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Lisa Carling: Interview With TDF Director Of Accessibility Programs

Lisa Carling: Interview With TDF Director Of Accessibility Programs
By Michelle Sciarrotta

Lisa Carling is the Director of Accessibility Programs at TDF, and helps design and implement services that make theatre performances more accessible to people with disabilities on Broadway, Off-Broadway and nationwide. She runs a department that provides autism-friendly, open captioned, audio described and sign language interpreted performances, as well as seating for theatregoers with mobility disabilities. The department assists regional theatres across the country in starting their own captioning and sensory-friendly programming, and provides grants through a partnership with New York State Council on the Arts to state cultural organisation for captioning events that are open to the public.

Lisa oversees the TDF Veterans Theatergoing Program and ensures that vets who need accessibility accommodations receive them. As a speaker, she shares her experience in the arts accessibility field on theatre industry panels, at arts and disability conferences and summits. As a consultant, Lisa serves on the Shubert Organization Audience Services Advisory Committee and the Consumer Advisory Board for the Bridge Multimedia OSEP Technology Access Project. For fun, in addition to marriage and grandparenting, she is an avid dahlia grower and member of the American Dahlia Society. Lisa holds an MFA from Yale School of Drama.

Hi Lisa, thanks so much for talking with us at TheatreArtLife! Your role as Director of TDF Accessibility Programs sounds multifaceted – how would you describe what you do, and what does that entail?

My role as Director of TDF Accessibility Programs gives me the opportunity to create impactful programming, connect with people in the theatre industry and help share the joy of live performances with audience members who have disabilities. In addition to making sure all our services run smoothly, I look for innovative ways to improve what we offer and keep current with changing times. I’ve been working in the arts accessibility field for over 30 years and seen great progress since the Americans with Disability Act was signed into law on July 26, 1990.

Captioning, audio description, sign language interpreting and wheelchair access are all standard accommodations now that we hope most venues already provide. Programming that welcomes audience members with autism or other developmental or cognitive disabilities and sensory sensitivities is still evolving, which is why the TDF Autism Friendly Performance program is the fastest growing component of our accessibility services.

How did the TDF Autism Friendly Performances Program start and what has been its impact?

October 2, 2011, TDF made history with the first-ever autism-friendly performance on Broadway, Disney’s landmark musical The Lion King. That performance launched our Autism Theatre Initiative, now called the TDF Autism Friendly Performances program. Over the past 10 years, TDF has offered autism-friendly performances of 18 different Broadway productions, some multiple times based on their popularity; i.e., Aladdin, Frozen, The Lion King and Wicked. We have a mailing list of over 10,000 households now that grew from a list of 200 organisations serving the autism community when we first started.

TDF typically sells out its Broadway performances in 24 to 48 hours.

We are providing families affected by autism or other developmental or cognitive disabilities the opportunity to attend these events together and this has brought ticket buyers from as many as 16 different states around the country this past season, families traveling from far away. “Memories are made,” as we hear many times from parents who often are not able to celebrate typical milestones in life for their child but can remember the whole family coming together for a Broadways show.

What is the process involved in producing a TDF autism-friendly performance?

We have a Planning Guide for Theatres that goes into more detail, but I’d like to highlight many of the key elements below:

Weekend matinee

On all our audience surveys, over 95% of our families who attend prefer a weekend matinee

Designated performance

To ensure a welcoming and judgment free environment, TDF buys out the entire house for an agreed upon date with the producers and TDF is the sole seller of the tickets for that particular date, which is off sale to the general public.

Discounted tickets

TDF asks for the best buyout from the producers, typically 50% off the regular box office price, in order to pass this discount on to families and help make the tickets as affordable as possible. A typical order is four tickets per family.

Consultants

TDF enlists two Board Certified Behavior Analysts who are professionals in the autism field and one consultant who is on the autism spectrum to preview the show for suggested modifications.

Modifications

Suggested modifications typically include: house lights up at 30%; eliminating strobes and lights that pan out into the audience, if possible; capping sound levels at 90 decibels, if possible; adjusting any production elements that might be upsetting to audience members; i.e., for our autism-friendly performance of Cats on Broadway the actors did not crawl over the seats or touch any audience members.

“If possible” is important.

We want to preserve the integrity of the show and keep it as close to the same great performance that typical audiences are seeing. If elements cannot be changed: i.e., the aerial battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin that took place over the audience in Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark on Broadway with large spotlights moving around the theatre on both performers, we will warn ticket buyers beforehand at point of purchase that this occurs.

