Slice of Life

Syracuse Stage brings first sensory-friendly theater performance to central New York

Ally Moreo | Asst. Photo Editor

Joseph Whelan describes the action of the performances to visually-impaired patrons wearing matching headsets in the audience.

As the audience members file into the Syracuse Stage/SU Drama Complex for January’s performance of Mary Poppins, they’ll still pick up programs and find their seats. But when the curtain goes up, the house lights won’t go down. The overture will play more softly than usual, and normally-blinding stage lights won’t flood the actors.

It’s all part of central New York’s first sensory-friendly theater performance, starting Jan. 7. The sensory-friendly show joins the Stage’s accessibility series, which includes American Sign Language-interpreted, audio-assisted, open-captioned and audio-described shows.

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Tickets for the sensory friendly performance are kept at a flat-rate price of $25 and can be refunded up until the day of the show in case someone’s not feeling up to it.

This series aims to make theater accessible to a wider audience said Kate Laissle, assistant director of education at the stage.

“I personally believe the theater is important for everyone to come and see,” Laissle said. “I think it shows everyone’s different forms of life, I think it’s incredibly vital and it’s a great imaginative experience.”

Sensory-friendly shows are designed for people on the autism spectrum — or others who may not be able to enjoy a traditional theater experience — and their families. During the show, the house lights will remain on, a quiet room will be open just outside the auditorium and patrons can get stress balls or fidget toys. Other parts of the show, including audio levels, will also be adjusted.

The Facebook post announcing the addition of a sensory-friendly production was one of the most liked and shared posts on the Syracuse Stage page ever, Laissle said. 250 of the 400 available tickets have already been sold for the show, which Laissle said is a judgment-free space for people to enjoy.

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Ally Moreo | Asst. Photo Editor

“With all of these accessibility things, we say that we are a global community, we’re showing what it means to be human,” Laissle said. “What it means to be human includes all of these differences, you know. So how can we show what it means to be human and not include all sorts of humans?”

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Audience members often look at Chris Botek, wondering why she is sitting in the theater with a computer in her lap, scrolling down a document.

Botek runs the open captioned performances for deaf or audio-impaired patrons who may not have learned ASL. She projects the lines onto to the house-right wall of the theater, but it’s not a simple process.

The script often isn’t delivered to Botek in the correct format, so she’ll spend countless hours typing the script into a Word document. She clocks in another 16 to 20 hours watching the show and adapting the script.

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Ally Moreo | Asst. Photo Editor

One of Botek’s biggest challenges is when actors go off script or forget a line. Sometimes she’ll have a few text options prepared, but she usually can’t keep up. One show featured an actor that would go off on an unscripted tangent, she said, leaving both Botek and the audience lost.

“I can’t type in while the performance is going unfortunately, which is OK, because I can’t type fast enough,” Botek said.

Botek first provided captioning for the show “Rent,” which has a very wordy, fast-paced song in the middle. Musicals provide additional challenges because of their songs. The screen can’t move as fast as the rhythm of songs, so Botek has to choose what to display on the screen and what to edit out for clarity.

When she was a child, Botek’s deaf aunt taught her some sign language. Botek said her aunt often sat off silently, in her own world. But when Botek signed with her, she’d light up.

A grant gave her funding to work at the Stage, where she started working under previous artistic director Tim Bond. He pushed for captioned performances and other accessible shows at the stage.

“That kind of attitude for inclusiveness comes from the top down, and Bob (the new artistic director) is the same way,” Botek said.

Just as intended, these inclusive shows brought new viewers to the shows, like Mike Mazzaroppi. When Mazzaroppi heard about the open-captioned performances, he became a regular at the Stage, and has been for about eight years now. He said in an email that he feels as included in the theater experience as much as his hearing peers.

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Graphic illustration by Kiran Ramsey

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Joseph Whelan has been in charge of audio-described shows at the Stage since 2011. During the show, Whelan sits in a booth at the back of the theater, wearing a headset. Between dialogue and music on the stage, Whelan will describe the action to visually-impaired patrons wearing matching headsets in the audience.

“It’s not as simple as saying ‘A throws a punch and B, B ducks,’ I mean that’s actually the easy part,” Whelan said. “Where it gets difficult is when, if the actors are talking, and I’m talking, the person listening isn’t going to hear either because you’re getting both feeds simultaneously.”

Preparing the audio description takes Whelan up to 30 hours. The audio description will take place later in the show’s run so he can attend around six performances in preparation.

When marking his script, Whelan will walk the set onstage, listing the dimensions, textures and color of structures. Before donning his headset, Whelan will meet with visually-impaired people employing the service and describe the set and costumes to them.

“People who are visually impaired run a spectrum, some have been blind since birth, they have no understanding of light. There are some people who may have lost their vision later in life and might have memory of color, so I usually include color in the description even though, for some people, it might not matter,” Whelan said.

The service fluctuates in popularity, but Whelan used to have a group of regulars that would come to the Stage and use the service. One man’s wife told him she was relieved she no longer had to annoy other patrons by whispering descriptions to her visually-impaired husband.

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Graphic Illustration by Kiran Ramsey

Lucy Marr, president of the National Federation of the Blind of Syracuse, has used the service before. The description adds a lot to the performance and allows her to enjoy the show as much as anyone else, she said in an email.

Whelan added that doing audio description has taught him to take nothing for granted — he didn’t realize how hard it was going to be.

Whelan said: “We firmly believe theater should be for everyone, and we are trying to make that possible.”

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Although Joanne Jackowski will not be onstage during the run of “Mary Poppins,” she will still be playing the title role. She will be sitting in front of the house right audience along with two colleagues, interpreting the show in ASL.

Jackowski has had the script and audio recordings of the Syracuse Stage cast for just over a month and has been preparing the whole time. She said the process is a combination of preparation and close listening on the night of the performance.

“If I can be the conduit for the performers and the deaf audience says ‘that was a great show,’ or ‘I really enjoyed that,’ then I know I have done my job because they don’t even talk about me, they talk about the show,” Jackowski said.

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Ally Moreo | Asst. Photo Editor

Jackowski learned how to interpret in 1972 at a night class in Syracuse. Now she is a part-time ASL/English interpreter, and coordinator of interpreting services for the Stage. In that role, Jackowski is in charge of bringing the team together.

“It’s going to be a fun show. It is always good to work with people I know and I know they are working as hard as I am. You’re going to be able to tell, we are just a combo and play off of each other really well.”

The three interpreters for “Mary Poppins” will only meet up once before taking the stage, but Jackowski is not worried.

“When I was in grade school, we did all of the Mary Poppins songs as a choir, so I know them,” Jackowski said.

“But I don’t know them,” she added, gesturing with her hands.

Michael Schwartz, a professor in the Syracuse University College of Law, often goes to the stage to utilize the ASL/English interpreting services. He said in an email that not only are accessible shows a legal requirement under the Americans with Disabilities Act — having accessible services sends a message to the community.

“There’s a connection between the fight for people of color and women and the fight for disability rights,” Schwartz said. “And accessible theater is yet another battleground for equality.”

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