by Admin

Illustration by Matt Hanns Schroeter.

“It’s not just about being invited to the party,” says Ava Xiao-Lin Rigelhaupt, Autistic Creative Consultant for the musical How to Dance in Ohio. “It’s about being asked to dance.” Based on the 2015 documentary following disabled young people in preparation for a spring formal, the show (which ran from last December through early February on Broadway) marked a milestone for the theatre community, as it centered disabled folks not only onstage but throughout the process. This moment, as celebratory as it was, reminded me just how rare it has been for disabled audiences to really be “asked to dance.”

As the industry struggles with audience retention rates, many non-disabled American theatre leaders have failed to realize the extent to which inaccessibility impacts their public, approximately 27 percent of whom live with disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The country’s first civil rights law for disabled citizens, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, was only passed in 1973, guaranteeing human rights to disabled people and tying federal funds to non-discrimination. And while the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 laid out clearer and more comprehensive guidelines for equitable opportunity and societal participation, there weren’t exactly shining precedents for theatres to follow.

“I came into the field when there wasn’t one, really, because we didn’t know what we were doing. We were making stuff up,” recalled Betty Siegel, the Kennedy Center’s director at the Office of Accessibility and VSA (formerly Very Special Arts). Today Siegel and the Kennedy Center host the annual national Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conference, a much-needed gathering place for access workers and disabled trailblazers. These include folks from the Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where I experienced my first accessible performance with my brother Miguel, who has rarely been welcomed into public spaces.

Since their first sensory-friendly initiative in 2018, Broward Center community engagement manager Gustavo Padrino and vice president of external affairs Jan Goodheart have invigorated South Florida’s access programs, forging extensive partnerships with disability community organizations and subsidizing tickets prices for all sensory-friendly shows, so that $60-$80 tickets turn into $10-$20 tickets. Their face-to-face relationships are what set them apart: They’ve trained a core front-of-house team so patrons will always encounter friendly, familiar faces.

This work is just one example of non-disability-specific institutions partnering with disabled creatives and activists to innovate best practices. The Kennedy Center and Broward Center rely on the expertise of thinkers like Rigelhaupt, who have devoted tireless years of practice, informed by the disability justice movement.

In addition to working on Broadway, Rigelhaupt writes for the PBS Kids show Carl the Collector and consults extensively. Dancer and performance artist Alison Kopit practices what she calls “access dramaturgy” on shows like Dark Disabled Stories, which was featured in the fall issue of this magazine. As an access consultant, Charlotte “Chuck” Gruman offers endless tools for companies across the Chicagoland area, including personally made tactile displays. And Riley Graygrove, a drama therapist, works with an acting troupe of disabled adults at Interact Center in Minnesota.

Just a few stars in a much-needed constellation of folks devoted to making arts more radically accessible, Rigelhaupt, Kopit, Gruman, and Graygrove joined for a hybrid conversation, the modality suggested by writer/activist Lydia X. Z. Brown. Partly held over Zoom and partly via written correspondence, the process itself offered us at American Theatre a glimpse of shifting expectations and paradigms to meet access needs.

The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

GABRIELA FURTADO COUTINHO: Can you all talk about how you came to the work of empowering disabled experience in theatre?

Alison Kopit.

ALISON KOPIT: I was working on a book project with Simi Linton, and she introduced me to Jordan Fein, who was directing Ryan Haddad’s Dark Disabled Stories, presented by the Public Theater and produced by Bushwick Starr. They were looking for someone to consult on access in a creative way, and it turned out that we had similar aesthetics related to access—something that would be open for all audiences, creative, and transparent. Around that time, my disabled dancer collaborator Maggie Bridger was working on creative access for her own piece in Chicago. We had been talking about how this work of integrating access on every level and making access central to meaning-making feels like dramaturgical work. I proposed the title “access dramaturg.”