Another “if possible” factor is cost. Because TDF is the service provider but not the theatre owner or producer, any special rehearsals and/or work calls to set cues for adjustments are absorbed by the company rather than TDF. Having said this, the Broadway industry has been truly great in its support of TDF’s autism-friendly performances and has gone out of its way to make every accommodation possible.

Resource Material

Typically, this includes for each autism-friendly performance a character guide, social narrative, and warnings about any production elements that may be upsetting; i.e., for The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time the dog lying dead at the front of the stage with a pitchfork in him is not a real dog!

Marketing & Ticket Sales

TDF handles all the marketing via email, ticket sales and distribution of tickets.

Cast and House Staff Trainings

TDF schedules 30 minute cast and house staff trainings prior to each autism-friendly performance to prepare the actors and ushers for an atypical audience so that everyone feels comfortable on the day of the show.

Volunteers

TDF enlists professionals in the autism field or people with hands-on experience to assist families throughout the seating and lobby areas day of performance.

Volunteer Orientation

TDF provides a 30-minute orientation and full breakfast morning of performance for location assignments, lobby prep of break areas, so they are ready to welcome our audience members for the weekend matinee performance.

Surveys

After each autism-friendly performance, TDF sends out surveys to both our audience members and our volunteers for feedback to help us with future planning.

How did you start working in the field of Accessibility?

My introduction to the field of arts accessibility came by chance when I found myself needing a job, divorced with a young child to raise and ready to give up the uncertainties that come with an acting career. I ran into a drama school friend Barbara Hauptman, then Director of Operations at Theatre Development Fund (now TDF), at a church coffee hour one Sunday and asked for her help. She brought me in part time to answer phones at the TDF front desk and then when an opening came up on the accessibility department, I took it! It’s a great job and combines my love of theatre with wanting to help others enjoy that experience, too, and make a difference in people’s lives.

Can people access a TDF toolkit and your trainings? For example, if a relatively young theatre company were eager to create sensory friendly performances but didn’t know where to start, where could they find guidance on the right way to do things? And is there a community or place where people can share resources or experiences as a learning tool?

We are here to help and encourage theatres to do what they can in providing sensory-friendly performances. If you go to TDF Autism Friendly Performances and look on the right-hand side of the page under AFP Quick Links we have examples of support material for Disney’s Aladdin, which we had scheduled and then had to cancel for Sunday, May 3, 2020, at 1PM. Examples include a Character Guide, Guide to the Performance, Visual Checklist, New Amsterdam Theatre Social Narrative and Production Video Clips.

Through our National Autism Friendly Training Program TDF offers advisory partnerships for theatres around the country at no cost to theatres. Since 2012, when this national program began, we have helped 38 different regional theatres launch their own programming to welcome audience members with autism and other developmental or cognitive disabilities or sensory sensitivities. With these partnerships, TDF schedules conference calls to help in the planning process.

In addition, we share our cast and house staff trainings, our volunteer orientations, helpful break area supplies for theatre lobbies during the performance, character guides and social narratives. Please check the program’s website here for more information on how to apply.

As always, we encourage theatres to take what’s helpful from our methodology and make it their own. Utilise the resources in your own communities and adapt programming to best serve your target audience.

This is a good moment to mention terminology! One of my colleagues who books road tours for Broadway shows asked me if I was familiar with some of the other terms theatres are using and we agreed that this is confusing to ticket buyers. In addition to the more widely used descriptions of “sensory-friendly” or “relaxed,” he was also hearing: “supportive,” “sensory-inclusive,” “accessible,” “accommodating,” “sensitivity-friendly,” and “proscenium forward.”

My best advice is put your audience first. Use the description that will help them the most in understanding the type of performance you are offering and resonates with your community. Please clearly describe what you are providing with this term on your website so parents, caregivers and teachers can decided if it’s right for children or adults they will be bringing. Here’s an example from TDF’s last autism-friendly performance Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Sunday, March 1, 2020, at 1PM. Our last show before the Covid shutdown.

TDF uses the term “autism-friendly” following the advice of several Broadway industry parents with children on the spectrum who guided us with the program’s inception 10 years ago. It’s owning the word “autism,” raising awareness and in keeping with where we live in an area with a higher rate of autism diagnoses. The CDC currently cites the national average as 1 in 54 children now identified with autism spectrum disorder, while New Jersey, where many of our ticket buyers live, has a rate of 1 in 32 children, the highest rate of autism in the nation, as cited by Autism New Jersey.

