I Was Most Alive For You — Accessible For The Deaf…And Complicated

As the family gathers for a Thanksgiving right before everything starts to fall apart, Knox (Russell Harvard) gives thanks for “three things I used to think weren’t gifts at all: Deafness… Being gay…. Addiction. They are gifts… Each brought me to great clarity.”
Clarity is the great aim of Playwrights Horizons’ production of “I Was Most Alive With You,” Craig Lucas’s play about a family that suddenly must cope with a series of calamities. But it’s an unusual kind of clarity for the theater – clarity for deaf people.
As I point out in my article for TDF Stages, 14 actors are performing the play divided into two casts playing the same seven roles: Russell Harvard, Lois Smith and five other actors portray the characters on stage, while simultaneously seven other actors use ASL to portray the same characters from a balcony above. “We’re not just interpreting, we’re part of the story,” signs Anthony Natale, one of the seven “shadow cast” members in the balcony.
If that’s not complicated enough, two of the five characters are deaf. One of them is portrayed by Harvard, who is himself deaf. best known for his performances in Tribes and in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening on Broadway.
He delivers that Thanksgiving speech in ASL (with supertitles projected onto a screen on the stage.)  But sometimes Knox speaks in English; then Harold Foxx, who is the “Shadow Knox,” performs the same dialogue in ASL on the balcony.
“It’s been enormously challenging and complicated,” says director Tyne Rafaeli. “It is also very deep and important. The play is about how we tell the story of our lives — what language we use, how we struggle to communicate. Having people on different levels in different languages is a lot for the human brain to take in. The audience has to work hard — and I don’t think that is a bad thing.”
More on TDF Stages



Children of a Lesser God Review: Deaf Rights and Romance, Four Decades Later

The first Broadway revival of “Children of a Lesser God,” the award-winning, boundary-breaking 1980 play by Mark Medoff about the romance and eventual marriage between a hearing teacher at a school for the deaf and a deaf graduate, is the only show on Broadway whose creative team includes a “director of artistic sign language.” It is the only show on Broadway to project supertitles of the entire script at EVERY performance, and to schedule sign language interpreters regularly. And, above all, it is of course the only show that marks the stunning Broadway debut of Lauren Ridloff, who portrays Sarah Norman, whose language (like the actress’s) is American Sign Language.
These are reasons enough to welcome this production, and to consider it pioneering, even as the play it’s remounting feels dated.
Read more of this post

Amy and the Orphans Review: The truth about Down Syndrome, packaged in a familiar comedy

Amy, a movie lover with Down syndrome, is able to quote the most well-worn lines from the most familiar movies – “I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody” – and own them as her own, turning them fresh.

“Amy and The Orphans,” Lindsey Ferrentino’s play about Amy, itself quotes some of the well-worn formulas of several comedy genres, but it doesn’t make them fresh.

Read more of this post

Mary Jane Review: Life As Single Mom Caring For A Disabled Child

As Amy Herzog’s gentle new play begins, Mary Jane is deep into idle chatter with the building’s superintendent Ruthie, who’s in the apartment to fix a clogged drain, when we hear a beep. It is, we eventually learn, the monitor for Alex, Mary Jane’s two-year-old son, who was born prematurely and wasn’t expected to live more than a few days. He now survives attached to elaborate medical equipment, unable to move or speak.

Responding to the beep, Mary Jane (Carrie Coon) goes off stage into the bedroom, we hear some sounds (Mary Jane fixing whatever’s wrong), the beeping stops, and she comes back into the living room to resume her conversation with her superintendent.

This is more or less Mary Jane’s everyday life, and it is more or less the approach throughout “Mary Jane” Read more of this post

Cost of Living Review: A tart take on people who need people


In “Cost of Living,” an eye-opening play featuring a quartet of extraordinary performances, playwright Martyna Majok offers a tart retort to that sappy Barbra Streisand song about the luck of people who need people, and smashes more than one stereotype along the way. In an early scene, Jess (Jolly Abraham) has applied for a job as a caretaker for John (Gregg Mozgala ), a young man with cerebral palsy:

“I never worked with the…differently abled,” Jess says politely.

“Don’t call it that.” John replies. “It’s f…ing retarded.”

“So what do I… how do I…refer to you?” Jess stammers.

“Are you planning on talking about me?”