CHUCK GRUMAN: I grew up in Southeast Asia and came to the United States when I was about 14 to go to a specialized boarding school for arts, Interlochen Arts Academy, which was a wonderful experience, but I found that access needs in the United States versus in Singapore were taken very differently, especially in academic settings. I never had any issues as a child requesting access. I went from having many resources to suddenly not having any. So I started working really hard to create sensory-friendly performances with theatres as a sensory-friendly designer. I also have been turning my focus to creating tactile displays, set models, and audio-described performances.

RILEY GRAYGROVE: I came into this twofold. I’m disabled and found that theatre clicked really well with my brain. I was navigating my new diagnoses at the age of 16 and figuring out how my body worked after an injury, and I had three very good friends growing up who were all terminally ill. As their diseases progressed and they were no longer able to walk, feed themselves, or speak, I noticed that opportunities for them were getting smaller and smaller. I knew at 17 that I wanted to fi nd a way to bring in more disabled people. So I pursued drama therapy; I studied under Sally Bailey. Her approach, “Barrier-Free Theatre,” is all about centering developmentally disabled folks, their voices, and the stories they want to tell.

ava xiao lin rigelhaupt
Ava Xiao-Lin Rigelhaupt.

AVA XIAO-LIN RIGELHAUPT: I was diagnosed on the autism spectrum at 18 years old. This new diagnosis helped answer a lot of questions my mom and I had, and it led me to better understand myself and find supports. Nevertheless, this period was challenging. It added to my already complex intersectional identity: Chinese, trans racial adoptee with a Jewish single mom. The diagnosis forced me to question everything I thought I knew about myself, and wrestle with this new neuro-diverse identity. I’ve always  been a theatre kid, loving acting, writing, just telling stories! Artists often are more accepting of quirky people and want to hear how to do things differently. As a Chinese woman, I was already interested in the push for diverse stories. My very first foray into accessible theatre was sensory-friendly.

CHUCK: I’d love to ask Alison a question. In your access dramaturgy, something you’re innovating, I know that it must feel empowering, but what makes you excited to continue? Is it the energy of what happens when the stage comes together finally, or is it all process for you? Because I know for me, the process is just as exciting as the final product.

ALISON: I’m really a glutton for process. I am interested in devising and having access be a part of the foundation of whatever we’re building. I’m like, Get me in the room as soon as you can. Access is more effective and integrated that way. I’m working on a project right now that doesn’t have a script yet. I’m really interested in how productions change when we integrate access into the full process.

We can’t expect truly radical access if it isn’t instilled as a value early on for collaborators. Which parts of the artistic process do you concentrate on, and how exactly does access come into play within each aspect of that day-to-day work?

CHUCK: Most of the artistic process that I concentrate on is working to make adjustments with production before the show. Before the day of the sensory-friendly or audio-described performance, I watch the show three or four times. I work with production, lighting designers, sound designers, and stage managers to adjust cues so they’re not as aggressive or startling. I make adjustments to what’s already happening to make it easier for people to be in that space, and train actors, staff, and volunteers on how to interact with people with different disabilities. I make social narratives, resource guides, and models on how to get around the space, so if somebody wants to have a completely independent experience without having to ask questions, they have that as an option.

AVA: My consulting work focuses on so many aspects depending on the project and medium. Sensory-friendly is often prioritized for kids’ shows and musicals, but disabled and/or autistic children grow up to be adults, and they may want to go see an adult show! My work as the Autistic Creative Consultant on How to Dance in Ohio focused on welcoming everyone. I was introduced in 2021 to the producers by Becky Leifman, the co-founder of CO/LAB Theater Group in New York, a nonprofit that offers individuals with developmental disabilities a creative and social outlet through theatre arts. One of the big things we all wrestled with was balancing the source material. The documentary was made in 2015, and disability language and thoughts about autism have changed since then. Example: Our team chose identity-first language (autistic person) vs. person-first language (person with autism) because that’s what the majority of the autistic community supports. Once the show was cast (which I helped with), I started working closely with the producers and other production staff on accessible rehearsal spaces.

how to dance in ohio
The cast of “How to Dance in Ohio.” (Photo by Curtis Brown)

Becky and I created an access needs survey which asked questions such as, “What do you need to do your best work?” Our access team advocates for accessibility for the audience and our internal team members. We created various guides to the show, like a social story about the Belasco Theatre made with our partners, KultureCity, and a sensory advisory list regarding onstage elements. Our show was carefully developed by the production and creative team to consider the sensory experience. There were no loud, sudden sounds or strobes. We had two cool-down spaces. Available for check-out were KultureCity sensory bags with headphones, sunglasses, fidgets, etc. However, we understand no show can meet 100 percent of its audience’s sensory needs at any one time. We also had a traditional sensory-friendly altered show with our TDF partners; it sold out immediately and was a success.

