Temple University

Top Watermark

Occupational therapy students, Institute on Disabilities make theater more accessible

When Amy Blumberg, an MFA in directing student in the School of Theater, Film, and Media Arts, was chosen last fall to direct Waiting for Rain for the Temple Theaters MFA Playwriting Rep, it was a fitting choice. She had helped fellow MFA student Mark Costello work on the script over the past few years, so she already knew the play well.

She was familiar with the two leads: Jenna, who has an unnamed physical disability, and Ryan, who deals with mental health issues. She knew their relationship, which the play explores over the course of three years. To Blumberg, it’s “a story about how we often get in the way of receiving the love that we deserve.”

Despite being the perfect director for the production, though, she faced a dilemma.

“There wasn't a moment where I thought that it was ethically sound for me to direct somebody to ‘act disabled,’” said Blumberg. “For so many reasons, both ethical and artistic, I thought it was of the utmost importance that we find an actor with a physical disability.”

When searching through students in Temple’s theater program proved fruitless, Blumberg expanded the search to other universities and acting companies in the region. She even considered hiring an actor from New York, which would have skyrocketed the production’s budget.

But then Lisa Sonnenborn, director of media arts and culture for Temple’s Institute on Disabilities, offered guidance. Established in 1974, the institute advocates for people with disabilities and offers programming in technology, education, emergency preparedness, employment and other areas that help those with disabilities lead self-determined lives, including the arts. Sonnenborn connected Blumberg with Neill Hartley, a Temple theater alumnus whose nonprofit, Acting Without Boundaries, provides opportunities for people with disabilities to act and perform.

Through Hartley, Blumberg met Hannah Brannau, a local actor, who she quickly casted. In addition to being a great actor, Blumberg said, Brannau’s experience living with cerebral palsy offered insights on how Jenna might act in ordinary situations. For example, Brannau could offer an opinion on when a character would remain in a wheelchair or move to a couch, or how much time it would realistically take for a scene change—nuances that Blumberg and Costello wouldn’t understand without someone with that lived experience, Blumberg said.

With the lead role cast, Blumberg wanted to ensure that the production itself could be as accessible to audiences as possible. She again turned to Sonnenborn, who connected Blumberg to Roger Ideishi, associate professor of instruction in the Department of Rehabilitation Sciences and director of the master of occupational therapy program.  

Ideishi has worked for years to make arts and cultural institutions more accessible. As a consultant, he’s helped organizations including the John F. Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, the Smithsonian Institution, the city of Flint, Michigan, the Pittsburgh Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Academy of Natural develop programming for those with disabilities.

Ideishi and a team of graduate OT students—Joanna Reed, Kalena Burnett, Remy Binder, Vivian Hin, JiYoung Shin, Morgan Morreale, and Christina Neroni—joined Blumberg, as well as Scenic and Lighting Designer Dustin Pettegrew and others involved in the production, for a walkthrough. They determined what aspects of the play would need to change to make the show more accessible.

“Occupational therapists support their clients in improving their abilities to do all of the activities that are meaningful to them in their everyday lives,” said Reed. “It is crucial that all of our clients that are patrons of the arts, or artists/performers themselves, have the same opportunities and abilities to engage in art experiences as anyone else.”

It turns out, not much needed to happen—most changes take place before the show begins. They designated areas for sensory-friendly seating with easy access to the theater; made recommendations that the stairs and aisles be better illuminated; and took notes on any sounds, lights, or narrative elements that could overstimulate someone with sensory needs.

“Creating performances where audience members are able to move around and get up when needed is an incredibly easy and completely free way to make theater more accessible,” said Reed, who worked on a “Know Before You Go” fact sheet that offered advance info on the venue, transportation options, and any potentially triggering aspects of the play. “Simply doing this could be the difference between a theater-loving mom and her child with autism getting to enjoy a production together or not.”

Other additions take place during the show, such as the audio description Blumberg offered for the play’s sold-out accessibility night, which took place on Friday, Feb. 2. To Blumberg’s knowledge, this was the first time Temple Theaters performance has incorporated audio description in addition to the sign language interpretation that Temple typically offers at least once per show.

Think of it like a radio play: if requested, audience members receive a headset tuned to a live description of what’s happening onstage. As the viewer can hear the dialogue just fine, the audio description fills in the other details. In Waiting for Rain, for example, the listener may hear a description of the setting or notice that a scene has changed, but they may also hear something like: Jenna is crossing to the back-right area of the room. She throws a pad of paper at Ryan.

With such easy to implement and unobtrusive changes, the result is a production that looks identical to any other night’s performance.

“We don't want to offer a different theater experience,” said Blumberg. “We want it to be the same—just in a way that is more accessible.”

Read more about the occupational therapy program and Temple Theaters.

PHOTO CAPTION: Hannah Brannau and Jay Ritter in Waiting for Rain, directed by Amy Shoshana Blumberg and written by Mark Costello. Scenic and Lighting Design: Dustin Pettegrew. Costume Design: Kathleen Embrey. Photo Credit: Mark Garvin.

Posted:  February 3, 2018