BWW Feature: BWW #THEATREFORALL is More Than A Hashtag in the Houston Theatre District
Imagine getting ready for an evening at the theatre - most of us are excited and eager, anticipating an entertaining evening of dinner or maybe drinks with friends, then the thrill of the curtain rising. Now imagine you are a member of the population whose mode of transportation is a wheelchair or walker, or someone whose hearing or vision loss prevents the sights and sounds of the stage from being clear. Suddenly an evening out becomes a minefield of obstacles that can hinder or even prevent full enjoyment. That sense of excitement becomes anxiety. Logistics such as parking and stairs that most take for granted can easily become a barrier to an evening of music, theatre or dance.
The passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act in 1990 and the ADA Amendments in 2009 brought about much needed modifications in public venues. These laws were vital in restructuring accommodations, but were just the beginning. Ten years later arts organizations are working tirelessly to ensure that all patrons have equal access to performances. In the downtown Houston theatre district the major organizations have robust accessibility accommodations with information provided on their websites. Wheelchair and companion seating is available at The Hobby Center for the Performing Arts in both Sarofim Hall and the more intimate Zilkha Hall, which hosts both Theatre under the Stars and Broadway at the Hobby Center; at Jones Hall, which is home to the Houston Symphony and Society for the Performing Arts; ( Jones Hall ADA information is at https://www.visithoustontexas.com/theater/venues/jones-hall/ada-information/ )The Wortham Center, home of the Houston Ballet and the Houston Grand Opera, https://www.visithoustontexas.com/theater/venues/wortham-center/ada-information/ and The Alley Theatre. All of these facilities also offer Assisted Listening Devices in their lobbies. These accommodations are just the fundamentals - many of these organizations have much more substantial programs in place. Houston Ballet can provide audio description with a two-week notice from the patron https://www.houstonballet.org/plan-your-visit/faqs/?id=184 ; Houston Grand Opera was one of the first Opera companies to offer audio description, and it has been available (with two days' notice) for every performance since the Wortham Center opened in 1987 ( https://www.houstongrandopera.org/you-at-the-opera/planyourvisit. The Alley Theatre's website has comprehensive information about parking and drop off with details including distances between entrances and lobbies, including ramp and curb information. https://www.alleytheatre.org/accessibility According to their website, The Alley also offers Audio Description and Closed Caption performances, as do Theatre Under the Stars and Broadway at the Hobby Center. Find the performance dates for these services on their websites. Theatre Under the Stars provides American Sign Language interpretation for each show on their season; Broadway at the Hobby Center offers ASLI for select performances as well.
Judi Stallings, Director of Education and Community Outreach at the Hobby Center, shared several other programs that are unique to the Hobby Center. For the last five years there has been a dedicated team of volunteers at every performance in the building, the Access team, whose purpose is to assist any patron with any type of disability. They are there from the moment a patron arrives on property until they are safely in their cars after the show, providing wheelchair assistance, golf carts to the parking garage, accompanying patrons to restrooms or concessions if needed. To reach the access team email email@example.com.
The Hobby Center's Discovery series in Zilkha Hall offers a free Sensory Friendly performance of every show in that series; this season for the first time a partnership with ARTS Connect has led to a dementia-friendly series geared toward those affected by memory loss and their families. Stallings thinks that it is vital to include all segments of the population in the arts, and works diligently to see that the Hobby Center does just that. She asks that patrons with any questions or concerns to please reach out. "Our doors and our inboxes are always open," she said.
Theatre Under the Stars offers additional programming as well - there are Touch Tours which bring visually impaired patrons onto the stage and into the costume shop to experience the show through their fingers, offered prior to the Audio Described performance; also a No Boundaries workshop, which are centered on singing, dancing and creative art projects that tie into the theme of whatever show. These workshops are for all ages and their families and friends. Details are available at TUTS.com/accessibility. Elizabeth England, Manager of Audience Development, urges patrons with specific needs to contact the TUTS Box Office to reach out to her directly. She wants everyone to know that there is no reason to feel that you can no longer come to a show because of a decline in health or a short-term or long term disability.
The Theatre District residents are not the only theatres opening their doors to patrons who need accommodations. Stages Repertory Theatre currently offers wheelchair and companion seating in both of their theatres, available by contacting the box office and reserving in advance. Assisted Listening Devices are also available. For the third year, Stages will offer a sensory friendly student matinee for their popular holiday Panto; firstname.lastname@example.org is the email contact for that performance.
Home to many of Houston's valued more intimate theatres including Caduceus Theatre Arts, The Catastrophic Theatre, Dirt Dogs Theatre Co., Icontheatrix, Landing Company and dozens more, MATCH can provide wheelchair access in all four of the theatres. Fong Chau, Audiences Services Manager, confirms that these are available online or by phone. There is accessible drop off and pick up on Travis Street, and ramps at all entrances. MATCH also has listening technology in each theater. This same technology can provide audio description, but Main Street Theatre is the only organization that offers it consistently. Details at : https://matchouston.org/box-office
Many other smaller organizations are excited to be able to welcome all patrons. Philip Lehl, Co-Artistic Director of 4th Wall Theatre, said that their Spring Street location can accommodate wheelchairs and have easy parking near a door with a ramp as well. They have provided closed captioning for at least one performance of their last two productions and plan to continue. A. D. Players are now at home in The George, which has wheelchair and companion seating on both levels, as well as assisted listening technology. In addition audio description and closed captioning are available at regularly scheduled performances. The Box Office can assist with any and all accessibility questions and requests. Queensbury Theatre also offers wheelchair and companion seating and assisted listening technology. Brent Briggs, Box Office Manager at Queensbury, noted that there is ample accessibly parking in the attached garage, and that all patron parking is validated.
Vivienne M. St. John, Producing Director for Main Street Theater's Theater for Youth Programming, is very proud of the robust programs in place at their venue. Not only do they offer the standard wheelchair and assisted listening accommodations and closed captioning, but they have a staff member trained in audio description who provides it for every show. Recently Main Street changed the heading on their youth theatre accommodations page to read "Theater for All Youth" to fully encompass the breadth of their programming. http://mainstreettheater.com/accommodations/index.html . There is a sensory friendly performance for almost every show on the youth series with headphones, a quiet room, fidget toys, and a prompt book available for parents before the show to prepare for the experience. St. John is passionate about making whatever accommodations are necessary to get every person who wants to come to the theatre into an audience. "We just don't say no to people," she said.
Whether or not there is a specific person or team who handles accommodations, the Houston theatre community is thriving in their efforts to make #TheatreForAll more than a hashtag. (Information about The Alley Theatre and SPA was pulled strictly from their websites.)