Approximately 40 people crowded into City Theatre’s rehearsal space today: three with guide dogs, one in a wheelchair, one with leg braces, a few needing CART service, and two receiving American Sign Language interpretation. Dan and Dave Simpson, twin blind brothers with master’s degrees in organ performance, sat on a panel of artists with disabilities. Writer Shannon Reed read her award-winning fiction, and we watched deaf actor Peter Cook interpret Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night into nuanced American Sign Language.
What brought these people together? The workshop titled Working with Artists with Disabilities is part of Art, Ability, Access, the FISA Foundation and NEA-funded workshop series workshop series produced by the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council through May 7, 2014. GPAC helps support the regional movement to make arts and culture accessible to all, as does City Theatre, FISA Foundation, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, and other arts and culture non-profits who meet through the Art and Accessibility Peers, a network of non-profits that share best practices for reaching and serving patrons, artists, volunteers and staff with disabilities.
How do you cue an actor who is deaf? How to evacuate a venue in the event of an emergency? Hearing from national experts at the Art, Ability, Access workshops, we can find out.
Shannon DeVido, actress, comedian, singer and writer opened today’s workshop with a stunning ballad, sung from her wheelchair, followed by Mimi Kenney Smith, Artistic Director of the Amaryllis Theater Company, who taught us innovative ways to work with artists, like how to make auditions inclusive, or managing stage blocking for a visually impaired actor. Smith also shared insights into laws for accommodating artists with disabilities, and how to advocate. Blind photographers, paralyzed graphic artists, autistic illustrators – Mimi highlighted real artists in these very real situations, and we learned that we can serve them by sharing ideas and resources, and by lighting a passion.
Working with artists with disabilities starts with a sincere vocation and a passion – as Anne Mulgrave, the Grants and Accessibility Manager for the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and workshop organizer, states, “You don’t choose Accessibility work, it chooses you.”
Tad Cooley, an actor with a hearing impairment playing in Tribes, the current performance at City Theatre, shared his experience of slowly losing his hearing and a teacher referring him to American Sign Language when she noticed he wasn’t following along in class. “It’s amazing - I could relate to someone in a community of people that was just like me. This changed my life, made my life a lot easier - being able to stay in a conversation and know everything that was going on, not having to nod and smile and act like I did. I now have a ‘deaf family’ in New York.”
ASL is an art form, in and of itself, as evidenced at the recent sold-out ASL Workshop for Stagecraft, led by experts Hands-Up Productions. Interpreters practiced not just the hand motion and timing of interpreting actors, but also the facial expressions – how to emulate Marilyn Monroe’s emotions? ASL requires real passion and commitment.
And, while the “accessibility movement” can look like a vocation, it’s not social work or some specialized thing, it’s simply what should be happening, because 56 million Americans live with disabilities – about 20% of the population. Over the age of 65, that percentage rises to about 43%, and at age 80, 70% of the population has a disability. If you have a venue in Pittsburgh, one of the oldest populations in the country, these statistics pack a punch.
As our population in the region ages and changes, making services like ASL interpretation, audio-described performances, large print materials or physical accommodations will serve our region’s population in full and help our arts community grow and be sustainable.