RILEY: It’s interesting seeing stark differences. I have worked for theatre programs in the past for children and adults with disabilities where they were the token group, like, “Isn’t what they do cute?” The entire time I was working with these folks, I thought, “You’re not cute—you’re badass. The choices you’re making are really informed, great choices as actors.” But the external reaction to our group was very much patronizing. At the organization I work for now in Minnesota, Interact Center, the focus has been: They’re full adults. They are paid professional actors. We hold them to a standard of professionalism, and we also look at the internalized ableism behind these professionalism rules. In access, we question: Are there things we can look at and tackle internally as a culture? It’s interesting to see the difference between a place that started as one thing and then decided to add “disability theatre,” as opposed to one that started from the very beginning focused on disabled folks.

What would you wish for disabled audiences who come to the theatre?

AVA: I was asked a similar question a while ago, and my first answer was: simply creating a welcoming environment of accessibility and understanding. Why How to Dance in Ohio got autistic audiences many nights, not just certain nights, is probably because of our show’s topic, but also because we got the word out: You’re welcome here; this show and our audience accessibility offerings were made with you in mind. This culture shift takes work, but the first step is just to start a dialogue with the disability community, to ask: What can we—as a theatre, person, artist—do to be more accessible, because we want you in our audiences? As Riley said, it’s a mindset, a culture.

One offering that is easy is having a sensory advisory list. This doesn’t take any changes to your show, but it allows audience members to know what elements will be happening when. Some give spoiler warnings, while others keep things more general. These lists need to be made by and with neurodivergent people!

CHUCK: I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re asking too much by showing up, because I’ve been that person. All I want to do is make sure people feel they’re welcome without feeling like they’re an encumbrance or an activity or a checklist to be checked.

riley graygrove
Riley Graygrove.

RILEY: I point to Phamaly Theatre Company in Colorado, founded, run by, and featuring disabled folks. I had the privilege of seeing a performance there years ago. To me, they are a gold standard for accessible performance. Two hours beforehand, they opened the doors for folks who were blind or low-vision to feel the set, touch costumes, hold props, and walk (assisted) through what the performance would be like. There were ASL interpreters and captions. They didn’t shut the house lights completely, only dimmed. The sound was balanced in such a way that, depending on where you were sitting in the audience, they adjusted the volume. They had interactive pads related to what was going on onstage and audio-describing headphones…It was all there, out in the open, in a take-what-you-need setup, anticipating needs. I like to tell folks that accessibility is not a checklist. It is a mindset. A culture. To think from the very beginning, How do I make sure that my community, made up of so many different people, feels and is welcome? I wish folks would just talk to more disabled people.

ALISON: I don’t want people to feel like they’re coming into an elite space where their body, mind, or energy has to be different to participate in full. I want disabled audience members to be everywhere that there is an audience. I want non-disabled audiences to shift their expectations around timing, theatre norms, and comportment to meet disabled audiences instead of the other way around.I’m not really interested in adaptation, or just doing a sensory-friendly performance here and there. We, as disabled people, are a part of the world, and it’s important for non-disabled people to experience disability cultural norms and access. I’m interested in making open access for the full audience at every performance something we model.

chuck gruman
Chuck Gruman.