“Why not? I’m very interesting. “

John is interesting, actually – a handsome, wealthy graduate student in political science at Princeton University — but clearly a bit of a jerk. Jess is in desperate need of a job, the daughter of an impoverished immigrant. But she is also a recent graduate of Princeton herself.

“Cost of Living” engages us in the story between John and Jess, and a parallel one between Eddie and his estranged wife Ani, who recently became a quadriplegic as a result of a car accident. Ani (Katy Sullivan) doesn’t want Eddie (Victor Williams) to help, angry and resentful that (before the accident) he left her for another woman. He makes it his mission to convince her to let him care for her. Much of their banter is surprisingly hilarious, but always rooted in their characters. (It’s a further subtle strike against stereotyping that Williams is an African-American, and Sullivan white, yet absolutely nothing is made of their relationship being interracial.)

With these stories, Majok explores the startling similarities between emotional and physical dependence, and examines the needs of the caretaker as well as the cared for – making us see that the lines between the two are often blurred, the roles reversed.

But what’s most wonderful about the MTC production, superbly directed by Jo Bonney, are a series of unforgettable scenes between the couples that thrust us into an intimacy that is rare in the theater. Eddie (Victor Williams) is giving Ani a bath when he decides to serenade her with a piano concerto. There is no piano in the bathroom, and Eddie never learned to play anyway, much as he wanted to. But he takes her paralyzed arm from the water, drapes it on the bathtub’s edge and plays her like a piano, synchronized with the radio broadcast.

A parallel scene between Jess and John, more prosaic but more practically instructive, shows what it takes for Jess to give a shower to John.

These and other evocative scenes would not work as well as they do without the exceptional performances – Katy Sullivan as a foul-mouthed and sarcastic girl from Jersey, who somehow lets us know that in her own way she is touched; Victor Williams as a regular guy from Bayonne, a former trucker, who has messed up more than once, but wins us over because he seems genuinely to care.

It’s an added gift that the two disabled characters are portrayed by actors who are themselves disabled – Katy Sullivan a Paralympic track and field champion, and Gregg Mozgala, a well-known disability rights advocate and the founding artistic director of The Apothetae, a company whose goal is to create plays that make the disabled visible.

A final scene in “Cost of Living” attempts to merge the two parallel stories, or at least find a connection between the characters in the two plots; Majok is apparently not content with the strong thematic connections. The scene doesn’t quite work, in part because it’s not clear at first when it’s occurring in the timeline of their lives. (A few lines seem deliberately designed to throw us off course.) Other scenes in the play are told out of chronological order and add at least momentary confusion.

I prefer to think of “Cost of Living” as a work in progress. Majok wrote a one-act play about John and Jess that was presented in 2015 at Ensemble Studio Theater, before she expanded it to this full-length play. She was smart enough to realize it was worth doing more with the characters and the premise; perhaps that’s still true.

“Cost of Living” is a “work in progress” in another way. As Majok did for new immigrants in her terrific “Ironbound,” by creating a complicated, not always likeable but always believable female character, so in “Cost of Living” she progresses our empathy and understanding for people who don’t normally get to break out of their demographic group label to become such vivid and compelling individuals.


Cost of Living

MTC at City Center

Written by Martyna Majok; Directed by Jo Bonney

Set design by Wilson Chin, costume design by Jessica Pabst, lighting design by Jeff Croiter,sound designer and composer Rob Kaplowitz

Cast: Jolly Abraham, Gregg Mozgala, Katy Sullivan and Victor Williams

Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission.

Tickets: $79

Cost of Living is scheduled to run through July 16, 2017

Why Tonya Pinkins Is Leaving CSC’s Mother Courage


Tonya Pinkins announced she would be leaving the Classic Stage Company’s production of Brecht’s “Mother Courage and Her Children,” directed by CSC artistic director Brian Kulick, on January 5, two days before its planned opening. That opening has now been delayed. “The company will continue the production with replacement casting to be announced shortly,” according to a press statement.

Below is a statement from her about her reasons for doing so. Beneath that is a statement from Brian Kulick in response.

Tonya Pinkins statement:

Who Loses, Who Thrives When White Creatives Tell Black Stories?

The year 2015, saw the rise of #BlackLivesMatter and #BlackGirlsMatter, both movements helmed by powerful, fearless Black women. In 2016 I’m starting #BlackPerspectivesMatter.

