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Meg O’Brien: Access is breaking down barriers whether they are perceived or real and removing those barriers so that anyone can come to the theatre and have a night out and have an artistic experience.
Anita Walker: Hi. I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Meg O’Brien, interim co-director of education at the Huntington Theatre Company, and welcome to our program.
Meg O’Brien: Thank you. Hi, Anita. Thanks for having me.
Anita Walker: Of course we love the plays but one of the other things we love about the Huntington is the work you’re doing to make sure that your programming is truly accessible to all and you’re one of the stars in our UP program, universal programs, universal participation. Talk to me about some of the work you’re doing right now.
Meg O’Brien: Well, we– I’m in my tenth season and when I started the focus was on audio-described performances for blind and no-vision audiences and American Sign Language-interpreted performances for deaf and hard of hearing audiences for only two of our productions in a season and we produce seven or eight shows in a season depending on the year. And in the years since we’ve had a lot of feedback from our audience that they want to come back and see us more and see more of our work so we have spent the last couple of seasons really pushing to grow this programming and we’re in the middle of growth. We have just completed a season where we had four audio-described performances in a season and four ASL-interpreted performances in a season and we’re going to five and five.
Anita Walker: We’re using some language, audio-described, ASL.
Meg O’Brien: Yes. So audio description is a live narrative of all of the physical work that’s happening on stage to fill in as much of the picture as possible for someone who may not have full capacity of sight. Maybe they have use of shadow and use of color but we have a team of audio describers who are especially trained and are artists in the field who come to the theatre, they sit in a booth, they watch the play, and they have scripted out the moments of physical movement that are important to the story of the play that they then describe in real time as the play is happening. So when patrons come to the theatre they’ll have one earbud in an ear that is connected to our assistive listening system and the– and that earbud will have the voice of the describer filling in the physical world of the play while they have another ear out to listen to the dialog that’s happening on stage. It’s remarkable and—
Anita Walker: This has got to be a real talent–
Meg O’Brien: It is a real talent.
Anita Walker: –to be able to be telling and describing but not interrupting the dialog.
Meg O’Brien: Yes. It’s not something that I feel I could ever walk into a theatre and just do nor should anyone else; it’s a really specialized, important piece of work that people train for. We have a primary describer who will typically sit and narrate the whole show. There is a secondary describer who will do a pre show description, here is where all of the emergency exits are and how to get to them, here is what our set looks like and colors that are used and textures and here’s where the couch is if we’re in a living room and important details to the set that might also come into play for the story, and they also talk about the characters and the actors playing those characters and some of the information that they’ll find in their program. We have large-print programs available at every performance and at the audio-described performances we also provide Braille programs.
Anita Walker: Is this a growing field? Is it hard to find really excellent audio describers?
Meg O’Brien: That’s a great question. I would like to think it’s a growing field because I feel the demand is growing. We have an amazing consultant whom I hire each year; her name is Alice Austin. She’s based in Maine but she’s been our primary consultant for as long as I’ve been at the Huntington and longer so I would say at least 15 years at this point and she helps coordinate those teams and if she’s not the primary describer she’s found other artists in the field who are willing and available. And she’s also described at other theatres in the area as well so she’s got a good pulse on who’s available and what their calendars are and helps sort of make sure that we’re not in competition with our performances with other sister theatre companies. I have the same consultant on the American Sign Language and we’re always looking for interpreters; we’re always looking for describers. I think they’re really interesting fields of work for anyone who wants to be connected to theatre but also has a connection to these communities and wants to break down any of the barriers to patrons coming to attend theatre, ASL-interpreted performances. Two interpreters who are hearing will stand on a platform in the front of the theatre and interpret the show as it’s happening and they will play all of the characters and so they are translating English into sign language for the patrons who can’t hear what’s being said and speak ASL and so they’re sort of doing the opposite where they’re filling in the language of the play while their patrons are able to see the physical world of the play. And there is a deaf consultant who sort of acts like a director so for both audio-described teams and ASL teams I view them as mini-casts of the show. There is a director and then there are the actors, and it’s just as creative and it’s just as artistic and they’ve got their own parameters on how to script and like you said how do I narrate this movement that’s happening without interrupting the dialog. And when you do a production like “Jungle Book,” which we did a few seasons ago, that becomes an experience in its own right because you don’t want to interrupt the music and the dialog but you also want to make sure that those patrons are getting all of this rich and vibrant movement and dance and interaction that’s happening on stage. So they are specialized artists who are superstars in my book because they’re so passionate about the work as well; they really care about the quality of work that they’re giving to our audiences, which is really special.
