Making the arts accessible for everyone
Theaters, groups welcome people with disabilities
as performers, audience


Zest Making the arts accessible for everyone Theaters, groups welcome people with disabilities as performers, audience BY KATHY HALL Correspondent

Making the arts accessible for everyone
Theaters, groups welcome people with disabilities
as performers, audience

Accessible arts facilities make it possible for people with handicaps to participate fully in the arts. Illustration from “Design for Accessibility: A Cultural Administrator’s Handbook.”Accessible arts facilities make it possible for people with handicaps to participate fully in the arts. Illustration from “Design for Accessibility: A Cultural Administrator’s Handbook.”

One out of every five Americans has some level of disability, including 38 million individuals who are severely disabled, according to the 1997 U.S. Census Bureau report. The federal Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) prohibits discrimination and ensures equal opportunity for persons with disabilities in the areas of employment, state and local government services, public accommodations, commercial facilities, transportation and telecommunications.

Passed on July 26, 1990, the ADA has had a wide-ranging effect on local arts groups who are covered under the "public accommodation" section of the act.

"The New Jersey State Council on the Arts has been a big proponent of groups looking at the spirit not just the letter of the law to reach out and make the arts more accessible," according to Monmouth County Arts Council Executive Director Mary Eileen Fouratt, who views compliance with the act as a "win-win situation."

"The more people we invite in, the more we strengthen the arts’ place as an integral part of the community, " Fouratt said.

A critical component of inviting people in is making sure they can gain access to the places that house art.

"New construction is very easy," said Guy Gsell, managing director of the Two River Theatre Company currently under construction in Red Bank. "None of the things you have to do is particularly expensive if you are doing it fresh. We designed back stage, administrative offices and public spaces to be accessible. Where we needed to move from one level to another we put in a ramp or an elevator."

Older theaters like the Count Basie Theatre on Monmouth Street in Red Bank face more difficult challenges in compliance but also have more leeway.

"Our theater was built in 1926," observed marketing director Regina Paleau. "[Under the ADA] old structures were grandfathered. However, once you do a renovation, you are required to bring it into compliance.

"We’re working to make the theater welcoming to everyone, but money is still a problem" Paleau admitted. "We’re starting with the seats since that would make the biggest difference for the audience."

Twenty new orchestra seats will be removable to allow patrons in wheelchairs a wider choice of seating. Under the old seating plan, wheelchair seating was concentrated in the rear of the theater in front of the sound board.

"Before ADA, most functioning theaters wanted to be accessible," according to Paleau, who has worked in a variety of venues before coming to the Count Basie. "Now having the law and having a basis for compliance really moves that desire forward."

The Count Basie already has a handicapped-accessible bathroom on the first floor and offers infra-red assistive-listening devices and large-print programs. Paleau is looking into the requirements for signers for theatrical productions. The Basie’s performance spaces, which are not currently undergoing any renovation, still pose problems. Veteran performer B.B. King had to use the loading-dock ramp to gain access.

An accessible building isn’t the entire picture, according to Gsell, whose company also offers signed and open captioned performances for the deaf and audio description for the blind at its current home at the Algonquin Theatre in Manasquan.

"A couple of years ago, even though we offered performances, no one came," he admitted, "but we made a commitment to build the audiences. We worked with schools for the deaf, the Consumer Advisory Council on the Disabled in Monmouth County and the Monthly Communicator [a magazine for the deaf]. We asked, ‘What performances would your constituents be interested in attending?’ and purposely scheduled our signed performances on Saturday afternoons, which was the time they felt was most convenient."

For Evelyn Gardell, artistic director of the Performing Arts Ensemble (PAE) in Red Bank, working with people with disabilities came quite naturally.

Gardell has included a man in a wheelchair in her "Nutcracker" party scene by having her set designer make the wheels look Victorian and has cast a young man who was hearing impaired in the role of Fritz, Clara’s brother in "The Nutcracker."

His limited hearing was not a problem, she said.

"Fritz is an actor/dancer role with room for interpretation," she explained. "If you are dancing with another person, you pick up the choreography and timing. He already understood the acting."

PAE incorporated spoken narration in its ballet "Aladdin," and its production of "Alice in Wonderland" has been presented with both spoken and signed narration.

For Gardell those accommodations were artistic decisions rather than a particular need to comply with the law because both pieces are based on written works with strong stories.

PAE also offers sensory seminars where people with visual impairments are invited to come on stage, see the dancers and costumes up close, touch the props and have the story explained prior to the performance.

Gardell is currently learning about dance for people in wheelchairs and is planning on setting up a program for schoolchildren with mobility disabilities.

Disability blind casting also comes naturally at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre in Long Branch, according to Gabor Barabas, artistic director.

"A couple of years ago we did a play called ‘The Good Daughter.’ There is a role for a disabled young woman; we cast the play with an actress [Christine Bruno] with cerebral palsy."

Bruno didn’t get the part because she was disabled but "because she was a good actress," Barabas explained.

A member of SAG/AFTRA/AEA, Bruno had worked with NJ Rep previously on the Monday night script-reading series.

The Heart of New Jersey Chorus’s commitment to inclusion has had a profound effect on Kathy Ferreira of Holmdel, a chorus member who has had cerebral palsy since birth and who uses a walker and a wheelchair.

Ferreira, who met her husband at a chorus rehearsal and has also performed in local productions of "Annie" and "Peter Pan" with him and their two children, explained, "CP hasn’t affected my ability to sing, but it does affect my ability to stand. I sit during rehearsals and usually during performances, but sometimes the whole chorus performs on stools.

"My balance wouldn’t let me use a regular stool, so the Sweet Adelines [the national parent group that sponsors the Heart of New Jersey Chorus] did research and located a special chair that can be attached to the risers."

For Ferreira, "the ADA is just the beginning. This is the first time I’ve been part of a group who want me for me. The last two places we sang, the building was accessible, but the stage wasn’t," she said. "My gang helped me up the stairs. If I couldn’t get to a stage, they would perform on the floor with me."

Whether it’s finding an architect to design an accessible building or hiring performers with disabilities because of their talents, local arts groups’ response to the ADA is best summed up by Two River Theatre’s Guy Gsell.

"Without the ADA," he said, "we might never have had the time to learn about a part of our community that has become important to us."