Twice this year (but too many times in my career) my perspective as a Black woman was dismissed in favor of portraying the Black woman, through the filter of the White gaze. Regrettably, I must exit Classic Stage Company‘s Mother Courage.

When Black bodies are on the stage, Black perspectives must be reflected. This is not simply a matter of “artistic interpretation”; race and sex play a pivotal role in determining who holds the power to shape representation. A Black female should have a say in the presentation of a Black female on stage.

Tonya Pinkins as Caroline Thibodeaux and Veanne Cox as Rose Stopnick Gellman in a scene from CAROLINE, OR CHANGE.  Photo: Michal Daniel.

Tonya Pinkins as Caroline Thibodeaux and Veanne Cox as Rose Stopnick Gellman in a scene from CAROLINE, OR CHANGE. Photo: Michal Daniel.

CSC’s truncated version (an hour has been cut) eliminates Mother Courage and her children’s backstory, the use of her cart, and much of Brecht’s brilliant commentary on war. Mother Courage is the King Lear in the classical cannon of female roles. Not since Caroline, or Change, ten years ago, have I had a role of this caliber. How do I walk away from what could be one of the greatest roles in my career? I couldn’t, until all my research, arguing and pleading for my character’s full realization fell on deaf ears. And then I had to.

Brecht’s drama follows Mother Courage, a women who supports herself and her children by selling goods to warring armies from a cart she drags through the battle zones. Along the way, all three of her children are killed because of the war. Mother Courage is the epitome of every poor, undocumented, battered, trafficked and immigrant women hustling to provide for her family however she must.

It’s been a decade since my talent has matched the material – I thought. However, it was not relayed to me until the final tech rehearsal that the vision for this Mother Courage (the Black Mother Courage in an African war) was of a delusional woman trying to do the impossible. She would not be an icon of feminine tenacity and strength, nor of a Black female’s fearless capabilities.
Why must the Black Mother Courage be delusional?

The #CSCMotherCourage poster finds my face plastered on an image of the African Continent, the Democratic Republic of the Congo highlighted. The inspiration: Lynn Nottage’s impulse to create a Black Mother Courage, which culminated in her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, Ruined.

What an opportunity to connect Brecht’s anti-World War II play to the war in modern day Congo, Africa’s first World War. My art meeting my activism. The chance to highlight the Chaplain’s line, “If you want to sup with the devil you need a long spoon,” as analogous to America’s participation in the war in the Congo through our appetites for electronic devices which require Coltan, which is raped and pillaged along with the bodies of Black women and children.

This production does not include a single vestige of the specific war in the Congo. For me, the cultural misappropriation is unconscionable. Why must Africa, why must blackness itself, be general, a decorative motif, instead of being as specific and infinitely diverse as its reality?

Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest in Rasheeda Speaking

Tonya Pinkins and Dianne Wiest in Rasheeda Speaking

This spring, in Rasheeda Speaking, I was the only Black American woman in the room. Does this matter when portraying a Black perspective? Absolutely! The play purported to be about a Black woman’s struggles working in a White medical office. But for the joy of performing nightly with Dianne Wiest, Patricia Connolly and Darren Goldstein, and the talk-backs I orchestrated with Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw, Professor James Peterson and many others, it was a soul-murdering experience. It is debilitating, explaining to non-Black people, day in and out, that their conceptions of Black people are not only inaccurate but dehumanizing and offensive.

I won an award for playing Jaclyn in Rasheeda Speaking. Months later, people still call out “Rasheeda” when complimenting me on my performance. What they innocently forget, but I am reminded of with each acknowledgement, is that “Rasheeda” was elucidated, in Jaclyn’s climactic monologue in the play, as the new word for “Nigger.” So who is speaking?

Despite Brecht’s title, Mother Courage was not the star of this production. My subordinate position was most clearly communicated to me when I attempted to perform a task Brecht specifically wrote for Mother Courage: snatching a fur coat off an armed soldier’s back. The actor playing the soldier argued, “I’m a man. This is a war. She gotta RESPECT that; I’d have to kill her!” I fired back, “Brecht wrote it. Mother Courage CAN snatch the fur coat and not get killed. Brecht is illustrating her as an ‘Hyena of the war.'” I told the actor I was going to snatch the fur coat, and if he “had to kill me,” the play would have to end seven scenes earlier than Brecht had intended.

