Regional Theatres have a coded and codified covenant to facilitate their productions for disabled audiences. It’s easy to add a wheelchair ramp. It’s simple to provide listening devices for the Blind. The accessibility question is much more complicated to solve when it comes to serving Deaf audience members. There are several methods regional theatres can employ to pull in Deaf audiences. The first, and clearest, example is to include Deaf actors in your productions. You don’t have to have a 100% Deaf cast, but a few Deaf cast members will deepen the emotional pool of any play. The actual character doesn’t have to Deaf; in your production, the character will just happen to be Deaf and sign, or not — and voice — or not. The richness of a Deaf actor on stage is worth the added conflict and catharsis the disability brings to the in situ life of the overall performance.
Next, use Deaf Interpreters! Having the Deaf interpret for the Deaf will eagerly bring paying Deaf ticket buyers into your empty seats.
If you use Hearing interpreters, make sure they are performance quality. A great live conversation interpreter does not always mean that interpreter has the emotional willpower to interpret a live stage production. Audition you interpreters with the vigor in which you cast your shows.
Create an Interpreter Committee for evaluating performance interpreters. Don’t have a single gatekeeper who decides interpreter quality and production assignment. Make it a group evaluation. Let the process be open and proactive.
Use video kiosks in the lobby to promote future shows. Use Deaf actors and Deaf Interpreters to star in the “Coming Attractions” videos.
Train Hearing ushers a few simple signs like, “welcome” and “follow + me” and “seat” and “emergency” and “exit” and “you’re welcome” — those simple vocabulary words from your staff will show your Deaf patrons that you value their participation and welfare.
An interpreted Meet and Greet before and after the performance will give Deaf Audiences the opportunity to get to know the story of the show and then ask follow up questions for things they may have missed during the performance. Bind your audience to the performers with exclusive intimacy. Faces and hands and proximity are mighty factors in valuing Deaf Culture.
Stay local! Don’t expect the Deaf to take a two-hour train ride to your theatre. You may be able to get those faraway Deaf to show up for a performance or two, but if you are looking for season ticket involvement, you’re going to have to do a local harvest. Find Deaf schools, doctor offices, service associations and other agencies that deal with the disabled. Give the Deaf discounts. Provide transportation from a group home if you are able to afford the cost. Rope them into your seats by making them important to your organic growth in the community.
Facebook and Twitter are old news. Forget social networking. The Deaf are all about real bodies and real faces. The virtual is for chatting, not dedicated attendance and investment in your theatre. Get hands on. Let them see your face and shake your hand. Create intimacy. Make the Deaf feel part of your mission of service.
Commit to doing more than one or two interpreted performances. Offer a wide variety of choices. Cover your entire season. Don’t you pick and choose which shows you will interpret and which shows you will not. Be fair and equitable in your access opportunities for Deaf audiences.
Know the difference between “actual effective interpreting” and “Open Captioned Interpreting” because boring — interpreting-by-rote — is no more interesting than “Open Captioning With Hands.” Why pay someone to interpret what can just as easily be read from an Open Captioning screen? Interpreted performances are a complete performance in a specific context and you must demand that specialness is properly translated and produced.
Remember, not all handicaps are the same. Your accessibility office must be flexible enough to not define all disabilities and special needs in a single, one-solution-covers-all philosophy.
The Deaf are hungry for inclusion and they love attending live theatre. By following the advice in this article, you can begin to cultivate a whole new dedicated core of theatre goers that will last into forever.