Theatre producers are always looking for new audiences. But sometimes they need a little help identifying those potential theatregoers. Back in 1979 the Theatre Development Fund helped those showpeople clean off their glasses a bit.
"They realized that, in expanding their audience, people with disabilities was an audience that hadn't been reached yet," recalled Lisa Carling, the director of TDF's Accessibility Programs (TAP), which is celebrating its 35th anniversary this year. "It started with a concept of generous accessibility" for people who use wheelchairs and people with vision loss and who are hard of hearing. Through the new program, such would-be theatregoers needn't visit the theatre box office, but could buy discounted tickets through TDF. If customers had limited vision, they could nab seats close to the stage. The same held true for people with impaired hearing, who also benefited from open captioning on electronic displays on the side of the stage. In 1980, Broadway performances featuring sign language were added; The Elephant Man was the first play to offer such a furnishment.
During the first year, TAP had a mailing list of 400. Today, the list is 12,000 members long.
Since those early days, additional programs have been introduced. For theatregoers with moderate to severe vision loss, there is audio description of stage action — through a single-earpiece receiver — at select performances. Access for Young Audiences (AYA) provides assistance to young theatregoers with vision loss and who are hard of hearing. The Autism Theatre Initiative (ATI) gives people with autism the chance to attend special performances that have made modifications and are equipped with a trained staff. Some of these programs are also offered at regional theatres. Producers were very open to TDF's efforts in the beginning. "The mindset back then was very different," said Carling. "It was a way of reaching a new audience. There was [also] an element that it's the right thing to do. That was before the Americans with Disabilities Act was signed into law."
One would imagine that, with the passing years, that TAP's access to Broadway productions would have become easier. But the changing landscape of commercial theatre has actually made negotiations more challenging. "Given the economic needs of these special audiences for discounted tickets combined with Broadway's rising costs, it is still done on a show-by-show basis," explained Carling.
"We are lucky to do open captioning while in previews," Carling continued. "It is somewhat difficult to get shows on board. We are asking for orchestra seats at 50 percent off, and we need a block of 150–200 seats."
Still, TAP soldiers on, and labors to make more shows more accessible to more people. The autism program has played The Lion King, Mary Poppins, Elf and Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark. An autism-friendly performance of Wicked is scheduled for March, and TAP is hopeful of landing Disney's latest, Aladdin.
Carling has seen much of TAP's history unfold personally. She began in 1983 answering phones. Soon after that she became the assistant to the woman who ran the program; two years later, she took over. "I never intended to stay this long, but there's always something more that needs to be done," she said. "There's always an audience left out that needs to be addressed. Plus I love my job and I feel I can make a difference."