Lifeline participated in TDF’s Autism Theatre Initiative national advisory partnerships, which were designed to help guide theatres through their first autism/sensory-friendly performance and launch this type of programming. Foster said that at performances specifically geared to children on the autism spectrum, her company keeps the lights up and doors open and encourages them to ask questions of their companions in order to foment a comfortable space. (TDF formed the Autism Theatre Initiative, offering a judgment-free environment for those on the spectrum and their families, in 2011). She went on to describe the logistics of formatting a captioning script, particularly the need to be attentive to grammar and the inclusion of sound effect descriptions.


David Chu, Co-Founder of c2 (caption coalition) Inc, a leading provider of live performance captioning at cultural and theatrical events, also acknowledged the importance of meticulous attention to detail when creating a captioning script, in addition to emphasizing what he referred to as the "gospel of doing no harm" – creating captions that do not alter the script but remain artistically compliant. Chu maintained that the art of captioning is "a technical craft that should be recognized as an actual paid staff position in theatres."

Mark Annunziato, Vice President of Engineering and Operations at Sound Associates, Inc., discussed the pros and cons of using a Smartphone captioning app, with the main obstacle being the impossibility of blocking out all other uses for a phone, including calendar reminders, and the fact that light from the phone can still distract audience members.

JW Guido, a Deaf actor and Artistic Director of the 36-year-old NY Deaf Theatre, spoke to the lack of opportunities he found as a Deaf actor growing up. With a mission entitled "Deaf by Deaf for Deaf," Guido described his company's goal of displaying Deaf talent across all realms of theatre – both onstage and backstage. He agreed with other speakers about the time-consuming process of preparing slides used for captioning, and he hoped for a way to make the process of captioning a more artistic one. (At this and all other presentations, Candace Broecker-Penn and Dylan Geil were both on hand as ASL interpreters.)

Furthermore, Guido envisioned future productions of plays that will be bilingual – using American Sign Language and spoken English. "When one language is being spoken onstage, he said, "we'll use captions [for the other]. When there are two languages on stage, no captions will be used."

Ruth M. Feldman, Senior Writer and Audio Description Trainer at Audio Solutions, discussed the importance of training not only a theatre's sound staff but also its interns to use accessibility equipment. With regard to audio description services, she spoke about the need to establish policies and procedures with both the theatre's sound department and front-of-houses staff in terms of equipment oversight, maintenance, and assessment. (Both Evan Hatfield, Director of Audience Experience at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, and Andrea Day, NYC and National Audio Describer, relayed the fruits of their audio description experiences.)


Those in attendance felt that the TDF symposium was a valuable step in the continuing endeavor to make theatre attendance as easy and enjoyable as possible. "I try to see every show I can possibly get to," said Commissioner Victor Calise of the Mayor's Office for People with Disabilities, who was present at the symposium. He acknowledged the great progress New York City theatres had already made."It's hard for some of the more ancient venues to accommodate for a person with disabilities, but there's lots of progress, including the new ticket policies. I've been very fortunate to see great things.

He continued, "TDF provides a broader scope and people can understand these needs in depth.The accessibility TDF helps provide allows people with disabilities to enjoy theatre in new ways."

Lisa Carling, Director of TDF Accessibility Programs, was also happy with the meeting's success. "Monday’s symposium accomplished all we hoped it would in becoming a forum where theatres in our city could come together and learn more about providing accessible performances, best practices, and available resource material," she said, and she indicated some goals for the future of this initiative. "If funding comes through to continue TDF Access for NYC Theatre and survey responses indicate two gatherings a year would be more beneficial, that would be our next plan for 2018. There are many more topics we could cover if we held accessibility symposiums twice annually."

Perhaps Guido best summed up the experience of the symposium and what should guide the next steps: "We want more accessibility, more understanding, more love out there."


Doug Strassler is a writer and critic based in New York City. He contributes regularly to TDF Stages.

Photos by Suzanne Fiore. Top photo: JW Guido addresses the symposium.