I snatched the fur coat at the performance. The actor found a way to continue the play. However, the director said that in future, I couldn’t do it, because, “the actor said he would kill you.” WHAT?!

Mother Courage coddled and reprimanded into submission to patriarchy?

Brecht did not write a delusional woman. He wrote a woman who seizes power at every turn, who forces her way through Hell, and who continues in spite of every opposing force. My Mother Courage was left speechless, powerless, history-less and even cart-less. Why must images of Black women be held hostage in cages of White and/or patriarchal consciousness?

I and many other artists of color have benefitted from having honorary White status bestowed upon us for our work. This status allows us to work alongside the best in the business and to be treated as equals. It is a daily struggle to partake of this status while straining to maintain integrity and authenticity to our own culture. Yet this status is often stripped when we are asked to portray our own people.

I am grateful to Olympia Dukakis, who has played Mother Courage seven times, for attending an early preview and giving me the permission to put my ferocity back into the role. I had not realized that the shame I was feeling was the result of having my “creative c—k,” my “virtuostic vagina” chopped up every day. The backlash from my appropriate creative turn was immediate. One crew member complained “I just can’t control her.”

Am I a dog or a slave to be misled so as to be controlled in my artistic expression?

I was even told that the cuts related to Brecht estate rights and permissions associated with our transposition to the Congo. So I contacted the attorney to the Brecht estate to fight for the integrity of the text that Brecht wrote. The attorney assured me that changing the Thirty Years War references to Congo War references was acceptable to the estate, and that all such matters were artistic decisions between artist and director. Well, not this artist.

My Mother Courage was neutered, leaving the unbridled Mother Courage wasting away inside me. My Mother Courage is too big for CSC’s definition. So it is best that they find someone to “fit in,” because I cannot.

I recall reading, Tony Kushner’s translation of Mother Courage, which was sent to entice me to accept the role. The pinnacle of my career has been Caroline, or Change. Caroline’s power reigned on every page. So I know what that power feels like, and this is not it. CSC’s “Mcdraft” was not even from the Kushner translation.

Why, in 2015, in the arts, is there a need to control the creative expression of a Black woman?

As we begin the new year, I wish for White theater creatives to have the humility to recognize that their perspectives alone are insufficient when portraying Black women and all “others”; that their manufactured fears put false Black images on the stage. I believe this allows real Black people to be destroyed, in the world.

As we enter 2016, the collective White creative community has a responsibility to bring as many “others” into the room, both onstage and offstage, before, during and after decisions are made. Only then will the beauty of global humanity be heard, seen, and finally understood, so that the truth wipes away the misconceptions and misappropriations that cause the fear which foments violence around the globe.

The world can no longer afford to have artistic visions of all White worlds because they simply do not exist. I want the theater to look like the city streets I walk on. That is the theater I aspire to participate in, one where #OtherPerspectivesMatter and are respected and reflected.

I am contractually obligated to perform in #CSCMotherCourage through January 3, 2016.


Brian Kulick’s statement

Let me begin by saying I have great respect for Tonya Pinkins both as a theatre artist and theatre activist and I am so sorry that over the course of this production our views on Mother Courage diverged. Theatre is a collaborative art and we both entered this production in that spirit but, sadly, we have reached an impasse. One goes into a theatre production with suspicions and hunches and a play slowly reveals what it might want to be. Tonya and I seemed to have started with the same basic impulse but reached two different vantage points. Tonya has articulated her point, let me try to articulate mine:

I had a basic question that I started this process with: Can you treat a Brecht play like we now treat a Shakespeare play? In other words, is a Brecht play as open as a Shakespeare text where you can set it in another time and place and see how the play speaks through the lens of that new setting? It seemed like the most direct analogy for a play like MOTHER COURAGE would be to set it in Central Africa in this century. The next question became could you keep the Brecht text as it is and make a transplantation without too much interference with the adaptation? What would it tell us? This added another layer of experience to watching MOTHER COURAGE. The result, for me, is that the play becomes haunted by three powerful ghosts: the ghost of the Thirty Years War (where the original version is set), the ghost of the Second World War (that prompted Brecht to write the play) and the ghost of what is still happening in the Congo today. These cumulative hauntings began to say something about war with a capital “W.” It also allowed us to use the production as a way of reminding audiences that even though the plight of the Congo does not occupy the front pages of our newspapers, it is an on-going conflict that is still far from over and can use our attention and support.

