What Does it Take to Build an Accessible Theatre Company?
This week we sat down with our very own Alethea Bakogeorge, Development & Communications Associate at The Musical Stage Company to learn more about her educational journey in accessibility and current plans to ensure a more equitable and accessible theatre for all.
When The Musical Stage Company made the decision to postpone our world premiere production of KELLY v. KELLY in March of 2020, I was suddenly looking at an empty schedule. As the Development and Communications Associate here, had the COVID-19 pandemic not happened, I likely would have spent much of Spring 2020 assembling the house programme for KELLY v. KELLY, reaching out to our donors to invite them to the production, and planning upcoming fundraising events. With public gatherings suddenly forbidden and all of those projects up in the air, I said to myself: “Alethea, this is the perfect chance to dive deep into something new. Where can you make the biggest impact with this time?” I immediately knew where I wanted to focus my time and attention.
I am a disabled arts administrator and actor. I was born with cerebral palsy, which affects my mobility. Before coming to The Musical Stage Company, I studied and worked at a variety of American theatre institutions, where I began to think critically about disability and theatre. I had some experiences that I felt encouraged me to hide my disability, some where I felt very affirmed in my identity as a disabled theatre artist and administrator, and others that acknowledged my disability, but made me feel like “othered”—like when I was playing a disabled character in a show, but some of the venues we performed in were inaccessible backstage, so sometimes I wouldn’t get a real dressing room like all my other castmates, and I would have to prepare for the show in a stage-level bathroom. Even if the intent is not to exclude, these kinds of experiences take an emotional toll.
I’ve known for a long time that I want all the artists, artisans, audience members, and donors who interact with The Musical Stage Company to feel valued when they create, experience, and respond to our work. In order to do that, I knew that our organization needed to make a deeper investment in accessibility. So when all my projects in Spring 2020 got postponed, I told my colleagues that I wanted to put my time into creating a multi-year accessibility strategy for The Musical Stage Company.
Disability is not a monolith. Current research indicates that about 1 in every 5 people has a lived experience of disability—and those experiences can vary widely! While I know what it’s like to have a mobility disability, I don’t know what it’s like to be d/Deaf, blind/low-vision/partially sighted, neurodiverse, or even what it’s like to be a wheelchair user. So while I knew what could be done to make The Musical Stage Company more accessible to people with similar disabilities to mine, I knew I had a lot of learning to do about how this organization could be more accessible to people with a wide range of disabilities.
I started by formalizing my understanding in the Leadership in Accessibility and Inclusion program at Ryerson University, where I earned a Professional Development Award in Spring 2021. There, I learned about disability legislation in Ontario, digital accessibility, accessibility in employment practices, and accessibility in public spaces (like the theatres we perform in). Next, as I began to think up some ideas for how The Musical Stage Company could become more accessible, I had the great privilege of doing a lot of informal learning with my colleagues from across the arts and disability sectors. In the fall of 2020, I interviewed leaders and staff of 14 organizations from across Canada and the US that have made a dedicated effort to make accessibility a key part of their artistic work.
My interviewees very generously shared what kind of access measures they offer at their performances (like relaxed performances and ASL-interpreted performances), where they have seen the greatest demand for more accessibility measures, what the budgetary ramifications of creating access are, how they ensure disabled artists, artisans, and audiences feel comfortable in their spaces and processes, and what they do when they fail at making something accessible. Thank you to the Luminato Festival (Toronto, ON), Mixed Blood Theatre Company (Minneapolis, MN), Sick and Twisted Theatre (Winnipeg, MB), the Toronto Fringe Festival (Toronto, ON), All Bodies Dance (Vancouver, BC), Theatre Passe Muraille (Toronto, ON), Realwheels (Vancouver, BC), Why Not Theatre (Toronto, ON), Inside Out Theatre (Calgary, AB), The Stratford Festival (Stratford, ON), Citadel Theatre (Edmonton, AB), the Arts Club Theatre (Vancouver, BC), Phamaly Theatre Company (Denver, CO), and The Royal Winnipeg Ballet (Winnipeg, MB) for taking the time to share your expertise with me.
After these meetings, I was able to determine what the best practices for arts accessibility are, industry-wide, and make some recommendations to The Musical Stage Company staff as a whole about where we can do more to improve accessibility. You might already have noticed some changes: We are now providing image descriptions and alt-text on all of our social media platforms, and as of next week, our website will become more accessible, with a built-in accessibility widget that will help people with a variety of disabilities browse our website.
We’ve also been hatching some exciting plans to make our productions more accessible, as The Musical Stage Company has not offered access measures like audio described performances, ASL interpreted performances, or relaxed performances in the past. While I can’t share all the details just yet, know that I’ll be returning to the blog over the next couple of months to tell you more about more accessible ways for you to engage with our productions.
I know as a disabled person myself that many people with disabilities have felt like they aren’t welcome at the theatre. We want to change that. Over the next several years, and with our coming productions, we hope that you will get to know a Musical Stage Company that is operating with access as one of our core values. I know I’m really looking forward to seeing more disabled people in the theatre with me, and I’m so excited to share what we have planned and gain your trust as we ensure that musical storytelling is something that everyone can enjoy and participate in.