This article summarizes a breakout session at the 2017 Theatre Communications Group Annual Conference of the same name in Portland, Oregon on June 9, 2017. During the session, I facilitated a conversation with performers Regan Linton and Monique Holt. Artists who contributed via an online survey were Claudia Alick, Megan Bartlett, Christine Bruno, Cheryl Green, Anita Hollander, Eliza Jensen, Brianca Knight, Michael Maag, Anne-Marie Plass, Mickey Rowe, and Ali Stroker.

The session was intentionally designed with practicality in mind, with the assumption that the attending theatre professionals find the inclusion of artists with disabilities socially and aesthetically valuable. You can find a video of the session here.

1. Words Are Important (and should propel the work forward)

In my work as an access and inclusion consultant, I have yet to meet a client who wants to be intentionally exclusive to the disability community. Nevertheless, several of my clients feel nervous about even starting a conversation about accessibility because they do not want to sound offensive.

The default for uncomfortable silence can often be exclusion. There is a long history of language that has been used to describe the disability community. This history is important in understanding the ways in which society has understood and understands disability. But at the risk of writing a whole other article on the specifics of language, two words that embrace best practices in customer service, social justice, and human rights are accessible and accommodation.

Using the word accessible re-frames the conversation from an individual understanding of disability to an environmental and social one—your staff is looking not at individual patrons or artists and their personal history, impairments, etc, but at the space around them. In the same way, the tools that make an environment accessible are reasonable accommodations. These two words have legal weight. You and your staff are not simply picking and choosing to address preferences of artists, patrons or co-workers, you are making reasonable accommodations that create a legal, accessible work environment.

Once your staff feels empowered to make a space accessible, start with a concrete environmental assessment: What is the physical environment like? Once you’ve examined physical space, how are you working to make the communication environment accessible? The information environment? The social environment?

2. Acknowledge both expertise and ignorance, and then move the work forward

The best advisors for how to make a production experience accessible are the individuals who will be participating in said production. The most effective way to know whether or not a specific accommodation is going to work is to ask the individual who will utilize that accommodation.

In other words, you and your staff are the experts on your theatre environment, and disabled artists, patrons, and staff members are experts on their own needs and accommodations. Most likely, you will not know the ins and outs of an artist’s personal experience, and that’s OK. Similarly, an artist might not know the details of how your space, rehearsal calendar, or staff etiquette works and that’s OK, too. Commit to learning together!

[Please note: Best practices in access and inclusion strongly encourages direct communication with the disability community. If your theatre is looking to make your place of business more accessible for patrons and/or employees, consider creating an access committee, peopled by self-identified advocates from your local disability community.]

Regan, Monique, and Talleri at the conference. Photo by Jenny Graham.

3. Practice Radical Hospitality: Be Flexible (in other words, give options)

Whether you are re-vamping your audition notices, your auditions and callbacks, your rehearsals and performances, or you are simply updating the access section of your organization’s website, embrace the idea of radical hospitality and radical communication. Patrons, artists, employees, and guests alike benefit from knowing what to expect in a welcoming, relaxing, come-as-you-are approach.

In the spring of 2017, I surveyed several professional performers with disabilities about the accommodations they request most often. If I had to summarize the accommodations that are most often requested, it comes down to:

  1. Flexible time/timing, including opportunities for additional preparation, and knowing what will happen next.
  2. Flexible forms of communication, including options for written, verbal, and visual ways to receive information.
  3. Flexible environments, including wheelchair accessible spaces, clearly articulated social expectations, and intuitive and welcoming intellectual spaces.

Finally, as any good host would do, take care not to over-do it. For better or worse, people in the disability community are used to all kinds of un-invited “hospitality,” so be welcoming, reach out, present multiple options to artists, and be willing and ready to take “no thank you” for an answer.

4A. Plan Ahead

In order to make environment more accessible, there are some real, tangible costs—monetary costs, as well as uses of time and resources. So, plan ahead.

If you want to produce a play that has three Deaf characters, start allocating money for professional ASL interpreters several months in advance. If you want to stage an inclusive musical in a “historical” venue that is inaccessible to performers who use wheelchairs, start researching retro-fits and accessible ramps, and make friends with an architect or designer who can help. At the same time, many accommodations can be accomplished with very little money, but rather with a re-organization of staff time and human resources:

  • How might you re-organize to dedicate one or more staff members to accessibility throughout the production process? (In my experience, adding an “access coordinator” to the stage management team is a natural fit)
  • How might your production staff make time for performers with disabilities to orient themselves in your space prior to auditions, callbacks, or rehearsals?
  • How might a few adjustments to communication protocol and rehearsal paperwork help the stage management team anticipate any accommodations that might be needed in tech or performances?
  • How might your casting department make it clear in audition notices that you are truly interested in hiring performers with disabilities? I get this question a lot from my clients, so here’s my latest draft of sample language:
    • “[Name of theatre] encourages performers with disabilities to audition and will provide reasonable accommodations to individuals who request them in advance. Accommodation requests may include: ASL Interpretation, Braille or Large Print Materials, Physical Access, and Social Narratives. To request an accommodation please call _______________ or email ______________.”

With advanced planning in mind, here are some tips from Actors Theatre of Louisville’s Company Manager, Dot King, in preparing to host a performer with a disability:

  • Preparation is key! Most accommodations are very reasonable when arranged in advance, but very tricky if needed on the fly.
  • Arm yourself with the language to make you a confident access provider (see above re: accessible and accommodation)
  • Communicate early and often!
  • Specificity is your friend! If you reach out to an artist asking about general “accommodations” you might get a general yes or no back. Bravely take the lead and offer details, for example:
    • What bed height is most comfortable for you?
    • Do you prefer a stacked refrigerator/freezer, or side-by-side?
    • Do you prefer a traditional stove/stovetop, or is there a more accessible option for you?
  • Utilize other resources: In most cities, local hotels can be a great resource for best practices in accessibility. If you are faced with a request that you are not familiar with or aren’t sure how to provide an accommodation, a colleague at a hotel may be able to help!

4B. Be in the Moment

Those of us in the theatre know that even the best-laid plans require an element of improvisation. This is where theatre people have an advantage. We know how to adapt in the moment. We know how to make things happen with little time and no resources, and this same skill is key in accessibility.

Embrace the inherent creativity in accessibility! The best producers, production managers, and stage managers I know secretly (and not so secretly) love to problem-solve creatively. Know that many disabled artists are also seasoned problem-solvers, so as things change in the moment, stay connected with each other, keep communicating, and move forward together.

5. Imperfect Implementation: Aim for Possible, Not Perfect

Don’t wait until your entire building is physically accessible and your entire staff is thoroughly trained on exactly what to say and do. If you’ve thoughtfully explored the talking points above, but have not taken any action steps, you might be feeling both excited and nervous—just go for it!

Best practices in access and inclusion do not indicate a super-power bestowed upon companies who regularly host artists with disabilities. Rather, the most “successful” inclusive companies are willing to try new things, reflect on what worked andmore importantlywhat didn’t, stay connected to the disability community, and revise.

If you are doing it right, your access experience will be a beautiful, messy paradox. Welcome. You have arrived.

[Post-Script: If you’re thinking, “Talleri, this article is great but you promised me practical, nuts-and-bolts accommodations for auditions, rehearsals, and performances,” click here for a comprehensive list of accommodations implemented by Phamaly Theatre in Denver, CO.]