Reader Alison Waters-Short wrote to me after my post on the autism-friendly production of “The Lion King” to tell me about an accessibility-focused theater group that she’s involved with. I asked if she’d be willing to write a guest post on the topic, and she agreed. Here it is. Check out Open Door Theater, everyone, and thank you, Alison!
Bringing Theater to Everyone – Locally
Autism-Friendly Performance. Sensory-Friendly Film. Making entertainment accessible to audiences is the new thing, but how does that translate locally? And what about participating in the entertainment, not just watching it?
Major kudos go out to the recent autism-friendly performance of “The Lion King” in Boston that Robin wrote about recently. And to others such as Wheelock Family Theatre as well. Today, though, I want to tell you about another theater group you may have never heard of, right in Boston’s backyard.
Open Door Theater of Acton was founded in 1980 by two women who met at the bus stop, waiting for their kids. Between them, they wanted create a community theater organization with “open doors” for anyone, especially those who might not normally get the chance to participate in theater.
The early shows were a bit rag-tag, with cardboard sets painted by a local social group for people with disabilities and volunteers from a local nursing home. The sets could (and did) travel – but then again, they had to, as there was no storage for the group in the performance space! Now Open Door mounts one big musical per year, staged at the Acton-Boxborough junior high. Cast members often number over 100, bringing together families and people of all abilities on stage with boisterous, talented performances.
Throughout its evolution, Open Door has found ways to involve people on stage and off stage with all ranges of physical and cognitive challenges (e.g. actors and stage hands with autism-spectrum, spinal bifida, neurotypical, blindness, brittle bone disease, Down’s syndrome). Our most veteran player is a remarkably differently-abled woman who started on stage, has become an indispensible “Girl Friday” backstage, and now also serves on our board of directors.
These were the people that our founders wanted to “open doors” for. We were – and are! – proud to focus on people’s abilities, not disabilities. We welcome them into our theater family and give them support as a community to put their best foot forward. And like every family, ours has special traditions. Like doing the hokey-pokey together before every performance. When I joined Open Door in 2004, I didn’t know what to make of that. But now – watching the cast play together, across all boundaries that might otherwise separate them outside of the theater, is what I look forward to every year.
We’ve been dedicated to this inclusive mission since our founding. Then, in 2006, our music director asked for an ASL-interpreted performance so that his Deaf brother and sister-in-law could enjoy it. His question triggered the realization that while we had spent a lot of time reaching out to include people in our cast and crew, we hadn’t done anything for our audiences. We found ASL interpreters to partner with, and have had an ASL-interpreted performance every year since.
In 2013 our director suggested that adding an autism-friendly performance, as they had done on Broadway, would be a great fit with our mission. So we found a group to help us learn how to put one on, succeeded beyond our expectations, and then last year we did the same for an audio-described performance for the visually impaired. This year we are continuing to expand our ASL/audio inclusion by partnering with Children’s Hospital Audiology Outreach on an exciting new project to make participating in our show more accessible to students with hearing impairments, which in turn will likely bring more interest in our ASL-interpreted performance.
With some extra effort and thought, one step at a time, we have now evolved the Open Door mission to extend accessibility to our audiences as well as our participants.
It’s amazingly easy and hard at the same time to bring people together like this. Sometimes it seems to just happen organically, seeing the range of people who might otherwise not wave hello on a street come together to create a performance. Of course, it’s also a lot of hard work and planning. Providing buddies. Organizing scenes to consider everyone’s abilities. We do it because we believe that theater is for everyone, and the theater family can include us all.
And, speaking as someone who was in the cast of our very first autism-friendly performance, I tell you it was absolutely magical. Was it different? You bet. In a fabulous way. We could tell what we were doing was appreciated and enjoyed, and at the same time, it provided the cast and crew with a personal, meaningful connection to autism awareness that many of us had not previously had.
All that makes us sound like the only thing Open Door does is focus on special needs, and to be honest, as much as that is true, at the same time, it really couldn’t be farther from the truth. Open Door is about creating fantastic family-oriented theater productions that happen to be accessible to many cast members, crew members, and audiences. We create beautiful theater that seamlessly blends all this together.
When I look at all the families acting and playing together, when I see all these people backstage enjoying each other and making new friends…that’s why we do this. It’s not really magic. Like the best of entertainment, we work hard to make it look that way, and then we get to participate in the result as well. But it’s completely possible for other groups to do this, too – and I hope there are other local groups who do, or will. After all, everyone has something to contribute, and everyone needs a place to feel special and a part of a family. That’s what Open Door is really all about.
Well, unless the hokey pokey is really what it’s all about. And if so, we’re still set.
Open Door Theater’s next show is “Shrek The Musical.” Auditions are December 1-4, 2014 and performances are March 20-29, 2015. Please consider checking us out.