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Feeling, Not Seeing, the Performing Arts: Theaters Get Creative About Accessibility

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Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis perform in The Way You Look (at me) Tonight. (Sven Hagolani)

Tiffany Taylor studied theater in college, but she hadn’t truly felt welcome in the performing arts as a blind audience member or artist. That changed in 2016, when she first felt the work of San Francisco dance choreographer Jess Curtis.

Curtis’ show began with a haptic access tour that allowed Taylor to touch the props, stage and even performers before taking her seat. She wore a headset connected to a wire transmitter, and a prerecorded narrator described the show’s dance sequences and other visual cues to Taylor as her hearing and sense of vibration completed the experience.

The performance, The Way You Look (At Me) Tonight, involved a variety of sensory access experiments for audiences with different abilities. Dancers described their motions aloud in a dark room and performed with crutches. Sighted audiences could only see portions of the performance as dancers moved around them on a pitch-black stage.

Taylor had never experienced anything like it.

“That was the first time I had really seen anybody with a disability in dance,” she says.

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Historically, audio descriptions and other services for blind and visually impaired (BVI) audiences have been rare in the performing arts, often because of high costs. But as conversations about disability justice enter the mainstream, an increasing number of theaters have made accessibility a priority.

Curtis and his team play a key role in this evolution: His consulting company, Gravity Access Services, assists producers across the country — both for virtual events throughout the pandemic, and in person as audiences continue to return to theaters. And although disability justice advocates decry the turn away from online and hybrid events, which allow greater access to cultural happenings, many view the increase of BVI services as a hopeful step towards making the arts more accessible for all.

‘You are welcome on this stage.’

By Curtis’ estimate, only five Bay Area organizations offered audio description in 2016, many of them large venues with bigger budgets. Accessibility services were — and remain — prohibitively expensive for many artists and organizations already struggling with the Bay Area’s high cost of doing business.

Curtis realized the U.S. had a long way to go to enhance arts accessibility when he was living in Berlin. But he had years of expertise, and several boxes of audio description equipment to bring back to San Francisco.

Curtis’ goal is to help choreographers and producers bring their work to life to BVI audiences with audio descriptions that describe movement in more expressive ways, beyond play-by-plays of events. “Back then, audio description was mostly standard scripted stuff,” Curtis says. “What we brought was a dance background, thinking about how body-based performance could be described in creative ways.”

Curtis now works with Bay Area choreographers like Sherwood Chen and Deborah Slater to illustrate their movements for BVI audience members, some of whom are experiencing dance for the first time.

Gravity’s services include accessibility auditing of marketing materials and websites, access for patrons for mobility issues, haptic tours and deaf consultations and referrals. The company’s launch couldn’t have been possible without the input of BVI artists such as Taylor, who started attending Curtis’ Contact Improv classes after observing his accessible approach to dance programming. She was cast in a mixed-access dance ensemble for the company’s 2017 work, Sight Unseen.

“Gravity was really my main entrance into dance because a lot of dancers or disabled people aren’t welcome in traditional training [spaces],” which precludes them from career opportunities, Taylor says. “Jess turned the table and said, ‘You are welcome on this stage.’”

Performer, choreographer and accessibility consultant Jess Curtis is giving theaters and performing arts organizations the resources they need to make their offerings more accessible to audiences with disabilities. In this portrait, Jess Curtis stands in front of a set design with dark, shadowy trees, wearing a black T-shirt, earrings and a spiky, white hairstyle. (Sven Hagolani)

Taylor joined Gravity as an accessibility consultant after performing in several works with Curtis’ company. She now uses her background in theater and lived experiences to provide accessibility audits to organizations like Shotgun Players, TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Oakland’s Bay Area Children’s Theatre, Jacob’s Pillow and the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Her philosophy is simple: “How do we recognize that disabled people are valid and valuable members of the community?”

Prioritizing accessibility

In 2021, Gravity shifted their focus to consulting on virtual event accessibility, incorporating audio description to online or livestreamed events. “It opened a whole new world for blind and disabled people,” Taylor recalls. “Any blind person in the world could potentially attend a show and not have the same access barriers like transportation.”

