As the COVID-19 pandemic continues through 2021, nearly every aspect of life has had to adjust, and the entertainment industry is of course no exception. Streaming services have thrived and viewers with disabilities are now able to stream new blockbuster releases in their own homes, without encountering many of the accessibility barriers associated with travel and facility access − but what about live performances and live theatre, how will the current environment impact viewers with disabilities?
We review how virtual theatre and recent changes to the industry can positively impact viewers and performers with disabilities.
A boon for the disability community
By nature, theatre is an adaptable art form and industry, evolving alongside technology and culture. It has had to be versatile as an industry that has been said to be ‘dying’ for decades, if not centuries. Even as film and television have thrived and grown exponentially since their invention, there remains something captivating about the immediacy and intimacy of live theatre to this day.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, much like new remote work opportunities, the virtual theatre has been a boon for the disabled community, both for audiences and theatre artists alike.
Despite the industry’s continuously growing diversity, the theatre has often failed disabled artists in terms of both accessibility and inclusivity. Disabled characters are hard to find on stage and when specified as disabled in the script, they are often poorly written or handled. Rarely are these characters played by disabled artists, and it seems even rarer for actors with a disability, especially a visible disability, to be cast at all.
The industry has a long way to go, though it has made great progress in recent years, and now is taking large steps forward with Zoom-inspired productions. Disabled theatre artists can work from home, without worries of transportation or physical accessibility, in a sensory-friendly environment. Already limited by the sightlines of a webcam, there is often less physical movement required, if any. Closed captioning and live transcription options are also available for individuals who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing.
In a virtual medium, theatre is more accessible than ever for audiences. No longer do they have to worry about planning transportation, finding accessible tickets and seating, navigating venues and crowds, or working a theater’s assistive technology. Virtual productions can easily offer closed captioning, audio descriptions, and more.
In addition to live-streamed performances, many theatre companies are even offering plays, musicals, and operas professionally filmed pre-pandemic, streaming on-demand. BroadwayHD is a streaming service specifically catered to selections of productions from Broadway and London’s West End. Last summer, Disney+ popularly added Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton to its streaming service.
As 2021 continues, more theaters are beginning to reopen and perform in-person once again. On Broadway, a host of shows will reopen in the coming months, while the musicals Waitress and Hadestown have already resumed performances. With the Delta variant driving case numbers up, it is difficult to know if they will remain open, even while they take precautions. As society slowly makes efforts to return to the old “normal,” one must consider the changes made because of the pandemic and if some should be preserved. Workers and students with disabilities continue to call for remote work and schooling as an option, and dual releases in theaters and streaming services remain in question as people debate if and how they should remain.
The future of virtual theatre
Theatre companies need to ask the same question about their virtual productions and offerings. In-person performances may resume, but streaming options—with closed captioning, audio description, ASL, and other features—should also remain. In addition to furthering a production’s accessibility, it can help companies grow their profits, by giving audiences an option to see a show even if they cannot or do not wish to leave home.
As in-person productions reopen, many are offering virtual playbills and pre-show materials via a QR code to reduce contact surfaces. Containing cast and crew bios, plot synopsis, content notes and warnings, and more, this could be another great feature to offer, even after fears of COVID-19 have ended. Virtual playbills and pre-show materials can provide great accessibility features while also cutting down on waste. Visual story descriptions of the production, image alt text for the playbill, larger text options, or even the script could all be provided to audience members.
For theatre artists, virtual options could continue to be an excellent tool for the production process. Conducting production meetings between producers, directors, and designers virtually would be a simple thing. Even early rehearsals, which typically feature “table work” (time spent focusing on the script, discussing characters, determining relationships, and detailing the production’s focus or themes), could be conducted online. Virtual productions taking place over Zoom may even continue, allowing innovative theatre artists to further experiment.
As the world begins to look forward to post-pandemic life, virtual mediums and tools have huge potential to further the theater industry’s overall impact on accessibility and inclusivity. By embracing, retaining, and even expanding pandemic-produced virtual features for the disabled community, theatre companies can grow both audiences and their own community of artists while improving access for all.
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