Philly arts institutions use COVID downtime to focus on accessibility and diversity

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Rebekkah Lee Krumenacker appears in the Open Stage production of

Rebekkah Lee Krumenacker appears in the Open Stage production of "Tales from Sleepy Hollow." All the actors were recorded separately and edited together to resemble dialogue. (Open Stage)

Hope Pesner likes the theater. Before the pandemic shut down all theaters in Pennsylvania a year ago, she used to frequent regional theater companies around Elizabethtown, Pa., where she lives.

“I have a lot of friends, and I’m lucky in that regard, but I don’t always know how to talk to people in groups,” said Pesner. “Sharing an experience like theater or a movie, you know, helps bridge that chasm a little.”

Pesner has Asperger Syndrome, a neurological disorder that can make it difficult for her to engage socially. She said attending theater can be uncomfortable if it means dealing with too many people or too much sound.

“It can be very overstimulating. I get headaches and I start acting out. Noise is not always a good thing for me,” she said. “I’m living moment-to-moment in my little Asperger world and I’m blocking out the noise that’s bothering me, and I’m blocking out the people talking and the people rustling and people shifting their programs around. When you can hear everything, all the noise around you can be very distracting.”

One silver lining of the yearlong pandemic is many theater companies have started putting plays and performances online. People like Pesner, who enjoy theater but sometimes have trouble attending it, are able to watch plays when they want, how they want, and where they want.

Recently Pesner watched a production of “Tales from Sleepy Hollow” by the Harrisburg theater company Open Stage. The company shot each actor performing their individual parts separately, and edited them together with animation to make it look like they were sitting around a campfire together sharing stories. The resulting video was posted to the Open Stage YouTube channel behind a paywall for a limited run.

Other theater companies have been more ambitious in their online productions. The Wilma Theater put an entire company of 16 actors and crew into group isolation for weeks inside a remote house in the Poconos where they shot its filmed production of “Heroes of the Fourth Turning.” It was released as a ticketed online video for a limited run in December.

Opera Philadelphia has been embracing the pandemic moment by making ambitiously cinematic digital content in lieu of its usual staged operas. The company’s subscription-based online video channel features newly commissioned opera works written specifically for the camera. The New York Times called the company a “pacesetter for virtual performance.”

“We really looked at this moment as a moment to redefine arts engagement,” said John Orr of Arts-Reach, which helps cultural organizations make their content more widely accessible, particularly to people with disabilities. “If the arts weren’t built accessible originally, this was a really good moment to take a step forward in a much more intentional, accessible way to create equitable engagement.”

During the pandemic, Arts-Reach partnered with several organizations in Philadelphia — such as the Mütter Museum, Eastern State Penitentiary, and the Magic Gardens — to make videos about themselves. The videos feature a representative of the organization describing their space and exhibitions in detail for the benefit of the visually impaired. For the hearing impaired, the videos are both subtitled and interpreted into sign language.

The video by the Magic Gardens features its education and outreach manager Olivia Edlund describing the mosaics of broken pottery, bicycle parts, doll heads, and toilet that make up the immersive environment created by artist Isaiah Zagar.

Magic Gardens and Art-Reach created a descriptive video for people with visual impairments who cannot go to the Gardens during the pandemic. Education and outreach manager Olivia Edlund (center) describes the immersive art installation and James Cavalry (lower right) provides the sign language. (Art-Reach)

“She described every detail in what it looked like,” said Hillary McFadden. Both blind and on the autism spectrum, she accessed the descriptive online video from her home in Harrisburg. “I think visiting might be even better because you get to feel the stuff.”

These videos do not have high-quality production values. They tend to be a simple, one-shot talking head with occasional cutaways to illustrative photos or graphics. Orr wanted to show cultural organizations that online content does not need to cost a lot of money to be effective.

“It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does have to be available. You can’t just leave out, you know, 16% of Philadelphia’s population,” said Orr, referring to the number of people living with disabilities in the city.

If organizations decide to keep producing online content after the pandemic lifts, Orr believes they can shrink a divide between Philadelphia cultural organizations and those residents who feel alienated from them, not just people with disabilities but also people of color, low-income people, and immigrants.

“There’s a pretty long history of arts and culture organizations being run by people of privilege and wealth and power, and that power and privilege exudes through the organization,” he said. “There’s a lot of people in Philadelphia who don’t have that privilege and don’t have that power and don’t feel comfortable in those spaces. The idea that museums or cultural organizations can be community hubs for people is only true if we create a neutral playing field. And right now, that’s just not the case.”

That cultural divide has been on the mind of David Devan since well before the pandemic. For years the executive director of Opera Philadelphia has been trying to democratize opera, to make it culturally accessible to a wider range of people.

“I’m talking about making sure that we are producing it in a way that was relevant to our life experiences,” said Devan. “We were having dialogues with communities that make up Philadelphia and communities that have not had their stories told, have not been involved in the creative process. Some of that work met our stage.”

In Opera Philadelphia’s annual festival that opens its season every fall, new operas have premiered about Alzheimer’s Disease, the MOVE bombing in West Philadelphia, and teenagers using social media to broadcast their fatal shootout with police in Russia.

When Devan moved into digital film production for the pandemic, along came the company mission to broaden the traditional scope of opera. The channel has featured a new work by composer Tyshawn Sorey inspired in part by the killing of George Floyd, and upcoming is a new work by composer Angélica Negrón set in the world of drag, starring drag performer Sasha Velour.

“What the channel’s done for us is, first of all — there’s a section of the traditional audience that’s watching it, which is great. They’re going on a new journey,” said Devan. “We’re also seeing growth from the Philadelphia market, both generationally and new-to-opera people that have never been in our theaters, subscribing to the channel.”

Devan plans to continue the digital channel once the pandemic has lifted. Devan does not expect all audiences to be comfortable returning to in-person theater until late 2021 or 2022. By then, audience behaviors will likely have changed in ways he cannot predict. Digital content may lead the way.

“We don’t know what happens to people after they’ve been locked up for 18 to 24 months,” he said. “We don’t know what their tastes are going to be.”

As the pandemic has likely changed audiences, it will also change arts organizations. Just before the pandemic, Philadelphia Theatre Company had already been engaging with perceived racial bias in the way it selects plays for production, inviting a conversation with the authors of an open letter of complaint.

Once PTC closed for the pandemic, executive director Paige Price delayed developing online content in order to focus attention on the company’s relationship with audiences and other theater leaders.

“I really believe that this break, unfortunate as it is, is crucial to the imagination of the American theater,” said Price. “I do feel that there’s actually an opportunity for the whole field to shift. I don’t know what it looks like, but I know there is a commitment that I’ve never seen before.”

Leaders of the Philadelphia theater community have been meeting in virtual town halls to acknowledge and discuss racial bias within the industry, and more widely across the country to discuss best practices — something Price said had never happened before.

“There was a huge convening of theater leaders — 90 theaters, 166 leaders across the country met in August, December and then again in January, specifically focused on the issue on equity issues for BIPOC [Black/Indigenous/People of Color] performance,” she said. “These are, like, seven-hour meetings a day. This was no joke. And that’s when you go, ‘Oh, there’s power in this moment.’ We’re all seeing each other and we’re all sort of collectively changing.”

However the theater industry changes through and after the pandemic, Price wants to bring audiences along for the ride — both new audiences and old.

“I think the great thing about theater is that you can dig into those issues and uplift,” she added. “I really think that what I’m going to be seeking is art that reminds people that we’re all the same, ultimately, and that finds triumph, that finds comedy, that finds music.”

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