Nothing About Us Without Us

Innovation, Creativity, and Inclusion in Professional Theatre

August 2018 felt as good a time as any to launch a theatre company. At the time, National Disability Theatre (NDT) was little more than a thought experiment—what if NDT told stories through a lens of disability culture on a large scale? What if NDT partnered with regional theatre companies to produce inclusive work for an existing audience base? What if NDT connected, supported, and lifted up the inclusive work happening on the local and regional level? Alongside these philosophical questions was a practical sense of timeliness and urgency. In the United States, one out of five people has a disability. This is a huge percentage of the population, many of whom may not feel comfortable or welcomed participating in or attending the arts in traditional settings. While sensory-friendly performances are becoming common practice and many regional theatres are including actors with disabilities like never before in their productions (YAY!), disabled actors are still almost exclusively only considered for a role when the script calls for their specific disability. On top of that, 95 percent of characters that have a disability are played by non-disabled actors.

Overall, the disability community remains a huge undertapped artist-base, audience-base, and donor-base. Each day, more and more organizations express a desire to change, yet within the majority of professional theatres staff members don’t always have the practical tools or the lived experience to address the attitudinal, environmental, and structural barriers that can exclude the disability community. There are, of course, several notable exceptions that have been collectively blazing trails in inclusive theatre for decades and casting ensembles of disabled actors on a regular basis, like Sound Theatre Company (Seattle, WA), Phamaly Theatre (Denver, CO), Open Circle Theatre (Washington, DC), and Theater Breaking Through Barriers (New York City, NY), to name a few.

As NDT strives to follow in the footsteps of these groundbreaking companies and make worldclass theatre that harnesses the creativity of disability culture, we want to do so in collaboration with others: disabled theatre artists and organizations, non-disabled allies, and mainstream regional theatre companies. We want people’s unfamiliarity with disability and the fear of inclusion to be replaced by bravery—a commitment to trying new things, being creative, and adopting a trial-and-error mentality. Before starting NDT, in our work as disability advocates and consultants, we found that when disabled workers were included on a project, it could be a huge professional, financial, and artistic asset to an organization.

It is our hope that this series directly addresses two main attitudinal barriers to inclusion: 1) fear of the unknown, and 2) nuts-and-bolts logistics. This collection of articles makes their way through a variety of job descriptions within professional theatre: managers, designers, dramaturgs, and producers. Each article dives into what may be unknown in primarily non-disabled spaces, asking two main questions: What can inclusion look like? And what specifically is needed to make a space accessible and inclusive for a disabled theatre professional?

We want people’s unfamiliarity with disability and the fear of inclusion to be replaced by bravery—a commitment to trying new things, being creative, and adopting a trial-and-error mentality.

The answer, of course, is different for each individual professional. In “Disability and Management,” Nicole Kelly and Jenn Poret discuss how seemingly small accommodations can contribute to long-term productivity, creativity, and a positive work environment. In “The Importance of Including the Disabled Designers,” Michael Maag and Mallory K. Nelson offer numerous examples of disabled design as they share how they tackle their to-do lists, including how they interact with disabled performers. Maag and Nelson also lay out how disabled designers can contribute to a new aesthetic. “Disability, Identity, and Representation: Notes from a Dramaturg” by Andrea Kovich echos Maag and Nelson’s call for a new, disabled aesthetic and also dives into practical storytelling techniques, offering strategies, like the Fries test, for how to tell authentic stories about disability and not fall into non-disabled habits to sensationalize or objectify. In “Producing with a Disabled Lens,” Claudia Alick addresses some of the potential communication barriers between non-disabled and disabled collaborators and offers tools, like the idea of crip time, to make theatre inclusive.

These articles offer several takeways:

  1. Disabled artists can teach all of us—disabled and non-disabled alike—about the assumptions and biases in our own process (in other words, the process of how we make art can be as creative and innovative as sharing it with an audience)
  2. Including someone with lived experience of disability in your process often improves your artistic and aesthetic choices, whether your play is about disability or not
  3. Planning ahead and offering employees agency, options, and flexible time is a best practice in accessible and inclusive employment
  4. While the idea of being inclusive can be overwhelming, the actual process of inclusion is made possible one person, one accommodation at a time

While the idea of being inclusive can be overwhelming, the actual process of inclusion is made possible one person, one accommodation at a time.

three people onstage

Mickey and Talleri at the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conference in Atlanta, GA in August 2018. Photo by JW Barker Photography.

It feels important to note that one barrier to inclusion can be language. Often, non-disabled friends, colleagues, and peers are hesitant to start a conversation about accessibility for fear of offending someone with the words they use. Throughout this series, our authors have made very personal and intentional choices regarding how they use language. For example, the words disability, disabled, access, and inclusion are not always interchangeable or compatible with each other. You may find as you read that the use of a specific word or phrase causes you to “stumble” in an otherwise readable sentence. If (nay, when) this happens, embrace it! And, in terms of your own lives, don’t be afraid to address language directly with the disabled artists with whom you work. Listening to how people refer to themselves and asking their preference for how you should refer to them is a best practice in many communities.

After all, theatre, and arts and culture in general, is a place where best practices can thrive. We as theatre artists can model what an inclusive and accessible future looks like; a better future. And, more importantly, who is represented in the arts communicates value—often literally who gets to have their voice on stage mirrors who gets to be heard on the world’s stage. Many professionals in American theatre today are hungry for a future of innovation, and the work of dynamic, inclusive theatres can offer just that, because people with disabilities combine limitations with art, technology, and creativity every single day of our lives. The future is here, and it is accessible.

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Thoughts from the curators

Accessible and inclusive theatre is not new. Nevertheless, more often than not, theatre companies today that are striving to include the disability community do so by welcoming disabled actors to their stages and disabled audiences to their performances. Yet there are dozens of jobs, on stage and off, beyond performers and patrons. In this series, a variety of disabled theatre artists: managers, designers, producers, and dramaturgs, will share how they do their work, as well as their vision for an accessible future in professional theatre. This series is curated by National Disability Theatre, which believes disabled artists and artisans are an asset to any theatrical process or production.

The Future of Theatre is Accessible

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I have loved reading this and would like to read all the connected articles. I have not found it easy to work with people with disabilities. I often feel I would offend them with my language or would ask them to do things which they may not be able to do (Though I am not sure whether they wont be able to do or they could do what I ask them) its just the feeling that if I ask them to do something they are not able to do, what would be the feeling. And in My country Malawi, I feel we need what you are sharing in your article about inclusion. People with disabilities are left out. I only know so far one group of people with disability that do drama in malawi. but they are not active as of now. There are many theatre groups however people with disabilities are not included. I am keen to know more of how you work with people with disabilities so that we break this ground in Malawi too.