I recently had the opportunity to join a great group of people from the Broadway industry for a summit on the accessibility of theatre. Hosted by the good folks at the Shubert Organization, The Broadway League and the Theatre Development Fund, the event hit on a range of key issues impacting many audiences currently struggling with access to attend Broadway — from individuals affected by hearing or vision loss to families with autism who struggle to bring their children into the traditional, “quiet” environment of theatre. The event was designed to show real-life examples of how technology, alongside the power of the human spirit, is making remarkable progress in making theatre accessible for all.
It was a great event for one very specific reason: it showed real progress with real people who are feeling that progress.
While there was a very solid turnout, events on the topic of accessibility need to be more frequent with an even higher attendance — they need to be standing room only! These topics are evolving far faster than people realize. The issues and challenges of the live theatre experience of years past are now transformed into massive opportunities when thought through.
Remember the headlines of how mobile phones in our patrons’ pockets are destroying the live theatre experience? If you sat in the conference yesterday, you would see that those same mobile phones are the ones opening up access to millions of potential audience members through their ability to bring support for a particular issue a patron is having (e.g. real-time captioning).
My point is that accessibility is a rapidly evolving conversation. Every time I attend an event like this, I leave feeling far more prepared on the topic than before I walked in. I also walk out with far more questions than “takeaways” and that, I believe, is a good thing. Like many events centered on topics of audience development, I find myself looking around the room and being inspired by the folks around me. There is a consistent, curious, admirable trait of a growing group of folks that make themselves present to discuss the changing topics of audience development. You know who you are! We need to get even more voices to the table as the “talk” of accessibility is quickly moving into the possibility of “action” in ways like never before.
As I listened yesterday, I couldn’t help but feel that we’ve hit a tipping point on the velocity of the conversation around accessibility. Soon, it’s clear all theatres will have the technology and operational infrastructure to service many of the audiences currently struggling to access Broadway. And when that happens in a way that makes the theatre-going community more fully aware, a newfound heat will be upon us.
The question will go from “How do we make Broadway more accessible?” to “Why aren’t you making accessibility a priority?” As an industry, we need all voices being proactive right now in understanding and engaging in this evolving conversation. Accessibility impacts our budgets, impacts the audience experience, impacts the operational requirements, impacts the way we communicate — tough conversations that come along with tough questions about priorities. But tough is good and exciting when you think about the possibilities of a positive impact! That’s what growth is all about!
The power of live theatre is a remarkable force and there is nothing more noble we can do as an industry than focus on the accessibility of this great gift for all.
Well done Kyle and team at the Shuberts, the Broadway League, TDF and all of the event’s participants. You are moving a very important conversation forward.