Theater Truly Is for Everyone
(Broadway’s Spring Awakening, performed in spoken English and American Sign Language by Deaf West Theatre. Photo credit Joan Marcus.)
The anticipation as you wait for the curtain to rise. The wonder as a stage filled with dazzling sets transports you to another world. The goosebumps as soulful singing fills the auditorium. Live theater is a transformative experience — one we all deserve to enjoy.
But it can be intimidating planning a trip to the theater when you or your loved one has a disability to accommodate: An aisle seat for your friend on crutches, noise-dampening headphones for your niece with sensory issues, a hearing device for your former rock star uncle…
We’ve got good news: No matter what the disability, a theater near you can probably accommodate it, no sweat. Amazing innovations are helping make live theater accessible to everyone. Here’s a look at what’s out there, from the most common to the coolest.
(Deaf West’s Spring Awakening. Photo credit Joan Marcus.)
At most large venues and many smaller ones, you can stop by the box office before the show and pick up a listening device (usually headphones or a wireless receiver that works with hearing aids). And lots of theaters offer closed captioning (think screens with the script rolling along, like closed captioning on your TV) and sign language interpretation, too. You can request those through the venue or through an organization like New York’s Theatre Development Fund, whose Accessibility Program manages the whole process for you.
A few innovative theater companies, like Gallaudet University, National Technical Institute for the Deaf and Deaf West Theatre, are even staging bilingual productions in which actors use spoken English and American Sign Language at the same time on stage. This gives Deaf and hearing audiences the chance to enjoy the show together. And in the case of a hit like Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, which just closed on Broadway, the bilingual staging raises the show’s energy and emotion to mind-blowing levels for the entire audience. Check out a video preview to see for yourself.
(Andrea Day audio describes a production of Wicked. Photo credit: David LeShay, courtesy of Theatre Development Fund.)
Venues have a few tricks up their sleeves to help make the live theater experience more accessible for people with vision issues. For starters, they can usually seat you closer to the stage to make things a bit easier. And for those who have a greater impairment or who are blind, there are a couple of cool options at your disposal:
- Audio-described performances: A specially trained ‘describer’ narrates the action on stage (including dialogue, song lyrics and sound effects) into a microphone, which is then transmitted to the audience member’s earpiece during pauses in the dialogue.
- Touch tours: For shows that don’t offer audio description, try taking a “touch tour” before the show. “Being able to feel the costumes, elements on the set and/or faces of the actors would be a tremendous plus,” says Lisa Carling, director of Theatre Development Fund’s Accessibility Program.
When it comes to the features of the venue itself — elevators, accessible bathrooms, seating for wheelchairs, etc. — huge strides have been made. There are lots of accommodations already built in, and many more you can ask for. What’s this mean for you? More often than not, you’ll be safe buying balcony seats and not worrying you’ll hear, “I’m sorry, you have to be able to climb the stairs to reach those.”
You’ll still want to reach out in advance, though, to double-check what they’ve got going on. Many historical buildings, for example, have not been retrofitted to meet all accessibility standards. Contact the venue directly, use a service like Theatre Development Fund or reach out to us if you’re buying your tickets on Goldstar. We help our members with this sort of thing every day.
(An autism-friendly performance of The Lion King with house lighting at just 30 percent intensity. Photo credit: Anita & Steve Shevett.)
Loud noises, strobe lights and other effects can be problems for people with sensory issues and conditions like autism. So creative solutions are cropping up all over the place. Among them: autism-friendly performances with fewer loud noises, no strobe lights and the use of autism-specific programs to help explain the characters and plot.
Noise-dampening headphones, tinted glasses and a well-chosen seat location (request this in advance) can also go a long way toward helping those with sensory issues. And for children, it can be especially important. “Aisle seats are key in case your child needs to take a break,” says Katie Sweeney, board member at the Special Needs Activity Center for Kids and mom to an 18-year-old theater-lover with autism. “Also, you may want to tell those sitting around you that your child is on the autism spectrum and may make some noise.” Sweeney’s son adores musicals and has memorized the lyrics of more than 20 Broadway shows. Autism-friendly performances make it possible for him to feed his passion.
(If you’d like to learn more about autism accessibility in theater, Sweeney will be speaking on the topic at TEDxBroadway this month. Also taking the stage is Deaf West artistic director DJ Kurs, who has the scoop on his trailblazing Broadway hit, Spring Awakening.)