Theater is to the Big Apple as peanut butter is to jelly. They just go together, and have for many years. Though theater in New York City is exceptionally prominent and well-established, there are still many aspects of theater to be improved in terms of accessibility.
To get a better understanding of theater accessibility and inclusivity in NYC, we turned to Susan Ferziger, Associate Director of Institutional Giving and founder of the theater's People with Disabilities Affinity Group, for an interview.
Tell us about your story, specifically as it relates to theater accessibility?
This question is really about two parts of my life that later converged. I've been involved in theater since I was a teenager, working backstage and stage managing theater productions throughout junior high, high school, and college. After college I did a stage management internship at a NYC theater but for many reasons (including my eyesight, though I had not yet been diagnosed), I chose to pursue a career on the administrative side instead.
Since then, I've worked in development (fundraising) at NYC theater organizations, and I love that my work is about supporting something I'm passionate about. I work for Playwrights Horizons (www.phnyc.org), an NYC theater dedicated to supporting writers and developing and producing new plays and musicals, and I love working at a place so supportive of theater artists, and where there's always something new to see. (I also see shows at other theaters, usually at least once a week.)
Regarding accessibility, I was diagnosed with Retinitis Pigmentosa, a progressive eye disease, in 2006. RP first affects night vision and peripheral vision, and for many years I had strong central vision, so it was hard for me to accept that I had a disability. As my vision deteriorated in the past few years, I began to accept that I do have a disability, and I also started noticing that many theater spaces are not as accessible as they could be. In 2020, I formed the People with Disabilities Affinity Group at my theater, Playwrights Horizons, and began to get involved in advocating for change and improvements.
For many years, I have also served on the Board of the NYC theater company Theater Breaking Through Barriers (www.tbtb.org), which works with artists with and without disabilities, which has been huge in helping me to understand the lack of opportunity for artists with disabilities in theater and enabling me to meet and work with so many talented actors, directors, writers, and administrators with disabilities.
What changes need to be made accessibility-wise in theaters across NYC? Are there any specific accommodations that you think are overlooked?
One thing that's often lacking is communication and information. I've gone to the box office before the show to ask about accessibility at the theater and later, when attending the show, found that the information provided was incorrect. And it can be hard to find information about accessibility online. Theaters need to provide useful, correct information to their staff (who communicate with the public) and make it available –– in an easy-to-find way –– on their websites, from how to get to the theater to what to expect in your space, to what services are offered.
Theaters should also think beyond "ADA Accessible." Yes, it's extremely important that facilities are accessible by the standards of the ADA, but go even further and think about whether people with disabilities can take advantage of the full experience at your venue.
A person using a wheelchair can get into your space and into the theater, but can they order a drink at your concessions counter? (At my theater, we recently learned that a wheelchair user can reach the sink handles on our bathroom sinks, but not the soap dispensers.) Can a visually impaired person get a large print program or access one online? Do you have a ticket policy that accommodates refunds or exchanges for people who may suddenly be unable to attend?
Also, please think about ticket prices. People with disabilities are under-employed and making tickets affordable for people purchasing a wheelchair-accessible seat or attending an ASL-interpreted performance can help them enormously.
Do you think working with Blue Trunk can help achieve any goals you have in increasing accessibility in theaters in NYC?
I think the mission of Blue Trunk is fantastic, and I definitely think they can make an impact on increasing accessibility at NYC theaters! Simply by making information available about theater accessibility, they will help to achieve the goal of providing better information and communication. And by asking theaters to respond to specific questions about their accessibility, it's my hope that these theaters will think more deeply about gaps in their accessibility, both in their spaces (physical and online) and their services. I also think the best way theaters can improve accessibility is by receiving feedback from people with disabilities who visit our spaces, and Blue Trunk will provide that kind of real-life experience feedback that is so helpful and important.
Why is creating more accessible theaters in NYC important?
Theater is a communal experience. It's something we share with strangers, but as we do, we become one audience, sharing something in the present moment that will never again exist in entirely the same way. It brings us together, provides entertainment, makes us feel and think, and reflects our culture. It is essential that everyone be able to participate in this experience.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I'd like to add that people who have disabilities aren't trying to place a burden on theaters or other spaces. I work at a non-profit theater and I know that many of the changes I want to see could pose a financial burden; but there are many accommodations that are not that expensive to provide. (Making sure everyone has accurate information costs nothing but staff time.)
I'd also like to add that while I mainly discussed accessibility for audiences here, I would like to see theaters place more emphasis on opportunities for disabled theater artists, including casting actors with disabilities as characters with disabilities AND for roles not written that way.
We want to thank Susan so much for her interview with us. As always, if you find barriers in our content or have suggestions please reach out to us at email@example.com and let us know so that we can improve!