Signs of diversity

Whats stopping you from going to the theatre?Deaf actor Dawn Jani Birleys recent sign-language turn as Horatio in Ravi Jain.


Whats stopping you from going to the theatre?

Deaf actor Dawn Jani Birleys recent sign-language turn as Horatio in Ravi Jain and Why Not Theatre’s production of Prince Hamlet highlighted efforts in the Toronto theatre community to welcome new audiences who might benefit from different kinds of presentations, like ASL-interpreted and dynamic-titled performances for the deaf or relaxed performances for people who might be intimidated by strict theatre etiquette.

You have to ask the question Who is welcome at your play? says Marjorie Chan, artistic director of Cahoots Theatre. The company has put out the Deaf Artists and Theatre Toolkit (DATT), an online collection of practical resources made publicly available in 2016 to help theatre companies produce shows that wont exclude deaf patrons.

The mandate of Cahoots has always been supporting diversity and marginalized voices, but it had almost exclusively been interpreted to mean artists of colour, she says. She believes diversity in theatre should mean a lot more.

For me, diversity means anyone whos not invited to the main feast.

This, along with a chance encounter with hard-of-hearing playwright Adam Pottle, prompted Chan to partner with a team of consultants from the deaf community led by Anita Small to eliminate barriers to deaf attendance.

The protocols they developed for DATT were first implemented in their 2016 production of Pottles Ultrasound, a play about a deaf couples reproductive politics that featured deaf actors communicating in sign language with text of the dialogue also projected around the stage, a practice called dynamic titling.

Just last month, DATT helped Opera Atelier offer an ASL-interpreted performance of Medea.

Its easy to see that a half-foot lip at the entrance to the theatre excludes people in wheelchairs or with other mobility issues, notes Andy McKim, artistic director of Theatre Passe Muraille, where Ultrasound was performed and a sustained program to serve deaf audiences continues. In what other ways have we passively created a barrier we could eliminate?

McKim realized that strict theatre etiquette, a 19th-century advent that compelled previously rowdy audiences to remain quietly seated in the dark, poses an intimidating social barrier for some, including (but not limited to) those with autism spectrum condition, sensory and communication disorder and learning disabilities.

To address this, McKim and TPM have implemented the growing practice of offering relaxed performances, specially designated in a shows run, at which normal expectations of audience decorum are suspended.

During relaxed performances, patrons are free to come and go as they wish, lighting and sound cues are reduced, and characters and intense scenes are previewed for the audience by the company in a special introduction.

McKim says positive feedback for relaxed performances comes from all kinds of people, not just from those he initially expected to attend. Some are nervous about arriving on time or about using the washroom during the performance. Families that include someone with autism can now enjoy a show together.

McKim admits that TPMs commitment to offering one relaxed performance per run (which requires considerable planning and work in advance to prepare the space, audience, cast and crew) can worry artists.

Accepting the notion that your art needs to change, that people can come and go at will, which can be disruptive to the focus on the work, is challenging for some artists to accept. So is the practice of revealing a climactic moment from later in the show upfront, since it could be disturbing. Changing how youve chosen to present the story can feel like a compromise on your artistic freedom and integrity.

But both Chan and McKim agree that the political goal of fostering diversity and equality in the audience as well as onstage is well worth the extra work and flexibility. Its about ethics, not economics, says McKim.

Its heartening, says Chan of the ongoing efforts to broaden access. Its a commitment thats inherent to our values as artists.

We want to attract people who dont come to the theatre often or at all, says McKim, pointing out that Passe Muraille translates literally to beyond walls.

Were committed to figuring out where there are barriers, he says, and then working to remove them.

stage@nowtoronto.com | @jordanbimm

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