Anita Walker: I have watched some of these ASL interpreters and honestly they are as fun to watch as the play–
Meg O’Brien: It’s true.
Anita Walker: –just focusing on their facial expressions and the energy and the passion and the interpretation physically aside from just the sign language part.
Meg O’Brien: Yeah. Well, facial expression is part of the grammatical world of sign language so there’s the– ASL is a completely different language with it own– with its own rules and its own grammar and its own structure, and for our teams to translate an entire script and play multiple characters because there’s only two or three of them and then present it in front of an audience memorized blows my mind– it’s– within a matter of weeks. And it’s the same thing with the audio description like you said, figuring out what is important in the physical world of the play, when do I say it, how do I say it so that it’s understood and not interrupt the dialog on stage. So access is an incredible art but beyond that I think– I’m a hearing person, we are hearing people, and ASL is a gorgeous language but it’s so important because those patrons deserve the same experience when they come to the theatre as we do. And so while I’m watching this beautiful language happen on stage or on the side of the stage what makes me even happier is knowing that there are fifty to a hundred people or students in our audience who have now experienced a show because we’ve put it in their own language for them, and it’s not perfect. The ideal is to have a deaf cast do a show in ASL and our deaf patrons can come and experience that show. There are companies in the country who do that very frequently and we at the Huntington are starting to do things like “I Was Most Alive With You,” which we did in the 2015-16 season. Craig Lucas wrote this gorgeous script in both English and American Sign Language so our interpreters were on stage and in essence the character was being played by both a hearing actor and a deaf actor and there were moments where the character spoke in English or signed in ASL or both and that was all very specific and figured out in our workshops. And we had a great team of interpreters and consultants and our producers at the Huntington and the whole team was really mindful of creating a different experience so that anyone could come to the show at any point and see the show and not have to self-identify or buy a ticket in a special section. So I’m really excited to see where accessibility goes as we continue to have conversations about how to best integrate accessibility into a performance model or a performance schedule.
Anita Walker: What would you say to a theatre company that might be listening and saying, “We can’t afford all these extras. We just barely make ends meet just presenting a typical show and maybe we’ll have interpretation on one but honestly how could we ever put the kind of resources that would be necessary to do this on a regular basis?” Why do you do it?
Meg O’Brien: Well, that’s a great question. The Huntington has been committed to accessible theatre for decades. I care about this work because I think that there should never be a reason for someone to feel they are not welcome at the theatre and that can look a lot of different ways. Maybe they feel they’re not welcome because the ticket price is too high or they feel they’re not welcome because they can’t understand the language that’s happening on stage and they can’t see what’s happening. And I found a home in the theatre that I think everyone can find as long as they feel like they’re welcome to go the first time and see what it’s all about, and so access is called that for that very reason. We’re breaking down barriers whether they are perceived or real, economic, socioeconomic or related to whatever we may be dealing with physically and removing those barriers so that anyone can come to the theatre and have a night out and have an artistic experience and connect with other people and experience that art and that message and that story. The answer to the question about funding is “Just start asking for the money and start applying for grants and get letters from the community. If there’s someone that you know who is hard of hearing and knows American Sign Language get them to write a letter of support: I would love for this company to provide ASL because.” We are constantly looking for new grants and new donors and new opportunities because it’s so important but I’m lucky that the Huntington has also committed to this growth so we have to find the money because we’re committed to it so on some level it’s– everything costs money but once the institution has made a commitment then you have no choice but to find the money and make the thing happen. And of course there are circumstances all of the time that may change that plan but we had enough of a community demand and support to grow the programming that it was something the Huntington felt was important enough to continue to expand.
