Building Capacity to Serve Audience Members with Disabilities
Last March, we received a $3,000 grant from The GPD Employees' Foundation to purchase assistive equipment and training to enhance our audience members' experience of live theater. Over the past year our Full Time Volunteer, Susan Dicken, has been working to make Near West more accessible to audience members with disabilities. Through her work and with the help of The GPD Employees’ Foundation, we were able to host our first Sensory-Friendly Performance during Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and for The Wiz, we will be introducing Hearing Assistance Devices.
These Hearing Assistance Devices will be available at each performance, to be used by our patrons who are members of the deaf community or are hard of hearing. If you are in need of a Hearing Assistance Device, you can request them at the Box Office/Will Call when you pay for or pick up your tickets before the show.
With the GPD Grant we were also able to purchase a second wheelchair, after one was donated to us by a partnering disability organization. We also purchased additional items such as more noise cancelling headsets and fidgets, for our young audience members at the Sensory-Friendly Performance and for future Sensory-Friendly Performances.
Our First Sensory-Friendly Performance
With the guidance of partnering disability service organizations, we adjusted one of our shows of Joseph… to be sensory-friendly for youth on the autism spectrum. We offered the noise cancelling headsets, as well as fidgets and quiet spaces to the audience members. The house lights stayed at half during the show, and trained volunteers cued the audience when a sudden noise or strobe light was about to happen.
The Sensory-Friendly Performance had an impact organization-wide. While the audience was small (50 attendees), the enthusiasm of the 75 person cast and crew, volunteers, production team, audience members, and the network of area service providers who worked diligently with us, was inspirational. The hands-on training and the conversations that facilitated awareness and understanding of disability-related issues created an amazing new culture in our organization. We received positive feedback from a number of audience and cast through surveys:
"...I love theater, but as someone with epilepsy, I cannot always attend a show... Attending the Sensory-Friendly Performance was a liberating experience for me, since it meant I could sit through the entire show without any risk. But most importantly, it meant that the theater became accessible to an entire population of people (and their families) who can't normally have experiences like this..." - Audience Member
"Loved that it was at a time when I was not working so that I could bring my autistic son... The short acts and long intermission were also very helpful in managing my son's experience to be fun and enjoyable." - Audience Member
"Performing in the sensory show was a great experience that had added meaning for myself and my family. Having a child with special needs for 16 years now we have seen firsthand how challenging it can be for families to not only provide their special needs children with the experiences they want them to have, but also to find activities for the entire family to enjoy..." - Adult Cast Member/Parent
"My experience with the Sensory-Friendly Performance was one of a complete and intense form of joy. The logistics of the sensory performance - increased house lights, volunteers stationed at the front of the stage, safe spaces, and more - had me unsure of... how these things would impact not only us as actors on stage but also the audience experience of the show. It was to my great relief to see the boisterous delight of the audience. It was this extreme energy that was exuded by them and a conversation I had with a woman who told me that this was the first live theatre experience her son had seen that really impacted me because I believe that theatre is a gift and those of us lucky enough to be blessed with the opportunity to create it have a responsibility to share its power and strength." - Teen Cast Member
Through these efforts, there has been a significant increase in awareness of our accessibility efforts (and their importance) within the staff, cast, crew, and volunteers, within the Near West Theatre community, and within the disabilities communities in Greater Cleveland. Through the support of grants like this and through our organizational partnerships, we are pleased to be increasing our capacity to serve more audience members.
Make sure to check out our UPDATED ACCESSIBILITY PAGE to see all that Near West Theatre has to offer for members of the disability community. We look forward to continue our work on accessibility and providing opportunities to bring arts to all!