My Disability Challenges a Major Theatre Aesthetic

I’m working as a House Manager for a production of A Bright Room Called Day. Halfway through the first act, a woman walks up to me and tells me that there is someone making an irritating noise, and I should tell them to stop. I assure her that I have noticed it too and I will inform the person responsible. What she doesn’t know is that I don’t have to find the man making the weird noise. I have Tourette’s syndrome and that person is me.

There is a myth in the American Theatre that the requirement to go to the theatre is to dress up in a nice suit, pay for your ticket, sit down, shut up, then applaud, and get out. Directors, producers, and artistic directors dream about that moment when the lights dim and a hush falls over the audience as the curtain rises. Stemming from this aesthetic, most house managers and ushers are told to be on watch for people using cell phones, the crinkling of candy wrappers, and people making noise in the seats. I house managed off and on for two years and not only did I enforce those rules, but I also trained other ushers to enforce them too. But doing that sends a message to people with invisible disabilities, who can’t keep quiet during performances, that they have no place in the theatre. And that’s a message I now strive to destroy every day.

This struggle isn’t new to me. When I’m in public and my tics are really bad, it’s not an “if” people are looking at me—it’s a “when.” I’ve gotten stares, angry eye rolling, nervous glances, and many times I’ve been asked to leave by management. I’ve been pulled aside in some important American regional theatres. I understand; you don’t know I have a disorder and I look like one of the people you were told to look out for. But what that means is that a disability that is beyond my control has put me in violation of one of the most sacred rules of theatre. But does it have to?

author photo
Behind this face is the heart of an artist and devoted patron but only if you're willing to see it. Photo Credit: Ricky Young-Howze.

The question I ask to you is: does the theatre have to be so quiet that you can hear a pin drop? Are actors always so distracted by a few moans, groans, and involuntary quips from the audience?

As part of my profession, I have to work backstage within earshot of the audience. I have to be a playwright sitting in the seats watching my play. I’m going to be a nervous wreck seeing this new creation take the stage and my Tourette’s doesn’t take a day off. What am I supposed to do? Not do my job? I’m brought into a moral dilemma also because when I’m working, I know the management. I can’t get kicked out of the House when I work there. But I always wonder what I’m going to do when I’m sitting and watching a world premiere and ushers start to come down the aisle and pull someone with vocal tics aside, or I hear two patrons next to me complaining about the man behind them muttering obscenities rhythmically under their breath. As a theatre artist with a disability, what am I going to do when a performance of a play that I wrote isn’t open to people who are just like me?

The question I ask to you is: does the theatre have to be so quiet that you can hear a pin drop? Are actors always so distracted by a few moans, groans, and involuntary quips from the audience? They aren’t distracted by the actual laughter at funny lines, or the boos, and gasps at particular dramatic scenes. Is the audience really thrown out of such a wonderful show by some excess noise? And if they are, there are some simple accommodations that can be made to minimize this.

We have special seating for patrons in wheelchairs and limited mobility. We have listening devices and interpreters for people with vision and hearing difficulties. Why hasn’t anyone put any research or focus groups into special seating for people who have difficulty being “silent”? Seats with extra room so that limbs can flail about without bumping people? Why don’t we have box seats with sound baffling so that tics can’t reach an able-bodied patron’s precious ears?

empty seats in a theater
These empty seats that can be made accessible to patrons with visible disabilities are some of the first things off limits to patrons with invisible disabilities that can't be quiet during the show. Photo by Ricky Young-Howze.

The accommodations start a little closer to home, actually. While all of those features above would be amazing, the first change has to come from the directors, producers, and house staff themselves. The change comes from the willingness of administrators to discern the noise of a rowdy patron from a patron who literally can’t be quiet. It comes from learning that you can’t place a higher value on an able-bodied patron just because of one criterion. It means that during your show you have to be OK with hearing some noise in the house and realize that the person compulsively making those noises might be one of your biggest fans.

Most importantly, you have to step up and defend people like me. You have to correct patrons when they complain about the noise from a patron with a tic disorder, or another invisible disability. You also have to make sure your staff knows there are consequences when they wrongly ask someone with a disability to leave. This not only is a balm to your present patrons, but future staff. I have heard from more than one theatre artist with TS, or a tic disorder, that they are afraid to see shows by companies that they don’t know. I am often afraid that my tics will be misconstrued as rudeness and lose me a potential job opportunity. I know there’s a high probability that you won’t rush to my defense, or back me up; yet, I am completely tired of defending myself at the risk of becoming an even bigger jerk than you think I am. Let someone like me in, someone who challenges your conventions today. I would love to help you build the new conventions of tomorrow.

