Accessibility and the Theatre

Featured Image: Deaf West’s Spring Awakening

COVID-19 has illuminated the stark disparities present in every sector while simultaneously offering creative solutions to inequity. How can we use new digital theatre innovations to sustainably increase accessibility?

Theatre is a fairly homogeneous industry. The majority of American theatregoers are wealthy white folks over 40. For years, theatres have toiled over how to make theatre more accessible for people of different backgrounds, ages, socioeconomic levels and abilities. Then suddenly, COVID-19 has us making completely online, free theatre than anyone can access. Some organizations are adding ASL interpretation and closed captioning to their livestreams. It’s a new world out there. Here are some things we can learn from pandemic era theatre.

Disability Access

People with disabilities deserve to experience theatre. Why are so many theatres still wheelchair inaccessible? Why aren’t relaxed theatre performances (disability-centered shows that allow people of all abilities to enjoy theatre) a norm in American theatres? I’ve rarely seen closed-captioned or ASL interpreted performances made available. Howlround has a great resource on producing digital events that is extremely clear and helpful for today’s times and has great insights on the ramifications for our future as theatremakers. Start getting to know the disabled performers and theatre practitioners in your area and take your cues from them. Here is National Disability Theatre, one great place to start your research.

Free and Sliding Scale Performances

The price of tickets is a huge barrier for many people. Theatres need revenue, otherwise many people would already be offering less expensive tickets. Perhaps we can change our fundraising and ticketing structures to make affordable performances available to more people. It has been such a joy to see high-quality recordings and live streams from some of the greatest actors to grace the stage.

Perhaps that should become a regular part of theatre programming. Once systems are in place and union agreements have been made, live-streaming or performance recordings could be both a way to reach a wider audience and a source of passive income for theatres (on demand or subscription style offerings are two potential ways to sustainably provide digital content). Some theatres, like Theatre Three in upstate New York, are even writing shows specifically for online platforms. I love to see the ingenuity.

Language Interpretation

Digital innovation gives us a new way to bring in a larger audience. What if we added Spanish (or Mandarin, or French, or Russian, depending on the local community) translation to closed captioning of performances? Opera houses already regularly use supertitles for the majority of people who don’t speak the original language of the performance. What if theatres started offering more multilingual performances? I don’t know exactly what it looks like on stage, but it is worth considering, especially in a country with so many immigrant communities.

Inclusive Programming and Hiring

The theatre world is long overdue for an overhaul of inclusion in productions and staffing. Diversity is as important on and backstage as it is in the audience. One simple way to draw more diverse theatregoers is to hire more diverse actors, playwrights, directors, and more. At the beginning of the year, I turned down a theatre’s well-priced subscription because their season was not diverse enough for me. As a queer black woman, I grow weary of constantly seeing stories of straight white folks on every theatrical season.

Considering the majority of theatregoers are women, why are there so few women directors? And don’t get me started on plays written by women of color. Theatres must take inclusion seriously. Craft your seasons to resemble the world around you with artists and stories from different genders, sexualities, ethnic backgrounds, abilities, and more. As Lizzo says, the world looks better in color.

While I cannot wait until we can gather again, I’m grateful for the lessons we are learning now and hope that as a community we can emerge from this crisis stronger more inclusive.

Love and theatre,

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