Every Single Body

Nabra Nelson, Seattle Rep director of arts engagement. Courtesy of Nelson

The magic of theatre is a privilege. It has the power to provide a sense of unity, whether between audience members and performers, musicians and directors, or prop hands and sound techs. For one show, everyone plays a part in creating a piece of art. Historically, theatre has been exclusionary, but when the climate in the theatres expanded to more people of color, genders, and bodies, shows touched more people and told more stories. 

Several local theatres are working to expand the type of accessibility they offer. Elevators, ramps, audio descriptions, and ASL are crucial to an inclusive environment, but Seattle Repertory Theatre, Seattle Children’s Theatre (SCT), and the Seattle Theatre Group (STG) are going beyond that to include those with invisible disabilities. These organizations thrive by acknowledging that simply because a disability is well masked and invisible, does not make it less real. 

There are various unwritten rules audience members are expected to follow when attending a play: clap at appropriate times, laugh on cue, and remain still and silent for hours at a time, for example. Though this is difficult for most children to do, it’s also not comfortable for all adults. Seattle Rep and SCT understand those expectations should be viewed as boundaries that need to be dismantled so an accessible environment can be cultivated. Shifts towards accessibility have the potential to be inconvenient and expensive, but it is a responsibility artists and organizations have to their audience to allow their work to be showcased to anyone who wants to see it. 

The heart of it for me is helping invisible people feel recognized and accepted—people who usually shy away and don’t go to the theatre and don’t feel welcome.

Tiffany Sparks-Keeney

One of the people leading the charge at Seattle Children’s Theatre is Tiffany Sparks-Keeney, a consultant to their Sensory Friendly Program. Her work creates a judgment-free environment where everyone is allowed their authentic reactions. “The heart of it for me is helping invisible people feel recognized and accepted—people who usually shy away and don’t go to the theatre and don’t feel welcome,” she stated. She does this by creating a sensory guide that includes a scene by scene breakdown of the performance with insight to its possible disturbing aspects. Each scene breakdown includes things that may be emotionally stressful, visually off putting, and/or audibly alarming. This allows audience members to feel they have control over their theatre going experience. Sparks-Keeney has also helped SCT designate seating in the theatre to allow space for people to move around in the middle-back rows and use their devices in the final row, to avoid disturbing others in the audience. Sparks-Keeny believes allowing people the space to have their needs met, along with her sensory guides, may truly be the next obtainable step towards making all shows more sensory friendly. 

A woman with brown hair smiles in front of a foliage background.
Tiffany Sparks-Keeney, consultant to SCT’s Sensory Friendly Program. COURTESY OF KEENEY

Having a guide available for audiences is a reasonable, inexpensive tactic to diversify who feels comfortable attending shows. Though Sparks-Keeney primarily works with Seattle Children’s Theatre, ideally she would like to expand to larger theatres. After all, neurodivergent children grow up to be neurodivergent adults. Hopefully when children see they are welcomed in the theatre space, they are inspired to not only attend in the future but play a larger role in the creation. 

The work being done at Seattle Rep is just as groundbreaking. Nabra Nelson is Seattle Rep’s point person for increasing accessibility for the neurodivergent. She said, “At Seattle Rep, you can ask for what you need.” It feels simple enough, but to know an individual’s necessities will be accommodated without judgment is uncommon, especially for those who are expected to mask for societal acceptance. It is clear that Seattle Rep thoughtfully prioritizes people’s needs and knows that is a crucial aspect of accessibility. The organization also anticipates audience members’ needs through providing mentions of intense possible triggers, displayed on Seattle Rep’s website alongside a list of resources for the triggers. This is an optional guide to ensure unwanted spoilers are not given. Additionally,  Seattle Rep has a wellness room available to those during the performance and a “tune out” space for those who need complete isolation. They also provide the option to watch the show from the lobby. Having the show projected in the lobby is an easy solution if someone feels the need to move around yet doesn’t want to miss things. 

The lower half of a person is shown holding headphones.
A Hearing Loop headset provided by Seattle Rep. Hearing Loops transmit sound directly to t-coil enabled hearing devices. COURTESY SEATTLE REP

Seattle Theatre Group has many lateral accommodation options. According to Adriana Wright​, STG’s Education Partnership Manager, through their partnership with Sensory Access, STG offers Sensory Guides after each opening night of all Broadway performances, and sensory areas are provided at all student and community matinees. STG also offers sensory-friendly shows where the house lights are kept dim and there’s a lower sound decibel output. While STG remains aware that accessibility for touring productions “is a continuous education point [where it] can be trickier to pre-build accommodations for, we always find a way upon request.” Seattle theatres’ commitment to increasing accessibility is seminal to a larger movement that requires the entire arts community’s support. Everybody who participates in any part of theatre should be asking if each show is accessible. If larger companies see that accessibility is highly valued by the arts community, they will prioritize accessibility to avoid being antiquated. 

Nelson also mentioned that all of Seattle Rep’s ushers are trained with sensory access, meaning they know where best to point someone in distress. All of these resources make a world of a difference for those who may not uphold theatre’s onerous etiquette standards and potentially benefit those who might just need to stretch their legs or have a moment alone. 

A sign sits on a desk with a blue symbol of an ear with a line through it.
A Hearing Loop sign at Seattle Rep. COURTESY SEATTLE REP

Everybody deserves to feel welcome in the theatre—every single body. It is crucial to ensure all audience members have access to attending shows and feel it is a safe space for them. The next step is encouraging people to move from the audience to the stage (or backstage). When people with disabilities feel comfortable enough to create theatre, the art is not only enriched but educated. There are many renowned performances that are known to use able-bodied actors to play roles meant for disabled bodies, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Richard III, Miracle Worker, Wicked, to name a few. This is referred to as “crip-face.” This pattern has continued when roles are written for the neurodivergent. This trend is harmful because it disregards any attempt to include people with disabilities in productions. It also gives the inevitable chance for them to be misrepresented. 

Society is exclusionary, why should theatre be too?

Nabra Nelson

Accessibility opens the gate for people to have their needs met, even when they feel reluctant to make the request. Additionally, a crucial part of accessible theatre is making audiences aware of the resources available to them during performances. This shows people that they will be entering a safe space where their needs matter. Nelson said, “Society is exclusionary, why should theatre be too?” If there is the chance to make things even a little bit better for a lot of people, it is worth it. As Wright said, art “brings joy, it creates opportunity for dialogue, it opens up your creativity and imagination. Everyone deserves a piece of the magic.”  And everyone who has felt that magic agrees. This is why I have no doubt that theatre will only change for the better. 

Elle Vonada is an artist aspiring to get a Journalism degree. The TeenTix Newsroom allows those two worlds to collide. Local theatre will continue to thrive with the assistance of Seattle’s arts community and they’re lucky to witness its journey.

This article was written on special assignment for Encore Stages through the TeenTix Press Corps, a teen arts journalism program sponsored by TeenTix, a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit organization.