Remy Bumppo Theatre Company believes, as many Chicago theatres do, that the arts have a responsibility to reflect and explore the interests and concerns of the communities to which we belong. While we at Remy Bumppo strive to serve our communities through our play selection, our partnerships with other local not-for-profits, and our facilitation of patron conversations with the artists and each other, we recently realized that there was potential growth in the area of accessibility programming.
But where to begin?! Initial research showed us just how many fantastic accessibility programs currently exist in the Chicago theatre community. But as a mid-size theatre with limited budget and resources and that rents our performances space, we knew we would need to focus our efforts on one project at a time. We decided to set the short term goal of adding one new accessibility initiative to our upcoming season and the long term goal of adding additional types of program offerings in the future.
The next step was figuring out what type of accessibility program with which to start. It was important to select a program that would best serve our current patrons and be something we could achieve fully in the timeline we set for ourselves. The answer emerged quite suddenly. Upon review of recent patron feedback, we found several requests for programming for patrons who are blind or have low vision, such as audio description and touch tours.
At audio described performances, patrons are given a small receiver which includes an earbud. This allows the patron to hear an audio describer who narrates the physical action of the play as it happens and describes set pieces, costumes, and props. Before the performance, patrons are invited to participate in a touch tour, giving them a chance to explore the set, touch important props and costumes, and move through the performance space.
This was a perfect fit for our company! Not only would adding audio description and touch tours to our performances allow us to respond to our current patrons’ requests, we could extend our reach to patrons who had not yet attended Remy Bumppo shows. Our focus on plays that reveal the power and pleasure of language would provide an engaging experience for theatre-goers who may feel less connected with productions that use visual storytelling as their main mode of communication.
Having successfully set our goal and chosen our first initiative, now we needed to actually build the program – a very large task that was made smaller and streamlined by the generous assistance of the Chicago theatre community. Many theatre companies and community members shared their experience, insights, and advice with us, but Steppenwolf Theatre Company has been our most outstanding mentor in the process. Their staff has answered our questions, provided training opportunities, and even offered to lend us their audio description equipment for our upcoming performances. With their help, we have successfully set ourselves up to reach our goal of a new accessibility initiative with our first production of our 2015/2016 season, Love and Information by Caryl Churchill.
We have also received guidance from the ADA25 for 25 Cultural Access Project, with whom we became partners partway through this first leg of the journey. Their encouragement for organizations to try new accessibility initiatives has strengthened our resolve to expand ourselves into previously uncharted territory.
Our journey into this process is by no means over – in many ways it’s just beginning – but we’ve already learned some valuable lessons. First, it is important to choose the option to grow when the opportunity presents itself. Second, even taking a small step is valuable progress. Third, you can best help people if you listen openly to what they need. Finally, asking for help from others can create amazing relationships and results.
We highly encourage other businesses and organizations to assess how they can implement accessibility programming. Finding the answer may be easier than you think.
Rachel Thomas is the Director of Marketing at Remy Bumppo Theatre Company, where she will soon be embarking on her fourth season with the company. If you’d like more information about Remy Bumppo’s Audio Described Performances, please contact Rachel at 773.244.8119 or rthomas@RemyBumppo.org.