Making OUR TOWN More Accessible
The conversation surrounding the creation of accessible spaces is not limited to building modifications that increase physical access, such as wheelchair ramps and accessible restroom facilities. Accessibility to cultural and arts institutions like museums, zoos, and theatres is being continuously expanded in an effort to welcome people with disabilities to enjoy arts and culture programing. Theatre major Gianni Carcagno's current Second Stage Laboratory project, "Accessibility Initiative" brings this wider conversation about accessibility and inclusion to the experience of theatre on the Loyola campus.
Last spring Carcagno proposed a two-part project to the Second Stage Laboratory. The first part involved attending the annual Kennedy Center Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability Conference (LEAD) in Denver, CO. In the second part of the project Carcagno would apply what she learned at LEAD about accessibility initiatives in the arts to a Loyola mainstage production. Her first experiment with these applications will be the use of Open Captioning (OC) during every performance of Our Town, which runs October 10-20 this fall.
Carcagno first became interested in accessibility efforts when she took sign language classes in high school. During her sophomore year at Loyola, she selected accessibility technology for theatre as her research topic for Design 300: Design Technology. The research she conducted for that class revealed how limited the Loyola Theatre Program's accommodations were and how much more Loyola could be doing to improve its accessibility and inclusion practices.
In an effort to address these limits, she experimented with Closed Captioning (CC) during the Second Stage production of Speech & Debate last fall. Then, with the support of Theatre faculty member Lee Keenan, Carcagno proposed a Second Stage Laboratory project to secure funding and departmental support in order to implement accessibility efforts on a mainstage production in the Newhart Family Theatre.
When asked about her passion for this topic, Carcagno responded:
With more accessible performances we can expand our audience and make theatre available to all. Accessibility equates to inclusivity, and we have an obligation to make our art inclusive to as many people as possible.
Carcagno explained that anyone working in any area of theatre is going to have to engage with accessibility issues at some point in their career because many theatre companies are improving and innovating their accessibility services. Actors participate in Touch Tours or performances that are modified to address accessibility. Designers have developed several ways to integrate accessibility into their design work for theatre. And front of house and stage management staff will interact with accessibility firsthand.
With the support of the Department of Fine and Performing Arts (DFPA), Carcagno headed off to Denver for the LEAD Conference this past August, along with Jennifer Martin. As Director of Public Programming for the DFPA, Martin manages all Front of House and Box Office services and staff, she gained practical tools and increased knowledge to continue the efforts Carcagno is initiating, even after Carcagno, currently a Junior, graduates in 2021.
This year, the LEAD conference focused on accessibility initiatives for arts organizations, theatres, libraries, and more. Carcagno and Martin attended workshops on how to implement accessibility with low resources, which Carcagno pointed out, would be helpful post-graduation if she works in some of Chicago’s many storefront theatres. The captioning workshop they attended, which focused on DIY captioning practices, was exactly what Carcagno envisioned bringing back and testing in the Newhart Family Theatre at Loyola.
During every performance of Our Town, a 3’ x 5’ screen will hang from the suspension grid in front of the house right bank of seats. Audience members will be able to see the screen as well as the stage behind it. The screen will project real-time captions, operated by a run-crew student, of all sounds happening on stage: lines, sounds, music, etc.
This experiment in the application of accessibility services also includes an audience survey. Audience feedback to real-time captioning in the Newhart will inform future accommodations the Loyola Theatre Program will provide its patrons. That’s the tricky thing with accessibility, Carcagno points out: “We can’t just offer it and hope people will come. If we want to incorporate something [other than captioning], we need to reach out to people and ask, ‘what do you need to come see our show.’”
Carcagno is also developing ideas for the future, include trying a Touch Tour or Relaxed Performance next year. In addition, she and Martin have already collaborated on adding an Accessibility tab on Loyola’s ticketing website which describes all the current accommodations offered at Loyola. Aside from Our Town’s open captioning, the Newhart Family Theatre currently offers patrons wheelchair accessible seating, large text programs, and has a hearing loop that patrons with hearing aids can connect to which amplifies the sound from the stage.
For students interested in learning more about accessibility in theatre, Carcagno suggests looking at the houses around Chicago. The Goodman Theatre and Victory Gardens, for example, offer several access services such as Touch Tours, ASL-Interpreted, Audio-Described, Open-Captioned and relaxed / sensory-friendly performances. The Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium, Carcagno points out, is also a good resource for learning more about accessibility and inclusion. Hopefully in the future Loyola will be turned to as well as a leader in welcoming patrons with disabilities to its productions.
Useful List of Accessibility Services for Theatre:
Touch Tour: Touch Tours are artistic conversations and tactile explorations of costumes, props and set pieces for patrons who are blind or low vision. They occur before certain performances and often also include meeting the cast so that patrons can familiarize themselves with the actors’ voices and character traits.
Relaxed / Sensory-Friendly Performance: A Relaxed Performance is a performance most often provided for audience members on the Autism spectrum. During such a run, certain production elements such as light and sound cues are adjusted slightly to soften the sensory experience of the show, or are removed altogether. Depending on the theatre, audience members are often welcome to bring snacks and toys into the theatre with them, as well as are able to exit and return to the theatre whenever they need to.
Open Captioning: The text of the play or musical, as well as descriptions of all other sound and music, is displayed on a screen, either on, below or beside the stage, or flying low above it. It is visible by all people sitting in the open captioning seats.
Closed Captioning: Closed captioning can only be seen by people with the appropriate equipment. The captions are displayed to individual audience members using devices such as smart phones or small screens attached to a seat.
Audio Description: This service allows blind and low vision patrons to hear a description of the visual elements taking place on stage. Listeners usually hear a description of actions, body language, lights, costumes, scenery and other aspects of the production not conveyed by voices and sounds from the stage.