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Thank you for this. I hadn't realized my own biases about people making noise in the theatre until I was involved in a regular open mic with a gentleman who had TS. He was an avid fan and sometime participant, but until I knew what was going on, I was upset by the noise he made. He often wrote poems about having TS, so quite often the whole room found out at once. After I'd experienced that, it was interesting to notice the reactions to him in other audiences before and after they knew. But I do wonder - is it incumbent on the person with the disability to identify themselves, or perhaps we as a group could do more to make theatre a space where everyone is welcome? Rather than specialized seating for people who need to be able to make noise or move, perhaps specialized seating for those who really need quiet? I know that practically speaking, theatres aren't currently built that way. (If you're lucky, you have a theater with a "crying room" with limited seating.) But philosophically speaking, it seems wrong to not try to include everyone as welcome in the theatrical experience.

I think a designated seating area is a good idea. I have the converse issue that I am easily distracted so I would have trouble focusing on the play if someone was making such sounds regularly. So I would need to sit away from that area, even if I knew the sounds were involuntary.

Ideally, the theatre would have a way to accommodate both of us. Having this conversation is a good way to start.

As a professional actor, this change begins with those of us on the stage. Once we become more accommodating, the tide of this challenge can begin to be broken.

Quite a significant challenge you're dealing with here, Ricky! Good on you for coming out with it, rising above the natural inclination to hide to point out your right to inclusion, and the richness to be gained by all when individual differences are accommodated. Theatre is at heart concerned with community - where some are made to feel unwelcome, theatre has failed to justify its existence. Once one knows the backstory to those intrusive sounds, and has learnt to accept and even embrace their existence, then instead of irritations they become tender tones pointing to the reformed humanity of dominant neurotypicals whose ignorance and unfair privilege no longer harms others. And then at curtain call, it is truly communal applause that fills the theatre...and the heart of each human being in it.Press on with your mission. Wishing you swift success!

I think the suggestion from jb is an excellent one and hope you investigate it as their is power and support in numbers. It would also be a way to promote education for theatres. I also agree with jb that laughter, gasps etc from an audience is not altogether unexpected as the play has been rehearsed to hopefully affect audiences in ways to elicit such sound, and is a group dynamic. You ask the question "Are actors always so distracted by a few moans, groans, and involuntary quips from the audience?" What constitutes a few? How often are such sounds heard? If someone is groaning and moaning it's understandable how other audience members or actors might wonder if someone is sick. I can't speak for all actors, but for myself I would probably have to say yes, for the very reason that it would be more than likely singular, outside the norm, and probably on-going. To expect or suggest that it should not be distracting to the actors or the audience seems I say this not to be judgmental or insensitive, but pragmatic. When attending a theatre performance, have you made certain to inform the House Manager that you have Tourette's so that they won't be unduly surprised when sound occurs, and to request the cast also be informed, so they will not be surprised or distracted. Of course you have every right to attend and support live theatre, and to not be judged verbally or with looks, and certainly to not be asked to leave. That type of behavior is ignorant, probably supported with an underlining of fear, and a form of prejudice. It also could be of value to tolerate the limitations of others as you continue the sometimes arduous journey of educating them. Thank you for posting.

I don't mind having to tell someone that I have a disability and need accommodations. Everyone with a disability does that. But what most likely will happen is that the house manager will shrug her shoulders and not know what to do about it. That's the biggest problem, that no one across the entirety of the theatre industry has had this discussion. We need theatres that are having the independent thought to come up with these accomodations for all disabilities and not just the usual ones.

I have 4 adult cousins with Tourette's, and I've worked in theatre for 40+ years. What you write about is entirely different from trying to listen to and get swept up in a play while listening to an audience conversing, crinkling paper and otherwise behaving in myriads of inconsiderate ways. May I suggest that you start some discussions (if you haven't already) with Tourette's support groups to see if they can come up with suggestions and then add theatre managements and artists. One comment, though, about audiences laughing at funny lines or gasping at dramatic scenes: as a rule, these things happen as group responses after which they again quiet down.

I'm glad that you have cousins who share in the struggle. However I don't think we can keep hiding behind the idea that noise disturbs the actors. Anyone who has been in children's theater will tell you that you have to do the show no matter what noise is coming from a group of rowdy kids. On the case of people acting in inconsiderate ways some better training and accommodations will hopefully help staff tell the difference from a really inconsiderate person and someone like me. The onus can't always be on us any more. We need the theaters to make the independent decision to make the accomodations for all disabilities too.