Based on our audience surveys, over 80% of our attendees who are there because it’s an autism-friendly performance, identify as having autism. The term resonates with our community and accurately describes the performances in terms of what they’ve come to expect with lighting, sound, production modifications, if needed, lobby break areas and support from volunteers. However, TDF welcomes any and all individuals with other cognitive, developmental disabilities or sensory sensitivities who might benefit from adjustments made to accommodate someone who is on the autism spectrum.

In terms of a community or place where theatres new to sensory-friendly programming could find guidance, I recommend talking with theatres that are already providing these performances and doing so beautifully: The Hobby Center, Houston, TX; The Smith Center, Las Vegas, NV; and Seattle Theatre Group, Seattle, WA, to name a few. These three are all former TDF National Autism Friendly Training Program partners who have truly run with the ball and made sensory-friendly programming their own.

During your career, have you seen a change in attitude to how we open up theatre and the Arts to be more accessible? Are we headed in the right direction, and what can we do to normalise making the Arts more inclusive?

More equitable opportunities to attend theatre is the big change I’m seeing now in welcoming audiences with disabilities. This shift came as of June 1, 2018, when every Broadway show was able to build on previous accessibility by offering on-demand closed captioning and audio description at every performance beginning four weeks from any production’s opening night, with the audience services app GalaPro.

The Shubert Organization along with TDF, the Hearing Loss Association of America, The Association for Late Deafened Adults, and Hands On worked on developing and testing the new technology, months prior for this initiative from the Broadway League. What this means is that in addition to periodically scheduled live captioned, described or interpreted performances, people with hearing and vision loss have more options to attend whenever they choose and take advantage of the preprogrammed closed captioning and description accessible on their smartphones.

We are very much headed in the right direction with every performance access for people with hearing and vision loss, but a larger question is, will we be able to make autism/sensory-friendly, relaxed performances available on-demand, as well?

I think if we keep in mind respecting everyone’s right to enjoy a performance, we can find a balance moving forward. But, for right now, TDF continues to think in terms of a “designated performance,” off sale to the general public, to ensure families affected by autism or other developmental or cognitive disabilities feel safe in attending. As one father told me with great relief after our annual autism-friendly performance of Disney’s The Lion King last season with his daughter on the autism spectrum: “This should be called a no apology zone!”

His wife had tears of gratitude in her eyes, standing with her daughter and husband. Our performances are one place we want our families to feel comfortable. Everyone understands. People are free to be themselves.

What has the impact of Covid been on TDF, and how are you coping? Has the pandemic changed how the company works?

TDF has undergone radical changes since Covid. About half our staff is gone, either temporarily furloughed or laid off. Those of us still working are doing so from home with the exception of our IT department that needs to have at least one rep on site at our offices at 520 Eighth Avenue in New York. We are learning the art of Zoom meetings and how to engage our audiences with theatre-centred digital content.

TDF’s various programs thrive on shows, availability of tickets, a variety of Broadway and Off Broadway productions up and running and those opportunities are gone for now.

As NPR’s Jeff Lunden reported in “Broadway to Remain Closed for the Rest of the Year” back on June 29, 2020, Broadway Cares and other charities called the closure “only intermission,” but it’s going on much longer than anticipated. The Broadway League has now extended closures through May 31, 2020, announced in its October 9, 2020, statement “Broadway Update On Performance Cancellations.”

TDF is going through very challenging times, but we fully intend to ride it out so our organisation can be there for the theatre industry when it reopens and help bring audiences back to live performances again.

What are your hopes for the post-Covid world, and are there any plans to move online, or produce socially distanced shows in the future?

When New York City’s theatres reopen and people feel it’s safe to come back again, my hope is audiences will return in full force, the way we were before, sitting together again for that shared experience in a live performance without the social distancing necessary and with all our accessibility services available again. Nothing can replace that sense of togetherness and participation. We are aware of our families in the autism community, in particular, who feel so isolated now and need that coming together in-person to feel connected.

Realistically though, TDF is preparing for a transition period. When theatres reopen, we anticipate continuing to provide some digital content for people with disabilities who may feel more comfortable staying at home and begin offering live, in person accessible performances again, gradually, for theatregoers who are ready to come back.

The pandemic has changed our thinking in so many ways, but this Covid period will end at some point. Our love of live theatre and determination to make performances accessible to people with disabilities will bring us together again, making us even stronger as we treasure our convictions more. I’m confident of that.

Lisa Carling

Also by Michelle Sciarrotta:

James “Fitz” FitzSimmons Interview: The Boys In The Band On Netflix

Accessibility At The Smith Center Series: Part One

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