Hastened by Technology, Hindered by Public Attitudes

Katie Sweeney tells the story of her son Dustin, a theatre-lover with perfect pitch who is autistic. He has a huge vocabulary, he’s memorized whole shows, but he doesn’t engage in conversation and never answers a question that begins with “Why?” Sweeney took her son to a Broadway show, choosing box seats off to the side, away from most of the audience. Dusty sang along with the songs. Ten minutes into the second act, an usher asked mother and son to leave, because he was disturbing the actors. As they left, Dusty, upset, kept on screaming: "Stay. Stay. Stay."

That was before autism-friendly performances. Sweeney brought her son to the first one, in 2011: The Lion King. He's been to fifteen of these now, and he's gotten so used to the theatre, his mother says, that he just sits quietly, without any disruptive behavior. She brought him to a regular performance of Wicked, and, she says, with a mixture of pride and relief, “He was not asked to leave.”

[R]emarkable changes [are] under way that aim toward a future…when theatre is seamlessly accessible for everyone, all the time.

Sweeney told this story at the first annual Broadway Accessibility Summit in November 2017 at New World Stages, and then again in a panel on Broadway accessibility at the third annual BroadwayCon, a convention of theatre fans at New York’s Jacob Javits Convention Center, in January 2018. Both events were organized to report on the remarkable changes under way that aim toward a future, as one panelist put it, when theatre is seamlessly accessible for everyone, all the time.

speaker at accessibility panel
Kyle Wright at the Broadway Accessibility Summit. Photo by Jonathan Mandell.

 Increased Audio-Description and Closed Captioning
By 1 June 2018, promises panelist Kyle Wright of the Shubert Organization, “every show on Broadway, commercial and non-profit,” will offer on-demand audio-description for theatregoers who are blind or have low vision and on-demand closed captioning in real time, in one of two ways—through a dedicated device called iCaption, or with an application called GalaPro that you can install in your own smart phone.

This means that any sighted audience member will be able to read the script as it is being enacted on stage. The app uses vocal recognition technology that identifies words used by the actors, so that if an actor skips pages, the app skips with it. A lot of effort, Wright explained, went into the “non-glare” design of both the app and the device, so as not to disturb other audience members. “We want to avoid the Patti LuPone effect.”

Autism-friendly performances are expanding
In 2011, Theatre Development Fund offered their first two for an audience of 3,000 people on the spectrum and their families, explained Lisa Carling, director of accessibility programs for TDF. Last year, they gave five such performances for 40,000 people. And that’s in New York alone. There are autism-friendly performances scheduled at theatres throughout the country.

I attended one such performance. The sound and lighting were softened, the houselights were not completely shut off, the volunteer staff handed out earplugs (some people on the spectrum are very sensitive to sound) and fidgets (little toys that have a calming effect), and there was a “quiet room” set up in the theatre outside the auditorium for any autistic theatregoers who got upset. But the biggest change was the welcoming attitude—not just by the audience, all of whom were there precisely because the performance was labeled autism-friend, or by the volunteer staff, which was trained to handle any issues, but by the performers. “It was slightly scary going into it,” actor Josh Lamon remembered. “We wanted to give them a great show, but we did not know what challenges we were going to face.” As it turns out, within the first moments, a child stormed down the aisle and threw something at the stage—ironically one of the fidgets. A performer onstage caught the fidget as if it were part of the show.

“I’m thinking of how we can have these resources available beyond specific (autism-friendly) performances, for any theatregoer,” said panelist Lisa Mitchell, the Director of Education and Audience Engagement at Disney Theatrical Productions, which has been at the forefront of audience accessibility issues since at least 2011.

For example, she said, fidgets and ear plugs could be made available at all performances.

A new resource
A website launched in 2016, Theatre Access New York City, offers accessibility information on all Broadway shows. The site’s navigation is broken down into categories to accommodate people who are variously “hard of hearing or deaf, have low vision or are blind, who cannot climb stairs or who require aisle seating or wheelchair locations, who are on the autism spectrum or have other developmental or cognitive disabilities.” There are nine categories from which to choose in “Select Accommodations.” The other day, I chose “Sign Language,” and the site told me there were two shows that were offering ASL-interpreted performances and the dates on which they were occurring (three performances this season for Children of a Lesser God, a play that features a deaf character, and two for John Lithgow: Stories by Heart.)

