With live performances paused, theaters across the country have found ways to wrestle with, embrace and maximize online productions, warts and all. Audiences can’t gather in person, but digital performances accommodate a much larger group of people. Sets and costumes may be all but scrapped, but designers have nonetheless found ways to create compelling backgrounds that go far beyond green-screening efforts. And for Lincoln Center, this time of digital initiatives offers an opportunity: increasing accessibility for disabled audiences.
This year, the New York theater’s Passport to the Arts program goes online, providing performances to (and inclusively designed for) families with children, teens, and adults with disabilities. “Since 1989, thousands of people with disabilities and their families have experienced free, world-class performances through [this] program,” said Laura Sloan, Accessibility Manager at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts. In the pandemic, Passport to the Arts maintains its free programming model but now heads to Zoom, a new horizon on which the promise of greater accessibility looms.
The fall season runs now through January 24, and audiences can register for free online. The effort, per Sloan, “is an important aspect of our mission to remove barriers like accessibility concerns, high prices, and strict audience protocol.”
Spearheaded by Lincoln Center, the program offers a smattering of performances from a number of other high-caliber institutions, including New York City Ballet, New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera Guild, and New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, amongst others. As the fall season spans the holidays, registrants will also be entreated to a virtual watch party of George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker (along with a number of behind-the-scenes classes about the creation of this winter classic).
Each of the participating organizations will offer classes in various artistic mediums, exclusive performances, and chances to meet the creatives online—all made as accessible for at-home audiences as possible.
“Zoom has been a good virtual alternative,” Sloan said. “We have scheduled CART (a live captioner) for all the programs and ASL interpretation or any additional accommodations when requested. Zoom allows us to meet as a larger group and also incorporate smaller breakout rooms if needed. This is a nice way to offer small-group collaboration and activities without impacting or limiting the total number of attendees.”
To maximize context and accessibility, registered families will receive pre-performance information, which can be helpful not only for context but also for gathering materials needed to augment the experience. Such was part of the strategy for Bluelaces, a company that creates immersive, multi-sensory theater specifically designed for audiences with autism and other developmental disabilities.
“Any Bluelaces theatrical or workshop experience is primarily centered around sensory play, which does seem to present a distinctive challenge for Zoom performances,” said Samantha Leigh, co-artistic director of Bluelaces. “Luckily, we have always devised our work—and most specifically, our props—with found-at-home objects in mind.”
These props will be communicated to audiences ahead of time so they can be gathered to enhance the sensory experience of the work. Such tactile elements are crucial for engagement and comfort for the audiences Bluelaces serve—as is intimacy, which the company is also finding innovative ways to create online.
“It’s always been about connection for us, which is why we pair our ensemble members (called Adventure Guides) one-on-one with participating audience members,” Leigh shared. “With the help of technology, our cast will still be interacting with audiences one-on-one in these Zoom performances and, ideally, fostering that same sense of connection and spirit of community that people are dearly craving during these times.”
Seeking to broaden its pool of artists who serve and uplift audiences with special needs, Lincoln Center is also partnering for the first time with Infinite Flow, a troupe composed of dancers with and without disabilities that uses dance to promote inclusion.
“We’re so happy to have Infinite Flow join our fall season,” Sloan said. “Disability visibility and creating an equitable experience for all participants is an important part of our program and we seek to align with artists who have the same vision.”
Exciting as it is to offer more audiences more access, online performance is not without its own set of difficulties. As Sloan explained, “A challenging aspect has been attempting any live performances on a virtual platform, which can be tough with audio/visual limitations. We’ve solved this problem by using pre-recorded performances paired with live educators and solo performers to create a well-balanced virtual program.”
That virtual program now has not only the potential to partner with artists far outside of New York, but also redefine who gets to experience, enjoy, and be encouraged by the arts.
“For both in-person and virtual Passport programs, we hope that these performances inspire [viewers] to explore the performing arts and create more entry-points for people with disabilities in the arts,” Sloan said.