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How the Access Team is helping to ensure this new musical is the most inclusive show on Broadway
There have been myriad articles about the seven autistic actors making their Broadway debuts in the new musical How to Dance in Ohio at the Belasco Theatre. It's certainly groundbreaking casting, the first time autistic performers have played autistic characters on Broadway. But the production is breaking ground not just on stage but backstage and in the audience, too, thanks to the members of its Access Team, who work to make every performance as sensory-friendly and inclusive as possible.
"I think what's so lofty about our job is that we do kind of involve ourselves in everything, from the writing, to the lighting design, to audience accessibility, to backstage accessibility," says Nicole D'Angelo, who serves as the show's Assistant Music Director, Script Consultant and On-Site Accessibility Manager. D'Angelo originally auditioned to be in How to Dance in Ohio, which is based on Alexandra Shiva's 2015 HBO documentary of the same name about a group of autistic young adults preparing for a spring formal and all the joy, anxiety, hope and excitement that inspires. Because of her musical background (she plays piano, woodwinds and 20 other instruments), D'Angelo was initially hired as the Musical Assistant when the production premiered at Syracuse Stage last year, but her responsibilities expanded rapidly.
"I started working with the writers very closely because I was one of the only autistic people in the room all the time who wasn't an actor," she says, adding that she advocated for small but meaningful changes in the script. "At one point, there was a line where an autistic character said, 'I can't imagine myself going to new places or meeting new people.' And I said, 'Of course he can't—he's autistic!' If I could imagine myself in new places and situations, life would be a lot easier. Now the line is: 'It seems unpleasant finding new places I like to eat and meeting new people.' It's a light adjustment, it's subtle but it's telling. During tech, I was also sitting there experiencing lighting and sound cues over and over, and I thought, maybe I can go to the designers and give them some feedback if we're going to make this an inherently sensory-friendly show."
"Our team likes to say, ''It's not just about being invited to the party, it's being asked to dance,'" says Becky Leifman, who serves as the show's Director of Community Engagement. The longtime Executive Director of CO/LAB Theater Group, a nonprofit organization offering individuals with developmental disabilities a creative and social outlet through theatre, Leifman and her teammates insist that accessibility be at the forefront, not an afterthought. She helped spearhead How to Dance in Ohio's in-theatre accessibility resources, including a Sensory Space on the lower level equipped with stimulation toys, and a hypersensitivity space in the mezzanine with a Sensory Nook Pod for individuals who need a break. She also brought on Ava Xiao-Lin Rigelhaupt to serve as the show's Autistic Creative Consultant.
Rigelhaupt, a writer, actor and advocate for diversity, autism and disability representation in entertainment who has worked with Disney and Apple TV+, says distributing an access survey to everyone involved in the production was a game changer. "It was sent out to all the cast and crew, regardless of whether someone was autistic, asking, 'What do you need to do your best work?'" she explains. Many points of sensitivity came up that might not have otherwise, such as the distraction of whistling and the need for unscented soaps and detergents. "Our Broadway veterans in the show were like, 'We've never been asked these simple questions before in the zillion rehearsals we've done!' We're really looking at Broadway and asking, how can we do it better?"
When Associate Producer Jeremy Wein, who is autistic, first saw a reading of the show in 2021, he was stunned. "It was the first time I saw myself in characters in a piece of theatre—I just cried throughout," he recalls. Through his involvement in the show, he learned certain terminology is no longer favored in the community, such as "on the spectrum" or "high-functioning/low-functioning." "Even as someone who's autistic, having to relearn language and how to discuss the topic has been a really eye-opening educational opportunity for me," he says. Hopefully, it is for the audience, too. The show's website offers many resources, including a frequently asked questions section with answers to queries like, "What is autism?" "What is ableism?" And, "How can I advocate for autistic folks if I'm not autistic myself?"
Production Assistant Liz Weber, who describes themselves as "an excellent stage manager who happens to be an autistic person," says collaboration is the key to How to Dance in Ohio's success on stage and beyond. "We all have very different capacities that we brought to the creation of this wonderful show," they say. "I was backstage for a lot of the creation and in the room during the Broadway process, and there were things that I would look at with autistic intuition that I would translate to the allistic [non-autistic] people in the room. Everything is a learning and teaching experience. There was so much knowledge to be shared and distributed across all the departments, tiny things, huge things, so many things you can't even see. We're reinventing theatre in every facet possible."
Although the production always aims to be sensory-friendly, How to Dance in Ohio is partnering with TDF for an Autism Friendly Performance on Sunday, January 28, 2024 that will feature additional accommodations, such as dimming but not turning off the house lights and having volunteers on hand to help anyone who needs assistance. But the main change will be one of community. "It's not going to be a radically different experience, but I think there will be more of a sense of collective belonging on that day," says Wein. "Our hope is that we've set this show up so that everyone feels comfortable and safe and welcome at any performance. But I know there are people in the community who will only go to the TDF Autism Friendly Performances. It has become its own little family gathering in a way."
"There are so many different niches to cover when talking about accessibility, you can't possibly get to everything," Weber adds. "But what the TDF Autism Friendly Performance allows for that I think is really, really special is the understanding that the community can be themselves completely and utterly. This performance is made for them."
Although How to Dance in Ohio is the Access Team's focus, they do hope other shows will adopt some of their practices, especially the access survey, which Weber calls "one of the most innovative and best things I've ever seen in a theatrical process." All the interviewees agree there are other adjustments Broadway shows can make right now to become more accessible and inclusive, including turning down the volume, hiring folks with disabilities and, most importantly, listening to them.
"A lot of shows in the last couple of years have brought people on to consult on specific aspects of a production," Wein says. "Don't just bring somebody on because you only want to hear their voice about one part of the show. You need to be open to hearing their voice across every aspect of your production."
"We are working really hard to break open the gates to a historically gate-kept industry," Rigelhaupt adds. "We're finally feeling welcomed into the arts community."
How to Dance in Ohio is also frequently available at our TKTS Booths.