In the era of pandemic-caused shut-ins, the question of how to provide communal experiences to people with disabilities has been answered. Connoisseurs of the arts have had to swallow their previous beliefs that art is unacceptable in a digitalized form and move art galleries to virtual tours, concerts to avatar-based gaming websites, and plays to zoom performances. These virtual events made for the quarantined able-bodied population have gathered people who struggle to attend in-person events because of their disabilities into their inclusive bubbles. But theatre-goers are missing the going part of theatre; Sarah Ruhl, playwright of the award-winning Eurydice, voiced what many were thinking in her 2020 Whiting Awards speech: “That magical substance—air—[is] which makes theater different from books, or films.” With COVID-19 vaccines becoming rapidly available, theatres will likely start reopening. So what can we do to keep theatre accessibility trending?
My 6-week research project “Theatre Accessibility” is an ongoing discussion on how to be accessible to people with mental and physical disabilities in the theatre community. Theatre is often considered a communal space, but being a patron of the art requires distinct privileges not everyone has. Changing the current aspects of inaccessibility in theatre requires a reckoning with existing privileges and a redistribution of power. Depending on someone’s disability and job placement, different accommodations are required; for some, an elevator can help patrons get to the performance; for others, educating employers on the stigma surrounding disabilities can help playwrights get and keep jobs. The commonality is that accommodations only ever help the performing arts community as a whole. Whether you have a sensory issue or not, who doesn’t want more comfortable chairs?
Furthermore, accessibility isn’t a far-off pipe-dream: we can bring accessibility to us. My research includes an action plan for Union College’s theatre department, including physical alteration of the building where necessary and the implementation of new policies. The goal is to start small with us and move to local theatres like Proctor’s Theatre. Accessibility is worth the work and the wait.