As Tonya and I worked on the production the question became how specific does one have to become to evoke the Congo? Do we need place names, do we need to rewrite narration to make this leap or can it live in the realm of images, music and the given circumstances of the actors? I gravitated toward what I would call a more “open” approach, Tonya was longing for specifics. As we kept working on the play, this question and how to answer it became louder and louder to each of us to a point where I think we couldn’t hear each other anymore.

Toward the end of the process I used a very strong word to characterize a potential end point for Mother Courage. The word was “delusional.” This grew out of my reading of Brecht’s notes, where he states over and over again that the point of MOTHER COURAGE is that she does not learn from the events of the play. In his notes he tells us:

“Misfortune in itself is a poor teacher. Its pupils learn hunger and thirst, but seldom hunger for truth or thirst for knowledge. Suffering does not transform a sick man into a physician. Neither what he sees from a distance or what he sees face to face is enough to turn an eyewitness into an expert.”

Tonya objected to my use of the term “delusional” and we reworked the very ending of the play toward an image, which spoke to her idea of Mother Courage as “survivor.” I was pleased with the final result. It was our last moment of collaboration. I felt it allowed the audience to see both possibilities in one image. This duality, for me, is at the very heart of the theatrical enterprise, leaving it up to the audience to decide for themselves what to make of this deeply contradictory character known as Mother Courage.

The boldfacing is mine.

Theater Access for the Deaf, Blind, and Autistic: New Technology, Changing Attitudes


Russell Harvard performing in Tribes

Russell Harvard performing in Tribes

Russell Harvard decided to be an actor at the age of seven when he saw his cousin playing the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. That ambition was confirmed when his aunt took him at 13 to see his first Broadway show, Cats, during its tour to their hometown of Austin. But a couple of decades later, when his aunt traveled to New York to see Harvard himself starring in Tribes, the Off-Broadway hit directed by David Cromer about a deaf man whose hearing family makes him feel excluded, she was disappointed. “This show is for hearing people,” his aunt signed to him. “She fell asleep during the show,” Harvard recalls.

Harvard’s aunt, his actress cousin, and Harvard himself are all deaf. The Wizard of Oz he saw at age seven was performed by a high school for the deaf. Cats had a sign-language interpreter. But there was no interpreter during the performance of Tribes that Harvard’s aunt attended. The only captioned moments came when the deaf characters were using sign language with one another, for the benefit of the hearing audience.

It is a small irony that the growing number of shows about the disabled, or featuring disabled performers, are not themselves fully accessible to audience members who are disabled. It has been more than two decades since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the world’s first civil rights act for the disabled, which mandated that theaters (among other “places of public accommodation”) stop discriminating against the disabled and allow them “full and equal enjoyment.” Yet, to cite one measurable statistic from Theatre Development Fund in New York, no theaters in 31 states offer even one captioned performance at any time during their seasons.

“Theaters are required to make ‘reasonable accommodations,’ but it’s largely left up to the theater as to what that means,” says Lisa Carling, director of accessibility programs for TDF, the not-for-profit service organization responsible for many of the pioneering efforts at access. The reasons for the lack of effort, Carling explains, are “lack of interest and lack of money. It’s not on their radar.” With tough times forcing so many theaters to juggle and multitask, “accessibility is the last thing that they think about.”

This may be true even for institutions with recently constructed buildings. “New theaters that consider themselves state-of-the-art may have all the latest technology, but they might not have even thought of all the services they can offer to people who have obstructions in attending the theater,” says Carl Anthony Tramon, director of Special Services for Sound Associates, a company that has been developing devices for the disabled to use in theaters since 1946.

Despite such obstructions, new technology is already available to audience members with barriers to sight and sound. A new approach to inclusivity is making theatergoing easier for autistic audiences. And many more options are in develop- ment. These advances make theatergoing more convenient, and thus more attractive, for audience members who may not otherwise be able to experience it.

Broadway’s Timeline of Accessiblity

Children of A Lesser God offered the first audio-described performance for the blind, in 1980

Children of A Lesser God offered the first audio-described performance for the blind, in 1980

On Broadway the timeline of progress for those facing barriers to communication (rather than physical barriers; mobility access is a huge subject of its own) looks something like this:

 1979: First performance with infrared listening devices for the hard-of-hearing, Peter Pan. The law now mandates these headsets, or something similar, for all theaters that have either more than 50 seats or a sound system.

