This summer, the theatre company that I work for, Portola Valley Theatre Conservatory (PVTC), made what I consider to be an impressive stride for inclusion and had its first ever theater program specifically geared towards students with physical and developmental disabilities, led by Northwestern University student Maddie Napel. Maddie is the executive director of Seesaw Theatre, an organization on Northwestern’s campus founded in 2012 with the original name “Theatre Stands with Autism.” This group creates multi-sensory, dynamic performances that “strive to enrich the lives of individuals living with autism spectrum condition and other developmental differences by increasing their access to theatre and fostering the use of performance as a channel of expression” (www.seesawtheatre.org). The Summer Access Group had a similar goal, offering a multisensory drama experience and Relaxed Previews of two of the performances that summer. A “relaxed” environment means the removal of sudden or surprising sound effects, left the houselights at low level, and invited a freedom of expression from “appropriate audience behavior.” In conjunction, Maddie taught workshops on inclusion and accessibility to the campers in my, and an even younger, cast.
Some of my students were then offered the opportunity to play theatre games with the group after their performance. The feedback that I received from every student was positive, excited, and hoped that this program would continue. My students felt as though they had a better understanding of some of the adversity that other young people with disabilities may face as both audience members and performers.
I think programs like Maddie’s not only bring a new, important audience to the theatre world to participate in the transformative experience that performance can be, but also raises the next generation of theatre artists to include and cherish this population in theatre-making. American Theatre Magazine in October of last year, also the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act, commented on the growing awareness of actors with disabilities playing both able and disable roles. Allison Considine comments on Deaf West’s production of Spring Awakening and its huge popularity “telling a story through nontraditional means.” But we still lack in casting characters that are disabled with actors who may share that disability. This problem is pervasive, and only starting to be fixed.
Considine came to one conclusion that in order to integrate actors with disabilities into the theatre scene, they need to be considered for able roles. Theater Breaking Through Barriers in New York works with an integrated cast, originally working with only blind actors and moving out to the extensive abilities community, and Nicu’s Spoon Theater asks for performers of all genders, backgrounds, and abilities to audition. These are first steps towards more universal inclusion of actors with disabilities, but this should extend through to companies where the inclusion of actors with disabilities doesn’t have to be explicitly written in their mission statement.
I think this is a necessary first step for regional and professional theatres. But I also think that programs like Maddie’s, starting with young people, able and disabled, will begin this shift from the very roots of theatre up to the top. Showing young people that all backgrounds are welcome in this creative space means that there will not only be room for them in the future of theatre, but they will be necessary for the kind of art that is created. In addition to multisensory drama that gives young people the freedom to touch, taste, see, and play with performers, we should include them in the potential for performance-making on every kind of stage.