Berkeley theater company Shotgun Players adopted audio descriptions for their livestreamed events during pandemic shutdowns. Now back in person, the company has partnered with BVI organizations like LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, Guide Dogs for the Blind and East Bay Center to organize group outings to take advantage of their accessible programming. Here BVI audiences are invited on haptic tours to meet actors, walk the stage and feel the set and props and carry the space in their memory as they’re watching the show.

“I find the haptic tours equally valuable as audio description,” says regular Shotgun audience member Warren Cushman. “You get a sense of who the actors are and the background of the play. It’s quite enchanting.”

Shotgun Players provides audio description and haptic tours for one event in every production, typically as a Sunday matinee. Around 40 to 50 BVI audiences take advantage of these services each season, according to director of marketing and communications Jayme Catalano. “Word of mouth seems to be growing in the blind and low vision community,” she says. “We have a few unofficial ambassadors who have been reaching out to their community and bringing them in.”

Although virtual events have dwindled — much to the disappointment of many accessibility advocates — Gravity’s work in physical spaces is in greater demand than ever. Curtis says that the company is “as busy as we can afford to be” with in-person event consultation for BVI and disabled audiences, providing ongoing services for 47 Bay Area now national organizations, who have made 137 events, films and videos accessible to BVI audiences since their launch in 2017. The company additionally has a Berlin program that provides services to roughly the same amount of organizations and artists in Germany.

Swantje Henke uses a muffle mic to narrate live audio descriptions for a performance. In this image, she faces the camera and holds a microphone mouthpiece with padding to her face. In the background, other audience members face away from the camera, watching a performance. (Jess Curtis)

The cost of participation

Arts accessibility advocates and artists note a lack of funding as a fundamental barrier to improving and standardizing accessible programming. The implementation of in-person audio description costs nearly $2,000 per show (including equipment, administration and staffing costs). A small Bay Area performing arts company, who might make roughly half that amount in ticket sales, may do the math and decide to forgo the service.

“It can be frustrating for an artist who has invested in this and nobody comes,” Curtis says. So his company decided to address the barrier. With funding from the Walter & Elise Haas Fund and the Ford Foundation, Gravity subsidizes audio descriptions at just $300 per event, making accessibility far more reachable for organizations with smaller budgets.

Curtis believes accessibility is a long-term investment and shouldn’t be reduced to a mathematical equation. “It’s really easy to do the math and realize it could cost thousands of dollars for each blind person,” he says. “The economics are always there, but we need to think more broadly about people’s right to access.”

But to make that feasible, artists and organizations need systemic support from arts foundations and other funders.

Performing arts groups are beginning to embrace accessibility in cities like New York City and San Francisco, where audio description is becoming more widespread. Thanks in part to Gravity’s advocacy, San Francisco Arts Commission — among other Bay Area and national funders — recently started listing accessibility as a budget line item in their grant proposal templates.

“People are sparked to at least think about access now,” Curtis says. “Are they providing access or writing ‘0’ in that line?” He notes that in recent months, more artists and organizations have been calling Gravity to get quotes while in the early stages of production budgeting.

Still, the proliferation of audio description hasn’t resulted in as big of an influx of BVI audiences as Bay Area event organizers have hoped. Outreach to BVI communities is often under-resourced. And artists point to the logistical challenges of transcribing multimedia work as a barrier to welcoming BVI audiences.

Berkeley theater company Shotgun Players hosts performances where blind and visually impaired audience members are invited to touch the set and props before the show begins. This image shows an empty stage at Ashby Stage, with red and orange lighting, a drum kit and other instruments. (Courtesy of Shotgun Players)

San Francisco dance choreographer Deborah Slater is aware of these challenges, yet her commitment to accessibility sparked when her husband began losing his sight. Michael — who declined to be interviewed for this story — would join Deborah in rehearsals, relying on vague shapes to experience the work and offer input. But his vision was rapidly declining.

In 2019, Slater partnered with Gravity to prototype audio description for her 30-year anniversary show at ODC, which featured several of her choreographed duets. Her husband had intimate knowledge of these duets from previous years of joining Deborah in rehearsals. “When it came up that Jess [Curtis] was starting this process, I was interested in participating to help Michael remember things,” she says.

Gravity’s approach is innovating accessibility beyond the basics. For Curtis and likeminded advocates, access is an art in itself where everyone can participate in the sensory nuances of body-based performance.

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“It’s not just about blind people buying tickets,” Curtis says. “It’s about blind people having access to culture and imagining themselves as artists and community members.”

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