 1980: First audio-described performance for the blind, Children of a Lesser God.

Also 1980, first performance with a sign-language interpreter, The Elephant Man.

1997: First open-captioned performance for the deaf, Barrymore.

2011: First autism-friendly performance, The Lion King.

“What’s been done on Broadway can easily be replicated,” Carling says. According to Tramon, “There are millions of people with disabilities who would come to the theater if these services were available to them.”

Autism-Friendly Performances

Click on any photograph to see it enlarged

For proof, visit one of TDF’s autism- friendly performances, such as a matinee of Elf this past January at the Hirschfeld Theater.

Gary Hagopian had long wanted to take his 19-year-old stepson Jonathan to a musical. “I’ve always been apprehensive because I didn’t know if he would sit right, make noise or even enjoy the performance,” he says. The theatergoers were not the only ones who were nervous.

“It was slightly scary going into it,” remembers Elf actor Josh Lamon. “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, what he threw was a fidget, handed out by volunteers to keep everyone calm. An elf onstage caught the fidget as if it were part of the show.

The theater also handed out cards showing the characters, as well as earplugs (some on the autism spectrum are very sensitive to sounds), and they set up a “quiet room” for any autistic theatergoers who got upset; only about 25 wound up using it, in a 1,424-seat house that had been entirely reserved for people on the autism spectrum and their families. As for the musical itself, the sound and lighting were softened. And the houselights were not completely shut off. Ilaina Leavitt, who brought her seven-year-old son to Elf, explains: “Some children on the autism spectrum have a very difficult time being outside the comforts of their own environment; they have sensory challenges with loud noises and lights.” But the theatergoers seemed to enjoy the performance, even the ones (including Jonathan) who were escorted frequently into the lobby. “It was a pleasant learning curve for all of us,” Hagopian says.

Autism-friendly performances are one of the two fastest-growing services for people with communications barriers. “One in 88 children in the United States are diagnosed in the autism spectrum,” says Carling. “This is too big a community to ignore.” Since TDF’s first autism-friendly performance in October 2011, the initiative has attracted a mailing list of some 4,000 new theatergoers. Theaters nationwide have contacted Carling in hopes of setting up similar programs. Her advice: “Give yourself six months to a year to plan. Rely on autism experts to take a look at the production to see if it’s appropriate for people with autism. Designate a day for that performance; don’t sell to the general audience.”

Autism-friendly performances have been proliferating around the country, such as The Lion King at the Hobby Center in Houston in 2012, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! at the Old Globe in San Diego, Calif., in 2012, and Annie at Open Door Theater in Massachusetts earlier this year. In May, Chicago Children’sTheater and Redmoon Theater will be co-presenting an autism-friendly perfor- mance of The Elephant & the Whale and Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey will present The Little Mermaid in June.

“These performances give families the opportunity to have the experience of going to a show in an environment that is very accepting,” Leavitt says. “No one is going to judge them.”

Open Captioning

An open captioned performance of Amadeus on Broadway at the Music Box Theater in 2000

An open captioned performance of Amadeus on Broadway at the Music Box Theater in 2000

Another other fast-growing service in theater technology is open captioning. “Thirty-five million people are hearing- impaired in the United States: That’s one in seven Americans—and after the age of 65, it’s one in three Americans,” captioner Mirabai Knight cited as she unloaded what looked like 75 pounds of equipment at the Barrow Street Theater for the sixth and final open-captioned performance of Tribes in January. She set up a tripod and laptop computer; attached the various cables, cords, wires and tape; and finished with the LED display, which looked like the temporary signs put up when there is construction on the highway.

Although Russell Harvard’s aunt did not think Tribes provided this service often enough, most shows that offer open captioning provide it only once during the run—because of the expense and the assumption that it will disturb much of the audience. “I have gotten complaints that the sign is in the way,” Knight said. “But that’s rare. Most people are excited.” Even those who “don’t identify as hard of hearing” can benefit, especially in a show like Tribes, which was in the round and was performed rapidly with thick British accents.

