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Howard Sherman: Opportunities grow on and off stage for those with disabilities

A scene from Uncommon Sense. Photo: Joan Marcus
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Attending last week’s opening night of Uncommon Sense, a new play about people on the autistic spectrum, I was delighted to see the following message under the cast listing in the show’s programme:

“The production will be presented in a judgement-free and inclusive environment. At no point will anyone be shushed or asked to leave due to noises, movements, or behaviours related to a cognition or developmental disability. The Sheen Center is committed to welcoming audiences of all abilities and appreciates your support in that commitment.”

For a show about ‘neurodiverse’ people, this certainly made sense and distinguished the production from relaxed performances. Those specifically designated performances will temporarily alter a production, particularly lights and sounds, to better accommodate audience members with autism, while making others aware of their intent.

While the show is running at the Sheen Center, it is a creation of Tectonic Theatre Project, the company known for creating such works as Gross Indecency and The Laramie Project.

I wondered whether this approach to audiences just applied to the run of Uncommon Sense, and whether it was a policy of the Sheen Center, of Tectonic or mutually determined by both. Will it apply to future Tectonic shows?

I asked Tectonic’s founder and artistic director Moises Kaufman, who wrote: “There was never any question that this play was going to make its performance inclusive of the audience which it is portraying. The Sheen was on board with that from the very beginning. As for inclusion, it is a core value of the company. We want everyone to experience our plays and we will always strive to make that possible.”

Less than a week after I saw Uncommon Sense, I saw a second announcement regarding the welcoming accommodation of audiences with disabilities, this time coming from the Broadway League, representing its members who operate theatres on Broadway. By the summer of 2018, all Broadway theatres will have equipment in place to make captioning services and audio description available at every performance for any audience member free of charge.

Using voice-recognition software, the services will be automated so that shifts in timing from performance to performance will be matched by the services. For Broadway, this will signal an end to blind or low-vision audiences and deaf or hard-of-hearing audiences being offered only a handful of performances each year that accommodate them. For each new production, services will become available approximately one month after opening, allowing for new programming for each show.

Making theatre fully and consistently accessible for all of the approximately one in five Americans with a disability will remain an ongoing challenge. Disability, after all, is a vast catch-all phrase which encompasses a wide range of physical and cognitive conditions.

But if more theatres commit to inclusion as Tectonic has, if touring houses and regional companies follow the lead of Broadway theatres – and if funders at last recognise the necessity of supporting such efforts – not only will there be less stigma for audiences with disabilities, but a wider audience base will become available. Accessibility really can be a two-way street if theatres stop and think about it.

As a reminder, however, that theatre needs to focus on accessibility on both sides of the proscenium arch, so to speak, Uncommon Sense also featured a cast member with autism (the show’s married authors have an autistic family member as well).

Additionally, the Indiana Repertory Theatre’s current production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time features Mickey Rowe, an actor on the autistic spectrum, in the central role of Christopher, quite possibly the first such actor to play the part.

Maybe these advances in diversity will lead us to the day when audience members with disabilities can regularly experience performances by professional artists with disabilities. Perhaps with authentic casting, theatres will prompt yet more young people with disabilities to know that theatre is viable career option for them too.

This week in US theatre

In his fourth solo show on Broadway, John Leguizamo turns teacher for his show Latin History for Morons.

Read our interview with Public Theater aristic director Oskar Eustis

Originally seen at the La Jolla Playhouse and The Public Theater, Tony Taccone directs the playwright/performer in the comedy, opening on Wednesday.


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