Anita Walker: Once you make the commitment and once it becomes baked in and part of what you do and becomes predictable and the audiences know that they can find it when they come as opposed to only on this certain show and this one time, I can’t get in on the day and I don’t know if they’re going to do it or not, you have actually seen the audience grow as a result.
Meg O’Brien: We’ve seen the audience grow. We’re still doing one performance and a student matinee performance for students in the area. I would love to be able to do more. I am excited about being able to share a whole season on one or two nights in a year and sort of build up these nights off at the Huntington and we see a lot of repeat patrons. They’ve become friends of mine over the years, I’ve even become friends with their guide dogs because they all come to the theatre and greet me and each other, and so being able to see a community of people come together and just have a night out at the theatre regardless of how they got to the theatre or why they’re at the theatre is really exciting to me and I think extends and applies to just any night at the theatre. I love the energy in the lobby at the half hour. I’m not on our house management staff <laughs> so– but our house managers and our front-of-house staff are also really excited by that energy. I think there’s a community that happens in that half hour that you can’t find anywhere else and to allow anyone to be a part of that is really exciting to me.
Anita Walker: What really probably started as it’s the right thing to do and kind of an obligation and we should be serving these audiences is delivering way more than you would have expected.
Meg O’Brien: That’s the plan anyway. We are always wanting to do more. There is always going to be other ways that we can be accessible at the Huntington. We are interested in open-caption performance, of course we’re interested in sensory-friendly performances, and then in ten years who knows what else will be available that we’ll want to program in for our audiences. The world of disability and the world of need is changing constantly and I think with more resources and with things like the UP organization where we can come together as institutions and say, “Okay. Here’s a challenge I’m dealing with at my institution” and use that network to find ideas and creative ways around some of the barriers to providing access then we can just continue to grow the access. And universal design and all of these ideas that are not new but perhaps are a bit more mainstream than they were five or ten years ago I think will help make it less overwhelming because the desire is always there to do the right thing but of course money and time and funding and resources and the people to execute the work and to do it to the standard that the institution wants can be really overwhelming at times. And sometimes all it takes is just getting in a room with people who are like-minded who want to do the same thing who have different ideas than you and just starting. If you start, then you don’t have to do that again; you’re already on the path. <laughs>
Anita Walker: One of the things we love about universal design is it really isn’t just about special things for special people. You may have sort of a preconceived notion of what a visually impaired person is or what a hearing impaired person is and that notion is really a lot bigger than you may imagine because we have an aging population and people really don’t see as well as they did ten years ago–
Meg O’Brien: It’s true or hear or move, all of it, yeah.
Anita Walker: –or move as well but they’re not going to raise their hands and say, “I’m disabled.” They’re just not going to be able to benefit and participate as much anymore and they may just stop coming to the theatre.
Meg O’Brien: Well, I have a few friends whose parents are in that. My parents are the baby boom generation and I’m talking more and more about this one’s mom’s hip replacement and this one– my dad has worn hearing aids– he’ll probably kill me for saying this but my dad has worn hearing aids for decades and won’t necessarily think to pick up an assistive listening device at the theatre and won’t think about it until I remind him that that’s an option available although I don’t know if we’ve actually ever talked about it. He likes the volume at the Huntington; he’s happy and can hear when he comes to <laughs> shows with me but he doesn’t go to a lot of theatre anymore and I do see that happen a lot. We have a lot of people who are starting to opt out even though they’re ticket subscribers because they can’t hear as well or they can’t see as well. And so hopefully conversations that they’ve had with me or with our box office and our ticketing services reps reminds them that there are still ways to come and enjoy the theatre and that we will always do our best to work with what you need as best as we’re able to and we’ll be able to even more once all of the construction and the renovations and all of that ends in– who knows when– in a few years, in a few seasons, so—
Anita Walker: That’ll be a story for another Creative Minds.
Meg O’Brien: Yeah, absolutely.
Anita Walker: Your work in access is truly exemplary and I want to thank you, Meg O’Brien, another one of our Creative Minds Out Loud.
Meg O’Brien: Thanks so much for having me. This was great.
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