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?
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?
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.