Feeling, not seeing, the performing arts: theaters are getting creative with accessibility

Curtis realized that the United States had a long way to go in improving the accessibility of the arts while living in Berlin. But he had years of expertise and several boxes of audio description equipment to take back to San Francisco.

Curtis’ goal is to help choreographers and producers bring their work to life for BVI audiences with audio descriptions that describe movement more expressively, beyond event plays. “Back then, audio description was mostly standard scripts,” Curtis explains. “What we brought was dance training, thinking about how body-based performance could be creatively depicted.”

Curtis now works with Bay Area choreographers like Sherwood Chen and Deborah Slater to illustrate their moves for BVI audience members, some of whom are new to dance.

Gravity’s services include accessibility verification of marketing materials and websites, customer access for mobility issues, haptic tours, and deaf consultations and referrals. Launching the company would not have been possible without the contribution of BVI artists such as Taylor, who began taking Curtis’ contact improvisation classes after observing his accessible approach to dance programming. She was cast in a mixed-access dance ensemble for the company’s work in 2017, Sight unseen.

“Gravity was really my main entry into dance because a lot of dancers or people with disabilities aren’t welcome in traditional training,” Taylor says. “Jess turned the table and said, ‘You’re welcome to this stage. “”

Performer, choreographer and accessibility consultant Jess Curtis gives theaters and performing arts organizations the resources they need to make their offerings more accessible to audiences with disabilities. In this portrait, Jess Curtis stands in front of a set design with dark, shady trees, wearing a black t-shirt, earrings, and a spiky white hairstyle. (Sven Hagolani)

Taylor joined the Gravity team as an accessibility consultant after completing several jobs with Curtis’ company. She now uses her theater background and lived experiences to provide accessibility audits for organizations such as Shotgun Players, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Oakland’s Bay Area Children’s Theatre, Jacob’s Pillow and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Its philosophy is simple: “How do we recognize that people with disabilities are valid and valuable members of the community?

Accessibility priority

In 2021, Gravity focused on advising on the accessibility of virtual events, incorporating audio description into online or live events. “It opened up a whole new world for people who are blind and disabled,” Taylor recalls. “Any blind person in the world could potentially attend a performance and not have the same access barriers as transportation.”

Berkeley theater company Shotgun Players has adopted audio descriptions for its live-streamed events during pandemic shutdowns. Now back in person, the company has partnered with BVI organizations such as LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Guide Dogs for the Blind and East Bay Center to organize group outings to take advantage of their accessible programming. Here, BVI audiences are taken on haptic tours to meet actors, walk on stage and feel the set and props and hold the space in their memory as they watch the show.

“I find the haptic tours just as valuable as the audio description,” says Shotgun regular audience member Warren Cushman. “You get an idea of ​​who the actors are and the context of the play. It’s quite enchanting.

Shotgun Players provides audio description and haptic tours for an event in each production, typically Sunday matinees. About 40 to 50 BVI spectators take advantage of these services each season, according to director of marketing and communications Jayme Catalano. “Word of mouth seems to be growing in the blind and visually impaired community,” she says. “We have a few unofficial ambassadors who have reached out to their community and brought them in.”

Although virtual events have dwindled — much to the disappointment of many accessibility advocates — Gravity’s work in physical spaces is more in demand than ever. Curtis says the company is “as busy as we can afford to be” with in-person event consultation for BVIs and the disabled public, providing ongoing services to 47 Bay Area now national organizations, which have made 137 events, films and videos accessible to BVI audiences since their launch in 2017. The company also has a Berlin program that provides services to roughly the same number of organizations and artists in Germany.

Swantje Henke uses a silent microphone to narrate live audio descriptions of a performance. In this image, she is facing the camera and holding a microphone mouthpiece with padding on her face. In the background, other audience members face the camera, watching a performance. (Jess Curtis)

The cost of participation

Arts accessibility advocates and artists note that lack of funding is a fundamental barrier to improving and standardizing accessible programming. Setting up in-person audio description costs almost $2,000 per show (including equipment, administration and staff costs). A small Bay Area performing arts company, which might make about half that amount in ticket sales, may do the math and decide to forgo the service.

“It can be frustrating for an artist who’s invested in it and nobody’s coming,” Curtis says. His company therefore decided to tackle the barrier. With funding from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund and the Ford Foundation, Gravity subsidizes audio descriptions at just $300 per event, making accessibility much more accessible for organizations with small budgets.

Curtis believes accessibility is a long-term investment and shouldn’t be reduced to a mathematical equation. “It’s really easy to do the math and realize that it could cost every blind person thousands of dollars,” he says. “The economy is still there, but we have to think more broadly about people’s right of access.”

But to make this possible, artists and organizations need systemic support from arts foundations and other funders.