First steps towards inclusion

by Jini Stolk

Creative Trust and Picasso PRO proudly wrapped up our two year Sun Life Performing Arts Access Program last month. This pioneering program, introduced to Creative Trust members on November 23, 2009, was designed to open up the city’s theatres to Blind/Low-Vision and Deaf/Hard of Hearing audiences. Using a pilot series of audio described and American Sign Language (ASL) interpreted performances, our goal was to help theatre, dance and music companies launch and integrate these services into their organizational cultures and programming.

In two short years we

  • Auditioned and trained 8 Audio Describers with renowned AD specialist Deb Lewis, moving the number of theatrical audio describers in Toronto to…8!
  • Purchased audio description kits, including headsets and accessories; created a handbook, and trained describers for the experience of live performance
  • Held a roundtable for members of the Ontario Association Of Sign Language Interpreters on the specifics of Theatrical Interpretation led by star interpreter Joanna Bennett, our ASL Project Advisor
  • Developed our chops with an in-house test-described show without public audience of Featuring Loretta at Factory
  • To the stage! Audio described performances of Bethune Imagined at Toronto’s Factory Theatre, and More Fine Girls a co-production of Tarragon and Theatre Columbus; ASL interpreted performances of Brothel at Factory Theatre and Montparnasse, a Groundwater Theatre production with TPM
  • Collaborated with Luminato 2011 on recording a first-time audio description for Philip Beesley’s suspended sculpture “Sargasso”
  • Worked with Stratford Festival on their pilot project to introduce AD at Stratford with a performance of Camelot described by trainer Deb Lewis
  • Brought professional, emerging and student ASL Interpreters together for a final Master Theatrical Intepreter Workshop with Joanna

The press covered a number of these activities and Creative Trust’s blog site became a central portal to all Picasso PRO and PAAP Access information.

Based on available tracking, we know that 100+ new audience members attended Factory’s AD and ASL productions; TPM identified 30 Deaf patrons for the two performances of Montparnasse. Headsets were booked to the maximum for each audio described show and patrons offered generous post-show feedback: they want these opportunities to continue.

Obviously, this is only a beginning. We now have trained describers and interpreters, and an enthusiastic band of theatre professionals who worked enormously hard to make this project a success. Toronto’s Deaf and disability communities are large, diverse, active and growing as our population ages. Access enables these communities to participate more fully in Toronto’s cultural life, and accessible programming enables theatres to develop new audiences from within these communities, and to welcome their spouses, families and friends.

We are looking for new ways and partners to continue this work, past the invaluable and gratefully appreciated first stage made possible by Sun Life Financial. Access is an essential step to allowing Toronto to retain its place on a world stage which increasingly reflects the values of diversity and inclusion.

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