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How North Texas theaters can make performances more accessible to the deaf

Actors perform in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe.
Karen Almond
The Dallas Morning News
Dallas Children's Theater (DCT) production of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe in 2022.

Two specialists from Dallas’ Deaf Action Center share what theaters can do to be more inclusive of people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

Explore more stories from Arts Access.

When audience member Samantha Coleman sat down to enjoy a Broadway production of "Hadestown" in New York in October, she was repeatedly called out by an actor on stage for using what was assumed to be a recording device.

In actuality, Coleman – who is hard of hearing – was using a captioning device provided by the theater.

While producers of Broadway’s "Hadestown" and Jujamcyn Theaters have publicly apologized to Coleman, the incident gets at an underlying issue: theaters have historically struggled to be inclusive spaces for those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

To change that, Laura Tovar, development director at the Deaf Action Center (DAC) in Dallas, said theaters need to go beyond quick fixes.

Accommodation and disability and accessibility and inclusivity require more than just checking the box,” she said. “It's intentionality. It's a conversation. It's education.”

Laura Tovar and Bianca Walker.
Yfat Yossifor
Laura Tovar (left) and Bianca Walker (right) at the Deaf Action Center in Dallas.

Bianca Walker, a deaf and hard of hearing access specialist with the DAC, said it’s clear there was miscommunication and a lack of education in the "Hadestown" incident since Coleman was using a device provided by the theater.

“You see here in this situation where actors are saying you can't use your cellular device during the play,” Walker said. “But if they had that prior knowledge that a captioning device looks similar to a cell phone or a mobile device that could have been avoided.”

Walker said she thinks it’s realistic for theaters to create a policy where all staff are required to have basic knowledge of the types of accommodations offered.

There are a number of options for those who are deaf or hard of hearing based on their needs, including closed captioning devices, smart glasses with captions, American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation and the GalaPro app with read-in-the-dark captions which is now being offered by Broadway Dallas.

“I think it's respect for the actors and the people that worked hard to put on the show too,” Tovar said. “I know that an actor doesn't want people in the seats that don't understand what's happening in the show and doesn't understand all their hard work and the beauty and the art that they're trying to convey.”

At Dallas Children’s Theater, accommodation requests are noted in production rundowns for the day of a show so that staff and actors are aware of audience members’ different needs. For example, staff will be notified ahead of time if a production will have ASL interpretation.

In 2016, Dallas’ Theatre Three partnered with the DAC on "The Novelist," a production made accessible for the deaf or hard of hearing. In preparation for the performances, DAC’s director of interpreting visited the theater to give several talks about accessibility and DAC interpreters worked with actors in rehearsals to make the production more accessible to those who are hard of hearing. They would discuss ways to make scenes where actors would turn their backs or speak softly during key moments more inclusive.

A person uses the GalaPro app.
Broadway Dallas
Deaf or hard of hearing audience members at Broadway Dallas' production of "Pretty Woman: The Musical" could read captions in Spanish or English on their smartphones by downloading an app.

Another way Tovar said theaters can be more inclusive of patrons who are deaf or hard of hearing is by making statements about accommodations more prevalent and obvious because they “should never be hidden.”

That can include making language about accommodations in theater brochures larger, displaying posters in the lobby, repeating announcements about the use of closed captioning or other devices and training ushers to offer accommodations while leading patrons to their seats.

“Even that kind of messaging builds equity in the space that there are different people in the audience and we're letting everybody know that everyone's welcome,” she said.

While some audience members might be eager to speak out in support of those who are deaf or hard of hearing, Tovar cautions against this for live performances. She said that kind of advocacy could encourage more of an uproar or negative attention, which is why the onus for allyship ultimately comes down to theaters.

“The theater company [of the "Hadestown" production] had a lot of responsibility that they failed to meet. It could’ve been way worse,” Tovar said. “I just can't imagine if she [Samantha Coleman] was Black or brown or a person of color attending how the backlash would have been even worse like security, asking her to leave.”

Bianca Walker, a deaf and hard of hearing access specialist, signs as she video calls at her desk of the Deaf Action Center in Dallas.
Yfat Yossifor
Bianca Walker, a deaf and hard of hearing access specialist, signs as she video calls at her desk of the Deaf Action Center in Dallas.

Walker, who is deaf, said the calling out of Coleman speaks to a larger issue of people not interacting enough with those who are deaf or hard of hearing.

“There wasn't enough exposure or awareness on the actor's side to even know that [the captioning device] was an option,” Walker said. “I think that's critical for people to have that exposure and meeting people with disabilities, deaf and hard of hearing individuals, to know.”

That’s why Tovar said accessibility work needs to be driven by people who are deaf rather than those who are hearing trying to bring in deaf audiences.

“You’re reviewing your internal policies and procedures, but you didn’t know. So why not bring in the experts so you can know?,” Tovar said. “But do you view people with disabilities as experts in their own accommodations?”

Ultimately, Walker said theater accessibility for people who are deaf is more than offering devices. It involves understanding the Americans with Disabilities Act and learning about deaf culture.

“Deaf and hard of hearing people want access. That's what we really want – we're looking for equal accessibility.

Arts Access is a partnership between The Dallas Morning News and KERA that expands local arts, music and culture coverage through the lens of access and equity.

This community-funded journalism initiative is funded by the Better Together Fund, Carol & Don Glendenning, City of Dallas OAC, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Eugene McDermott Foundation, James & Gayle Halperin Foundation, Jennifer & Peter Altabef and The Meadows Foundation. The News and KERA retain full editorial control of Arts Access’ journalism.

Elizabeth Myong is KERA’s Arts Collaborative Reporter. She came to KERA from New York, where she worked as a CNBC fellow covering breaking news and politics. Before that, she freelanced as a features reporter for the Houston Chronicle and a modern arts reporter for Houstonia Magazine.