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Theatre Accessibility: How to Improve Your Program

Theatre Accessibility

Theatre education isn’t one-size-fits-all. Thespians have unique abilities, needs, and backgrounds that influence the way they experience theatre. For many educators, opting for an alternative lesson is often a solution for inclusivity. But as we collectively work to improve theatre accessibility, learning to embrace the unique needs of all your Thespians is often a better method to foster inclusivity.

At the 2023 Theatre Education Conference (TEC), Courtney J. Boddie, who serves as Vice President, Education & School Engagement at New 42, and Kerry Warren, teaching artist for Arts Connection and a contributor to Teach with GIVE, presented From Casting to Curtain: Centering Inclusion Throughout the Theatre Education Experience.

EdTA caught up with them to explore strategies theatre educators can use to make strides in theatre accessibility and how GIVE (Growing Inclusivity for Vibrant Engagement) resources can help.

The Teach with GIVE team at the EdTA Theatre Education Conference
EdTA Conference Presenters (left to right) Courtney J. Boddie, Kate Lee, and Kerry Warren, representing the GIVE Partnership Team.

Theatre Accessibility Starts with Awareness

For GIVE, developing accessibility resources started by observing and working with art educators. In New York City, many classes are Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classrooms, with up to 40% of students having Individual Education Plans (IEPs). These classes bring together subject-area teachers and special education teachers, with theatre educators getting added support from teaching artists.

Yet according to the initial research phase for GIVE, more than 90% of teaching artists who worked in an ICT classroom found there’s still a lack of understanding on how to involve classroom teachers and paraprofessionals, and what techniques work best to manage lessons and engage students of varying accessibility needs. More importantly, as educators have worked to address inclusivity in the classroom, it has also reinforced the fact that accessibility requirements go beyond IEPs.

“We discovered that even when a learner doesn’t have an individual education plan, we all have access needs,” says Boddie. “We may need different things that aren’t classified as [necessary due to] a disability, but to consider the most optimal learning experience, we all have access needs.”

4 Strategies for Enhancing Theatre Accessibility

Ableism and stigma — often unintentional — are often the biggest barriers to theatre accessibility. You can reduce those barriers through awareness and intentionality. Whether it’s adjusting your lesson planning or checking your language, here are some practices Boddie and Warren suggest starting with.

1. Start with an Access Check

Building a better classroom means empowering everyone to self-advocate in small and simple ways. According to Boddie, one place to start is with an access check. These checks act as an opportunity to share needs in a safe environment and “help everybody understand how you’re coming into the space.” Boddie says these checks bring awareness on how individuals will best be able to participate, or understanding on why they might be exhibiting certain behaviors.

This can include anything from invitations to share pronouns, mood checks, or any materials that may help a student unlock their creativity. The idea is to ensure everyone’s needs are known and outlined in a safe environment.

Access checks aren’t limited to students. As a teaching artist, Warren sometimes finds herself in libraries and classrooms where being quiet is the expectation. “I understand the class is going to get rowdy, it’s going to get loud, and it’s going to look really interesting,” she says. That’s why access checks are also an opportunity for educators to outline their needs to administration and fellow educators. “It’s really important to share the expectations of your exercise… so that when there’s a group of students cheering, playing ball, or doing a loud game in a quiet place, people in that area understand why.”

2. Adjust, Don’t Discard

Often, when there’s a focus on accessibility, educators may opt for discarding entire lessons or exercises based on perceived challenges. While an access check can help find ways to include all students, it’s up to the theatre educator to challenge themselves to not discard the exercise in the first place.

For example, there may be a theatre game with components that could be challenging for a student in a wheelchair. “If I don’t have enough experience or training, I may not have the synapsis yet to figure out how to make adjustments or accommodations so everybody can participate,” says Boddie. “The barriers are us. We’re navigating systems where you’re pushing through curriculum and metrics instead of always having time to listen to the group, seeing what they need, and figuring out how you can set up your space so everybody feels safe, comfortable, and able to participate in the work.”

3. Prioritizing Representation

According to GIVE’s inclusive curriculum, changing the narrative of disability arts from “special” or something where artists need to “overcome” their disability to succeed can also help your Thespians connect to the craft. One way to do this is by prioritizing representation throughout your source materials.

“Representation is so important when it comes to educators wanting to change or adapt,” says Warren. “I might be someone who knows the whole Shakespeare classical cannon, but if I’m going to be in a position where I am teaching theatre, I want to make sure I’m not only teaching the one thing I know. So how can I diversify my palette in the art form too?”

For educators, this can include:

  • Exploring diverse artists and the shows they’re performing in.
  • Showcasing the various theatre roles available and how they can relate to student interests.
  • Adapting different art forms like dance and music to explore more forms of artistry.
  • Avoiding materials that perpetuate stereotypes.

4. Check Your Language

For theatre educators looking for a place to get early wins with theatre accessibility, focusing on vocabulary is ideal. Language is powerful, and whether educators realize it or not, the words used in lessons and curricula, along with how they’re presented, can directly influence the experiences of Thespians.

A theatre educator teaching puppetry to a class of students
Classroom residency taught by ArtsConnection Teaching Artist, Erin Orr (left). ArtsConnection is one of the three GIVE Partner organizations.

One tool to start with is GIVE’s Visual Vocabulary, which provides a visual representation for common terms in theatre, dance, and more. Not only does it help with understanding, but also reinforces how adjustments to medium and methodology can help provide access for students.

Similarly, thinking about the language used in theatre classrooms can also create a healthier environment. For Warren, who teaches stage combat at a Bronx high school, switching terms has been an intentional choice. “What I’m trying to do is change a lot of the vocabulary to make it more trauma informed and inclusive,” she says. “So rather than victim and attacker, switching, to make it offense and defense.”

A group of theatre educators at the Theatre Education Conference.
GIVE session participants engaging in a warm up activity that included an access check.

Lasting Change Starts as a Ripple

Improving theatre accessibility is a long-term commitment that doesn’t happen overnight. Teachers already have a lot on their plates, and focusing on accessibility can feel overwhelming. However, many of the adjustments outlined here are easy to put into practice. Whether that means adding access checks to your daily routine or looking at the language you’re using in class materials, these simple adjustments can go a long way toward creating a more inclusive class culture and environment.

More importantly, these changes can have an impact beyond the classroom. For Boddie, Warren, and the GIVE Partnership team, building agendas, like setting class expectations, has become the norm. And as they’ve interacted with other teams and teaching artists, those lessons have been passed on, leading outside teams to send detailed agendas and access needs before meetings.

“That culture shift, where you start in this very specific container, ripples into other areas we touch,” Boddie says. “The more we’re working with educators across our local, regional, and national sector, and they’re implementing these ideas into their teaching practices, the ripples will happen amongst the students, those they’re engaging with professionally, and potentially outside of their professional lives too.” Those ripples only multiply as they radiate outward.

To access more GIVE resources, visit www.teachwithgive.org. GIVE team contact: admin@teachwithgive.org

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