A community has developed around the captioned performances, one that includes Robert and Debbie Wolfe, a married couple who, despite their deafness, are longtime regular theatergoers (they attended captioned performance of Tribes). Before captioning began in 1997, Debbie Wolfe says, “I had difficulty with serious shows and would miss out a lot on what was being said. I avoided them for that reason. Now that the captioned performances are available, I am able to enjoy both musicals and dramas, and do not miss anything.”

No Longer Separate But Equal:

i-Caption, D-Scriptive, Seatback Captioning

At The Lion King on Broadway, theater employee Rusty Thelin holds an i-Caption device in his hand. Behind him are infra-red assistive listening devices.

At The Lion King on Broadway, theater employee Rusty Thelin holds an i-Caption device in his hand.
Behind him are infra-red assistive listening devices.

Advocates for disability rights do not seem to cringe at what could be labeled as the “separate but equal” doctrine underlying accessible performances. But much recent technology aims to integrate audiences. A Kindle-like device called the i-Caption, which is about twice the size of a cell phone, presents the script in real time as it is performed. D-Scriptive provides audio descriptions of the sets, costumes and action for the visually impaired via an earpiece. Once the scripts are prepared, neither service needs live operators; they can be run automatically, timed to the show’s lighting cues. Like the infrared headsets, these services can be used during regular performances.

NYC’s Sound Associates developed i-Caption and D-Scriptive about a decade ago (they now offer both services on one device), and they are available at a half-dozen long-running Broadway shows, as well as at the year-old Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas and the Benedum Center for the Performing Arts in Pittsburgh.

Seatback captioning

Seatback captioning

An even more integrated system sets up permanent caption devices on the back of every seat. “There has been a lot of interest in the system as a means of discreetly display- ing captions for the hearing impaired,” says Geoff Webb, president of Figaro Systems of New Mexico, which developed the Simultext Seatback Captioning System. In an ironic twist, the device has wound up being installed largely in opera houses—“venues where almost no one can understand what is being said or sung onstage, so everyone uses our system to follow what is happening.” Webb and his colleagues founded the company to bring more hearing-impaired people into the theater—it’s a modern-day echo of the story of Alexander Graham Bell, who was looking for ways to help the deaf (including both his mother and his wife) when he invented the telephone.

Repertorio Espanol, a Spanish-language theater in New York, installed Simultext captioning to attract English-speaking theatergoers, but it is also reaching out to local organizations that serve the hearing impaired to make them aware of the new system. “In the past, when we had the infra-red headphones for the translation system, approximately 10 percent of our audiences used it,” says associate producer Jose Antonio Cruz. “Now that we have both the audio amplification and the Simultext systems, we’re hoping that the number of people visiting our theater that may benefit from the technology increases.”

Technology has been developed in other forms of entertainment as well; for example, Sony Access Glasses are currently available in movie theaters around the country. They are slightly enlarged eyeglasses that pro-vide captions that look as if they are floating between the viewer and the screen. Emerging technology could adapt glasses like these for live performance.

And technology already exists to enable personal cell phones and tablets to present captions; these reportedly are used in some sporting venues. But they are resisted by those who service theaters, because there is no way yet of stopping the user from photographing or videotaping the performance. Cost, then, is not the only barrier to realizing “full and equal enjoyment” of the theater. There are technical issues and copyright concerns. But above all there is the question of attitudes.

It was a change in attitude that allowed theatergoers to start feeling comfortable being seen wearing the assistive listening headsets; the advent of similar-looking devices like iPods helped with that. But audience attitudes have also changed in the direction of greater intolerance toward any distraction in the theatergoing experience—an attitude likely brought on in part by the steep rise in ticket prices—such as cell-phone usage and leaving early at curtain calls.

Overall, most Americans have come to accept the benefits of integration and diversity.

The Lion King: Hearing The Spectacle

Circle of Life Lion King1

Circle of Life from The Lion King. How would YOU describe this?

Lion KingTo learn first hand how accessibility applies to those with communication barriers, ask for the free D-Scriptive device at The Lion King on Broadway, and listen to Tramon’s clear and soothing voice before the show even begins, as he describes first the theater, then each of the characters one by one (Mufasa “moves majestically and with purpose, but when he is angry or frustrated, he hunches over and swings the lion mask down in front of his face”), and explains the intricacies of the puppetry and the set.