CHUCK: People ask, “Besides the people you’re catering to, does it make a difference?” Yes, it does! My favorite example is a sensory-friendly performance I did where a group of families came with cognitively disabled kids, and four of the parents were veterans. They didn’t know that a sensory-friendly performance—one they originally thought was just for children—could be super beneficial to veterans with post-traumatic stress or people who feel anxious in a dark, crowded space with sudden sounds. People will often tell me, “I don’t need a fidget.” But everybody needs something, even if it’s not physical. Maybe it’s the safety of knowing that there’s a quiet room or knowing that you won’t get in trouble if you get up out of your chair or move your body. By encouraging that, we’re taking away a barrier. There are so many social barriers, formalities, and unwritten rules for theatre.

RILEY: Maybe it’s controversial to say, but sensory-friendly performances have always rubbed me the wrong way; they can feel othering. It makes me want to go to directors and ask, “Are you not creative enough? You’re insisting that to show it’s storming outside, you need to incorporate all these flashing lights?” There are other ways to show a thunderstorm that are accessible within what you’re creating. Let people come as they are, and you meet them there. The whole point of theatre is to be a conversation between stage and audience. To bear witness and share story and create community; you can’t do that if you’re not considering over 25 percent of your community.

ALISON: I do a lot of work supporting people in re-learning about disability. We’ve been taught this liberal lie that disabled people are the same and that access won’t cost you anything in terms of time, money, and aesthetic. People say, “You won’t even notice the captions. If we let people be themselves in the audience, they’ll just be more comfortable, and it won’t affect you. Don’t worry—it won’t change the artistry.” But access does change things, and that’s part of the point. Making work accessible takes more time, care, and often money, and collaborating across languages and impairments is really complex. The access friction—conflicts between people and their access needs—can be intense. I want people to think of access as something substantial for scheduling, budgeting, and intention setting. Access will change the institution, and it’s still worth it. I don’t want to have to justify access work by telling people, “It’s the same.” I like access loud. I’d like to see disability culture really infiltrating institutional spaces. I’d like to see those spaces acknowledging that we disabled people don’t have to be the same to be valued.

dark disabled stories public theater2
Alejandra Ospina, audio describer and performer in “Dark Disabled Stories” at the Public Theater. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

When working at non-disability theatres versus affinity-based ones, you’ve each had to be your own island of resilience in spaces that favor neurotypical, able-bodied people. Are there hopeful stories you fall back on when facing discouragement?

RILEY: I sometimes remind myself: You got into this because when you were 10 years old, you saw a little girl perform onstage, and she looked like you. The work you do is giving another disabled 8-year-old a chance to connect and remind you she belongs up there. It comes back to the people I work with and seeing their success, joy, and pride—that’s what makes it worth it. Anyone who dismisses them and doesn’t listen is missing out on some pretty incredible stories and powerful moments of connection.

CHUCK: I continue to realize hope by remembering times after a performance. I’ve never had an access service where somebody didn’t come up, thank me, and then tell me who they wish had been there: “I wish my niece had been here; she can’t sit still for long and would be disruptive in a traditional setting so she’s never been to a performance,” or, “I wish my brother was here. He is blind and gave up on theatre because audio description devices never work,” or, “I wish that my dad was here. He stopped going to theatre because he had a hard time hearing and refuses to get hearing aids.”

ALISON: I’m used to being “the person who’s doing access work.” There are cool things about that—but it can be lonely. And it feels counterintuitive to me, because I know that access is most effective and sustainable when everyone’s on board. The access of Dark Disabled Stories was successful because everyone threw down for access—people who were new to access practice and also people who were very seasoned. I felt like I was witnessing this stuff click for so many people who worked on the show, many of whom now use access in their own work. And they also notice the absence when they go to a show and it’s not there. I think good access work is also a representational project of getting people to this transformative place of noticing absence.

What closing visions or advice could you offer readers getting into this work?

AVA: Don’t be afraid to make the first step. Be willing to learn from disabled people, make the mistakes, and do better next time. The industry is growing and evolving—do it with us!

CHUCK: It’s not too late to find this. It’s not too late to ask for help. So I’m encouraged by all of you. When I’m facing discouragement, I’m going to think about all of you.

Gabriela Furtado Coutinho (she/her) is the Chicago associate editor of American Theatre.

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