“All this is a first step,” said Wright. “It’s not just for Broadway but extends out to the larger ecosystem,” he added, although there are no publicly expressed deadlines outside of New York. “It's really up to each independent venue owner as to what timeline and services they pursue. There are, however, many conversations happening at the national level with several touring organizations and regional conferences.”

These efforts make practical sense. Wright pointed out that 600,000 audience members come into a Shubert Theater “with some level of hearing loss.”

It may be impolite to point out that it is also the law. In 2003, the US sued the Shubert Organization, owners of seventeen Broadway theatres, and in 2014, the Nederlander Organization, owners of nine Broadway theatres, for violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. Both settled and paid a fine, and seemed to have committed in earnest to making necessary changes. The Hearing Loss Association of America is giving its 2018 National Access Award to the Shubert Organization for their efforts at closed captioning. (The Shuberts are investors in GalaPro)

“We’re heading in the right direction,” says Tina Childress, an audiologist from Champagne, Illinois, who lost her hearing eighteen years ago. She has both cochlear implants and is fluent in American Sign Language. She serves on the Audience Services Advisory Board of the Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway industry, and was in the audience for the panel.

The panel was officially entitled, somewhat awkwardly, “We’re Here to Say It's For All of Us: Broadway Accessibility.” But as encouraging as it is for the panelists to have talked about “all of us” inclusiveness, audience members underscored just how complicated that aim is, and how far there is to go.

Childress, for one, pointed out that individual theatregoers with hearing loss have difference preferences. “Some want sign. Some want the assistive listening device. Some want open captions. Some want close captions. You can’t please everybody.”

Panelist JW Guido, the artistic director for New York Deaf Theatre, explained that captions are in two dimensions, and words can’t always convey the emotions of the performers. A sign language interpreter can provide that emotion, which is a good reason why Guido prefers attending ASL-interpreted performances. On the other hand, Childress points to a lyric in Wicked: “innuendo, and outuendo.” That kind of play of words, she says, is lost if interpreted into ASL, rather than presented as a caption.

So, why can’t there be both?

The usual answer is the expense. But the deeper answer is: attitudes. People who should know better often don’t, including theatre staff. Michelle Baer, who was in the audience at the BroadwayCon panel dressed as a character from CATS, explained that, since she uses a cane to get around, she always calls the box office to make sure she can get to the seat she selects. Yet when she shows up, often there are actually steps to get to the seats. When she has told the usher, the response has been: “You’re young; it’s only two steps.” Even when the seat has been fully accessible, an usher has scolded her for her cane: “You’re supposed to be in a wheelchair.”

One can hope that better training can curb such insensitivity, but what to do about public attitudes in general? In some ways, they are getting worse. Many audience members seem increasingly intolerant of any distraction in their theatregoing experience, an attitude likely brought on in part by the steep rise in ticket prices. Will the use of smart phones, even with a non-glare app, inspire some nasty exchanges? Will open captioning continue to be seen as some kind of niche practice that intrudes on the serenity of the “mainstream”? Will autistic audience members always be accommodated through a policy of separate but equal?

There were no direct answers to these questions at the BroadwayCon panel, but there might have been an indirect one after the panel, for those of us who took a bus home. City buses have been 100 percent accessible to New Yorkers with disabilities since 1995. Whenever the bus driver has stopped to help a New Yorker in a wheelchair get on or get off the bus, I have never seen a single passenger so much as roll their eyes in silent complaint. We’re all just trying to get somewhere.

Katie Sweeney, the panelist with the autistic son, likes to quote a Facebook post written by the actor Kelvin Moon Loh, currently in Spongebob Squarepants, who, when he was in the cast of The King and I, was upset at the audience’s audibly angry reaction to an autistic theatregoer’s yelping during the intense whipping scene. “When did we as theatre people, performers and audience, become so concerned with our own experience that we lose compassion for others?”

Now, several years later, Loh says he feels even more strongly, having attended an autism-friendly performance where “there was no judgment; there was just magic onstage and off." The issue of accessibility speaks to the reason he believes people are drawn to the theater in the first place. "There is healing in the arts, for everyone.”

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