As the musical begins with a mellifluous chant from the ensemble, Tramon says softly in the earpiece: “A fog crawls in from the back of the stage as a warm light begins to glow red…. ” His voice gains speed. “Three zebras prance in a circle on the stage…. Four men with a gazelle on their head and one on each arm enter and leap…Pride Rock spirals up.”

By the time of the curtain call (“Three hyenas enter and bow…. Everyone bows together again…. The light in the audience brightens”), the “Circle of Life” is richly illuminated, for the blind and the sighted alike

This article first appeared in the  May 2013 issue of American Theatre magazine, published by Theatre Communications Group

Should Ill Theatergoers Stay Home? What About The Disabled?

A theatergoer threw up in “Grace,” prompting Paul Rudd to go on David Letterman. What if the person was not drunk, but ill?

About half an hour into the play “Sorry” at the Public Theater yesterday afternoon, the actor Jay O. Sanders suddenly announced: “Somebody is ill. Is there a doctor in the house?”

A woman in the first row was having some kind of convulsion.

The house lights went on, a doctor in the audience went to the woman, who had by then become unconscious. He and members of the cast and theater staff brought her to the floor; felt her pulse; brought her water. She seemed to recover, and, from where I was sitting, looked as if she wanted to go back to her seat and continue watching the play. Eventually, she was persuaded to leave.

There was irony for me in what had happened. I had originally invited an old friend of mine to accompany me, but he decided not to go after calling the theater and asking two questions: How long is the show? What are the seats like?

He recently has developed a chronic condition called neuropathy, which makes it painful for him to sit for too long. The staff member who answered the telephone told him that the show ran two hours without intermission and that the seats were “standard.” Actually, the seats were atypically comfortable for a downtown theater, but I only found that out when I got there, accompanied by somebody I invited at the last minute to replace my friend.

I suddenly remembered that long ago, in a marathon production, a woman sitting behind me had the kind of chronic cough that sounded as if the monster from Alien was trying to emerge from her throat. Nine hours I listened to this wracking cough; other audience members apparently gave her looks, because in-between the coughs, she would say “I can’t help it.”

This issue has actually made the news recently – even the late-night talk shows.

Somebody in the balcony vomited on the orchestra patrons in “Grace,” prompting the star Paul Rudd to tell David Letterman his top ten thoughts: e.g. “not my worst review.” Most seem to have assumed the person in the balcony was drunk. Might they have been ill?

The question this prompts: Should people stay home if they’re sick?   The answer seems obvious to many people:

Lisa B. Thompson: Yes!

Elizabeth Richards: if you can’t keep your fluids to yourself, yes, please stay home.

Andy Helms: Yes. Should people with a bad cough go to chamber recitals that will be recorded live? No. They shouldn’t. It’s rude.

But there are other ways to look at this – from the point of view of the ill theatergoer. As Eric Bohn points out, theatergoers don’t have understudies.

 Jonathan Silverstein: “I’d love to hear how most box offices would deal with an “I’m sick” excuse to exchange tickets.”

Diane Wilshere:” From my experience if you are a subscriber they will exchange same day but expect a fee. Regular ticket-holders are usually out of luck.”

Howard Sherman remembers seeing both American Buffalo and Noises Off even though he was running a fever; he felt compelled to attend, since he had bought his tickets in advance, and couldn’t exchange them.

Haleh Roshan has similar experiences: “So many times I’ve either gone and fought sniffling/coughing (annoying everyone else),” she says, “or stayed home but felt guilt for the wasted $$$ (especially since it usually means i have to buy ANOTHER ticket for myself).”’

Jeremy Kareken offers a suggestion, surely tongue-in-cheek: “Do advance purchases cause viral infections? TKTS all the way.”

But this question is more complicated than it may seem, something of a confounding dilemma that the theater community has not been doing enough to resolve.  Did the theatergoer at “Sorry” know she was going to be sick? What if she has a chronic condition and never knows if and when she’ll have an attack? Should they, like my friend, stay home on the chance that their condition will act up?

Legally, a person with a chronic condition, whether or not it is disruptive, is officially disabled, and is protected by the Americans With Disabilities Act. But this is not just a legal issue. It’s a moral quandary. Should somebody be denied the pleasure of theater  who is arguably most in need of such a diversion?

Nigil Whyte offers a solution that is probably unworkable, but with reasoning that is impeccable: “I think there should be a seating location for them, near the exit. But no one should ever be deprived from seeing theater.”