After our first (ever) Access Auditions, Red Theater Chicago received many expressions of thanks from the actors who were subsequently cast in shows. Numerous requests from casting directors and artistic directors in both theatre and film came in as well, along with affirmations that simply increasing the visibility of d/Deaf and/or disabled talent in the city inspired many projects to become more inclusive. We decided to host the auditions again, and did so on May 27, 2017. To prepare, we made some changes and updates based on our learning from the first time.

First, we refined our purpose to focus on discovering local, non-Equity performers, allowing non-Equity theatres to make more inclusive choices in season selection and casting despite their limited resources compared to Equity houses. Non-Equity theatres grow the talent that will become Equity. If non-Equity companies can’t figure out how to cast a performer who is d/Deaf and/or disabled, the talent pool will remain dry. While Equity theatres can be expected to pay living wages and cast authentically, non-Equity theatres often need to engage with the performers on a more collaborative level to figure out how to make new opportunities work.

Second, we adjusted our person-first language from seeking “Actors who are Deaf or Differently-abled” to more specific terminology: “Actors who are d/Deaf and/or disabled.”

It’s never comfortable to apply labels to individuals who express a huge variety of abilities and disabilities, but we need language that allows us to properly convey the intention of the auditions and correctly identify the abilities and disabilities of the performers. We are using the term “d/Deaf” because it is more inclusive: we learned that individuals who are hard-of-hearing and lower-case “d” deaf (who generally do not use sign language and are part of hearing culture) more readily associate with the term “disabled,” whereas capital “D” Deaf terminology refers to people who use sign language and mostly operate inside Deaf culture. Finally, we learned that “disabled” is the preferred term of those with invisible disabilities like post-traumatic stress disorder or other mental conditions.

We also updated our documentation. It’s uncomfortable to notate race, binary gender, and disability on a spreadsheet. It feels like a reduction. In our second attempt at these auditions, notes on the exact parameters of an actor’s abilities were not defined. Instead, we focused on creating the best possible environment for the performers, noting only accommodation requests made by the actor. This was an ideal environment for directors/producers interested in the actor irrespective of disability, but later it was less helpful if the goal is to cast an actor with a specific disability. When asked to provide any contacts we had for an actress under forty who has an amputated leg, our records contained scant details about each actor’s abilities and disabilities. We were unable to distinguish between someone who uses a mechanical wheelchair with very low upper or lower body mobility, and someone who has had their leg amputated that can knock out forty push-ups without a problem. It’s essential to remember each actor is an individual, period. For next year, we’re looking into how to notate disability on a spreadsheet without closing the door on a performer who may be perfect for the role...with a little creativity.

three actors using sign language
Left to Right: Ashley Chavers*, Rapheal Lopez*, Aaron Sawyer, and McKenna Liesman. Photo by Brittany Palm*.  (*self-identify as d/Deaf artists)

Beyond Auditions: Strategies for Success
The conversations at Red Theater and with our Chicago community have been going beyond auditions. One thing that has come up is that socio-economic and environmental barriers are often the largest obstacles to casting performers who are d/Deaf and/or disabled. Only recently did Broadway stages start becoming accessible to performers as well as audience. Can your non-Equity theatre afford accessible rehearsal and performance spaces? Is the stage itself accessible or just the house? ASL interpreters can cost around $60/hr (limit two hours), and depending on the size of the cast, length of rehearsal, and the preference of the performer, you may require two interpreters.

Accessibility isn’t just about elevators and interpreters. If you demand actors adjust their lives to your rehearsal schedule, you may find that none can. Variable work schedules, transportation, and family obligations are difficult pairings with must-attend rehearsals and performances. Are you able to have a longer rehearsal process with flexible scheduling to accommodate work/family/health issues? Can you make aesthetic choices that allow for more inclusion?

Chicago actress Terri Hudson offers a helpful model: “On a show that was basically a series of connected monologues, the director traveled to the actors for all of the rehearsals until tech. I would not have been able to arrange any more transportation than tech/show, and that was how she dealt with that issue in order to cast me.”

Are the consistent and calm voices the only ones considered valid? When working with people who have invisible disabilities, you can establish recovery and communication plans that allow for dropouts or blowups when limits are reached.

So much of this work boils down to listening to different voices and needs and meeting what you know to be common/basic accommodations, but also not assuming those accommodations will work for absolutely everyone all the time. It’s a producer’s job to help people feel safe and confident theyll be heard and accommodated versus blacklisted for being too much trouble.

It is also important to think about what compensation looks like. Consider what benefit and impact participating in your production will have for the person and their community. Where you might not, as a small theatre, be able to afford a sizable paycheck, could you perhaps offer to organize a carpool or pay for/reimburse transportation? Many folks with disabilities are eligible for transit and taxi fare discounts, so reimbursement could be less of an expense than you might think. Providing food at rehearsals could also be a huge help. Could you find volunteers to provide childcare, if needed? (All of these suggestions, by the way, can also apply to creating a more welcome environment for anyone facing systemic barriers to making a life in the theatre.)

At the end of our second Access Auditions, a performer stopped on her way out, raised an eyebrow, and challenged the group by asking, “What’s next? When will these productions take place? What can I do to help?” The room was eager to answer her last question. When would the productions actually take place? A couple of theatre’s productions had already been slated into seasons, while other companies were still hunting for performers who matched the characters they were trying to cast. Lastly, a few directors were attending the auditions for the first time, in awe of the talent before them, and excited to go back to their respective theatres and advocate for change. In the world of year-long contracts, season selection committees, board meetings, and foundation reports, some changes may take years to implement…but, if the excitement in the room was any measure, change is coming.

Special thanks to Abbey Burgess!