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Behind the curtain: As theaters become more accessible to patrons, are actors left behind?

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Behind the curtain: As theaters become more accessible to patrons, are actors left behind?
Madison Ferris in Muhlenberg's 2013 production of The Winter's Tale. Photo by Ken Ek, Kenek Photography

Ali Stroker moves down the street at a brisk pace, her arms accustomed to pushing herself along and navigating through the crowded streets of New York City. She moves around people and hails a taxi, hoisting herself out of her chair and onto the seat.

She enters her apartment, making her way into her bedroom, styled in an adorable pink and green contrast. The forest green shades on Stroker’s dresser match her sweatshirt, most likely unintentionally, but it is charming nonetheless. Even when she is sitting still for the interview, Stroker exudes a sense of confidence, using her head and shoulders emphatically as she speaks with passion, her blonde waves shifting around on her shoulders. She is the first performer on Broadway who uses a wheelchair, and the passion coating every word she says makes it clear she knows how important this opportunity is, both for her, and for other performers like her. Her voice is loud and clear, most likely from her musical theatre training.

At another filming session for the interview, Stroker makes her way into the living room of her apartment. Her living room is bright, the light from the window on one wall shining on the carpet and part of her couch. This time, Stroker’s cream sweater matches her plain white walls. Perhaps the color coordination for each interview session is intentional after all. Her couch is decorated with brightly patterned throw pillows that add a pop of color in an otherwise monochromatic room. Stroker moves from her wheelchair to sit on the couch, where she is looking at casting calls on her phone and laptop.

She suddenly chuckles and turns to her friend, who is also sitting in the living room. “I just found out that like, half these parts have to be able to tap dance.” Her friend cackles with laughter at this remark, and Stroker half rolls her eyes, but she does not seem deterred for too long, as she quickly gets back to work.

Stroker is one of the most widely known performers with a disability in recent years, having gotten her start on The Glee Project and making her Broadway debut in 2015 in the revival of Spring Awakening, which was directed by Michael Arden and featured several deaf actors in the production. She made history and headlines when she won the Tony Award for her role as Ado Annie in Daniel Fish’s revival of Oklahoma! in 2019, becoming the first performer who uses a wheelchair to win a Tony Award.

Stroker’s noteworthy performances most likely would not have been possible a mere 50 years ago, as the first major disability rights law was not passed until 1973. Although there had been some laws in place beforehand to offer accommodations for people with disabilities, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 offered critical anti-discrimination language in Section 504. The section states that “no qualified individual with a disability in the United States shall be excluded from, denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under” any of the programs or activities receiving federal financial assistance or is conducted by a federal agency. It took protests in both Washington D.C. and San Francisco to get the section passed in 1973, including a 25 day sit-in in San Francisco, but once it was passed, changes in accessibility were noticeable throughout the country, but there was still more work to do.

The passing of Section 504 was critical in the disability rights movement, but it took another 17 years for the now well-known Americans with Disabilities Act to be passed, following protests and lobbying from people with disabilities. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was passed in 1990 and offers more protections to people with disabilities, but the most important of these in terms of theatre is Title III of the ADA, which covers Public Accommodations. Accessibility for both patrons and performers is covered under this section. It requires that all public buildings comply with the basic nondiscrimination policies as well as with specific architectural standards and requirements. This section also requires modifications to policies, as well as communication with people with hearing, vision, or speech disabilities. For any public buildings that can afford it, they are also required to remove any barriers in existing buildings.

These accommodations make the buildings themselves accessible and ensure services are offered for patrons such as open captioning and audio description, and the results of these regulations can be seen at the collegiate and professional level. Jessica Bien, general manager of the theatre department at Muhlenberg College, previously worked as the access coordinator as part of her job as the executive assistant to the chief operating officer at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts (now the Boch Center). Part of her work as the general manager includes accessibility at the college, with much of this work being spearheaded by Bien herself. In fact, before Bien began working at Muhlenberg in 2006, only ASL-interpreted performances were available at Muhlenberg. Now, all three of Muhlenberg’s theaters are wheelchair accessible, and Muhlenberg offers a variety of services for patrons, including open captioned performances, audio described performances, and sensory-friendly performances, which offer a more comfortable environment for patrons with conditions such as autism that make them sensitive to typical lighting and sound effects.

Prior to her work at Muhlenberg College, when Bien was employed at the Wang Center for the Performing Arts, one of her main tasks was making major national tours of Broadway productions like The Lion King accessible to the public. Bien worked at the theatre about 20 years ago, but acknowledges how much work needed to be done in making those shows accessible. “The difference there is that you don’t have the opportunity to work with the production team that is creating the work,” explained Bien, “so you don’t have as much access to the work as we have when we’re working in the kind of environment that we do at the college or when you’re working at a regional theatre that is producing their own work.”

Touring productions that came to the theatre were sometimes only there for as little as a week, which proved challenging when trying to provide services to the theatre’s patrons, especially when major companies like Disney might not even provide the staff with the script in advance. This is challenging for whoever is in charge of writing the open captioning because “part of open captioning is entering the text that is the exact script text and any sound effects into the software so that it scrolls, and if you only get it that week (if you’re lucky), it was really frustrating to have to do it so quickly.” Today, Bien acknowledges that Disney and other national touring companies are much better about providing the theatres with the tools they need to make certain performances accessible.

While these accommodations have made the theatre experience for patrons more inclusive, the same is not always true for performers with disabilities. When Madison Ferris, ‘14, was a theatre student at Muhlenberg, the theaters themselves were accessible, but often through alternate routes like Mulenberg’s glass enclosed walkway, colloquially known as the Fishbowl, or through elevators. Ferris was in Muhlenberg’s production of The Three Sisters, directed by Holly Cate, and while this production was accessible to her, she had to use the far side entrance of the theatre to access the stage. For Muhlenberg’s production of The Winter’s Tale, directed by Troy Dwyer in the Studio Theatre, Ferris explained enthusiastically that “they built this really cool circular ramp set,” and that those working on the set often checked in with her as they were building the set to make sure the inclines were accessible and that there was enough space for her to move around in. Overall, Ferris was pleased with the accessible measures in place at Muhlenberg. “But once I left college,” she noted, “I realized how inaccessible theatres can be.”

In her Broadway debut in Sam Gold’s 2017 revival of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie. Ferris starred as Laura Wingfield, a role that made headlines because Ferris was the first performer in a leading role on Broadway who uses a wheelchair. But the Belasco Theatre in which Ferris performed The Glass Menagerie, is a historical landmark and cannot be as easily adjusted as modern buildings. When Ferris performed at the Joyce Theatre, a colleague had to carry her up and down the stairs every time she had to get on or off the stage, which Ferris says “puts a lot of unnecessary attention on you.” On Broadway, however, Ferris had a much more positive experience, despite the Belasco Theatre’s historical status. “They did everything they could to make me feel comfortable,” including building a ramp over the step to go into the theater and making sure Ferris’ dressing room was on the first floor of the theatre.

Recently, Ferris travelled down to Philadelphia for a recording session, and despite her agent calling ahead of time, she got to the studio, only to realize there was a step to go into the sound booth. One of the staff members found a large enough piece of wood that Ferris was able to use, which is not a permanent solution, but Ferris was contacted afterwards by the studio to let her know that they were going to build a permanent ramp for the sound booth. Even with so many accessibility measures in place and improvements made from even 20 years ago, there is still more work to do. “Once people see a need for it, they are willing to change,” said Ferris. “They just have to see a need for it.”

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