Disney Theatricals’ President Talks Making Theatre Inclusive and Accessible

Special Features   Disney Theatrical’s President Talks Making Theatre Inclusive and Accessible with TDF Disney Theatrical’s president and producer, Thomas Schumacher, speaks about collaborating with Theatre Development Fund and his work on the upcoming Frozen.
Thomas Schumacher and the Open Doors class of 2012
Thomas Schumacher and the Open Doors class of 2012 Courtesy of Theatre Development Fund

On March 14, TDF honored Thomas Schumacher and Disney Theatrical Productions at its annual fundraising gala. But the president and producer of Disney Theatrical was quick to revert attention to TDF and its impact on the theatrical community and the world at large through theatre. “It’s not anyone’s actual deed or deeds that we honor in a night like this; rather, it’s the opportunity to do those deeds,” said Schumacher. “Decade after decade, they’re the ones that do the brilliant hard work, and TDF is giving all of us a chance.”

To Schumacher’s mind, Disney and TDF are a fitting pair as each is dedicated to the missions of accessibility and inclusivity. No two programs are more demonstrative of those ideals than TDF’s Autism Theatre Initiative, bringing sensory-friendly performances to special needs audiences and their families, and the Open Doors education program, in which a mentor from the industry works with eight students for the academic year to introduce them to theatre. TDF and Disney launched the Autism Theatre Initiative with the first-ever sensory-friendsly performance of The Lion King on October 2, 2011, and Schumacher has served as an Open Doors mentor since 2006.

Thomas Schumacher, Victoria Bailey and Earl D. Weiner at the 2016 TDF Gala
Thomas Schumacher, Victoria Bailey and Earl D. Weiner at the 2016 TDF Gala Jeremy Daniel

For TDF, now was the practically perfect time to highlight these programs by honoring Disney and Schumacher. “We have reached a certain maturity with the Autism Theatre Initiative, where it was an obvious thing to celebrate, and Tom has been one of our longest-standing mentors,” said TDF's executive director, Victoria Bailey. “It all went together.”

“Every minute of our special performances that we do for Autism Speaks [the consulting organization] and TDF, those are spectacular,” Schumacher told Playbill. “Families come, and the experience they’re having is one that they can’t really have any other time, where they can be totally free and just let go and enjoy the evening.”

“Theatre Development Fund and their Autism Initiative has allowed families like my own to enjoy the wonder and the magic and experience of Broadway live without any threats or fear,” said parent Katie Sweeney in a video capturing the essence of Disney Theatrical’s contributions. The Initiative presents four sensory-friendly performances each season, lowering sound cues, amending onstage lighting and more to create a production and atmosphere to accommodate more families of theatregoers. This season, TDF presented performances of The Lion King, Wicked and Aladdin with an upcoming performance of The King and I scheduled April 24.

More than Broadway, TDF follows through on the larger mission of inclusivity. “We go out and provide technical assistance to venues around the country,” said Bailey to introduce sensory-friendly practices and open-captioning services to regional theatres and presenting houses to create a national community of theatregoers, no matter their needs.

Major Attaway, Trevor Dion Nichols, James Monroe Iglehart and Michael James Scott perform "Friend Like Me" at 2016 TDF Gala
Major Attaway, Trevor Dion Nichols, James Monroe Iglehart and Michael James Scott perform "Friend Like Me" at 2016 TDF Gala Jeremy Daniels

Likewise, Disney Theatrical currently introduces live theatre to audiences all over the world, with productions of their shows in 21 countries. And, as Genie James Monroe Iglehart pointed out, Disney “employs more minority performers than most anybody.”

This community outreach is at the crux of TDF and Disney’s work, but it’s also a personal commitment of Schumacher’s. As a mentor in the Open Doors program, he has personally shepherded 72 students. “I started going to the theatre as a junior high school student and I would go with a large group and get loaded into a theatre in San Francisco, and it changed my life,” he said. “But if I could have gone to the theatre with someone who made theatre, I think my head would have exploded.” It’s the intimate connection, the feeling of impact, that inspires Schumacher. “They use this experience of going to the theatre and talking about others to reveal things about themselves.”

Sabrina Howard, one of Schumacher’s former mentees, remembers her own self-discovery in an Open Doors discussion after seeing The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. “It really hit home for me because my nephew has autism,” she said, remembering that she broke down crying in that moment. “I didn’t expect to be so vulnerable, but because Tom is so opening and so inviting and really made us feel like we were a family since the first day, I couldn’t help myself. Being vulnerable was something I was not a big fan of, but the way I express myself and learned to open up was through Tom and his showing us that it was ok to let our guard down and feel something.”

And that’s what Schumacher, and his work through Disney Theatrical, does for his audiences—and will continue to do with Disney’s much-anticipated Frozen. “These movies are between 75 and 90 minutes, that's sort of a first act. We have to find ways, not to expand it, but to make it deeper and richer and also pitch it for what is a true Broadway audience and that’s my job,” he said. “Four days this week we’re workshopping different elements of Frozen already—trying techniques, trying ideas, meeting people, experimenting. ... Lots of people you know are coming in, helping us, singing a demos for us, reading a page or two for us, designing for us and will continue to do that.”

As for more, Schumacher is protecting the project and its “dream team.” “We had so much privacy on The Lion King,” he said. “Nobody knew what we were doing; we had so many versions of those costumes and masks and puppets that no one ever saw. We opened in Minneapolis in a theatre that was half-filled. We had so much privacy, and I‘m going to create that privacy for our team.”

Open Doors students mentored by Thomas Schumacher
Open Doors students mentored by Thomas Schumacher Jenny Anderson

Be it Frozen or any project, Schumacher wants to create meaning through Disney Theatrical‘s storytelling. Aladdin’s Adam Jacobs, James Monroe Iglehart, Major Attaway, Trevor Dion Nicholas and Michael James Scott, original Mary Poppins, Ashley Brown, and 14 Open Doors alumnae sang a rendition of “A Whole New World” (new lyrics courtesy of Rick Elice) that seemingly couldn’t have better explained Schumacher’s stamp on theatre: “Tom has opened our eyes, showed us stories that changed us.”

Howard certainly feels she was changed, thanks to Schumacher and TDF. “My love for being in school and theatre wouldn’t have been a thing if it wasn’t for Tom,” says the Bard College freshman. (She wrote her admissions essay about Schumacher and her Open Doors experience.)

As Howard and her fellow Open Doors alumnae took their final bow alongside the night’s singers, Schumacher leapt onto the stage and cheered, “May I just point out? This is what America looks like.” With work from organizations like Disney and TDF, we can only hope that theatre continues to reflect and include all of those who enjoy it.

Ruthie Fierberg is the Features Editor at Playbill.com. She has also written for Backstage, Parents and American Baby, including dozens of interviews with celeb moms and dads for parents.com. Follow her on Twitter at @RuthiesATrain.