By Patti Roberts
Regina Brink remembers going with her family to her first musical, “Man of La Mancha,” when she was 10 years old. Her father asked special permission from the ushers to sit by Brink’s side and whisper descriptions to her of what was happening onstage, which really helped Brink, who has been blind since birth.
“I found without him I couldn’t really keep up with the action on the stage or get the full story,” Brink says.
Brink continued going to the theater as an adult even when she found it frustrating. “Navigating the theater by myself can be challenging,” she says.
But then Brink discovered the accessibility and accommodation services offered by Broadway Sacramento, which includes both the touring shows at Broadway on Tour and the summer shows of Broadway At Music Circus. Under the program, theater patrons with visual, hearing or mobility impairments are offered various options to help them fully appreciate the shows. This is one way local performing arts venues and groups are working to make their art more accessible to all, though budget constraints limit what smaller venues and theaters can offer.
“I love going to the theater and now I can fully appreciate what is happening on the stage and the story line, including getting the jokes and nuances,” says Brink, who also has performed onstage at local productions. “I don’t have to guess what is happening during the quiet parts or when there is no dialogue and only movement.”
Creating a more inclusive way
For those with visual limitations, Broadway Sacramento provides large print and braille playbills, as well as assistance from sighted guides at certain productions. In addition, at one Saturday matinee of each theater run, audio description devices with a narrator supply live descriptions of sets, props, and the actors’ movements, expressions and gestures throughout the show.
Such special Saturday matinees also include a unique tactile pre-show presentation experience where patrons with visual impairments gather in a group to hear descriptions of the sets and actors, and feel some of the costumes and props which are passed around. This immersion provides key components to the musical’s characters and storyline.
Before the most recent Broadway Sacramento show of “Pretty Woman: The Musical,” which closed in early May, Tyler Guse, wardrobe supervisor for the touring show, met with the group to circulate and describe the costumes beforehand. Though Guse has traveled with the touring company throughout the country, this was the first time he was involved in a pre-show tactile experience.
“I love that I was able to have an inclusive way of bringing this audience into the show,” Guse says. “It was a joy to be able to show off the costumes and have them understand how intricate costumes are to a story.”
For those with hearing limitations, at each performance there are hearing assistive devices, and at one Friday performance there is live captioning on side screens and American Sign Language interpreters. The captions are in real time, pausing for audience reactions or when characters are in action mode.
“For me, live theater with an interpreter tells a story and makes everything clear for me,” says Margaret Evans, a patron who is deaf. “Many years ago, a sign language interpreter was unheard of in the theater, so I missed out on the complete storyline of the show. Now I can see the magic come alive through their hands.”
Evans’s favorite experience was watching “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” at Broadway At Music Circus. “The actor was deaf and used sign language while the interpreter filled in all the blanks of the hearing actors,” she says. “It all came together to tell the most beautiful story.”
Linda Cook, who’s 80, became deaf when she was 37. She’s been going to the theater for 40 years and appreciates the assistance programs offered — especially the ASL interpreters.
“Having an interpreter makes the show come to life,” Cook says. “It makes it possible as a deaf person to be able to attend theater and understand everything. Broadway Sacramento has top-notch interpreters who provide the experience that we would not be able to have without them.”
‘Experiencing the magic’ of live performing arts
Mondavi Center in Davis, another large theater venue in the Sacramento area, is able to offer some services such as Assistive Listening Devices, but is limited because most of their shows are one-time engagements by national touring performers.
“We’re unable to offer some of the programs that facilities with longer runs can and usually we rely on the touring companies to provide such services as ASL interpreters and real-time captioning,” says Marlene Freid, audience services and volunteer engagement manager at the Mondavi Center.
Freid has held her position for 10 years and says the venue recognizes that assistance services are needed — especially keeping the theater available for older patrons who are experiencing physical challenges as they age. The center does currently offer braille playbills and some shows with sensory-friendly performances aimed at individuals with sensory needs, including people on the autism spectrum.
More offerings for audiences have been incorporated into the newly redesigned Broadway Sacramento’ SAFE Credit Union Performing Arts Center that reopened fall of 2021, including expanded access for those in wheelchairs.
Broadway Sacramento is preparing for its summer gigs at Music Circus on H Street, where the same services for the disabled community will be offered. Helping get the word out is the theater’s Arts Alive program that’s been in place for more that 25 years and links together organizations such as Society for the Blind, California Hands & Voices, Valley Center for the Blind, NorCal Services for Deaf and Hard of Hearing, and Easterseals, while offering discount through those organizations serving people with disabilities.
“A disability should not keep someone from experiencing the magic of live theater,” says Broadway Sacramento CEO Richard Lewis, who adds that his organization makes it a “priority to promote inclusivity and make our shows as accessible as possible to all patrons.”
Heading the Broadway Sacramento programs for the disabled community is Jackie Vanderbeck, director of education and community engagement. She combines her theater acting background with her experiences growing up with a visually impaired sister to help recognize the needs of those who may need extra input to heighten their theater experience.
“Witnessing my sister’s limitations, I had a deep awareness of the challenges she and others in her community faced, as well as the services and tools that could make her environment more accessible,” Vanderbeck says. “I love the passion of everyone involved — from those producing audio descriptions to audience members who get so involved in the show.”
Vanderbeck says this focus on accessibility allows patrons to enjoy the total experience of a show, “enabling the artistry of a musical to come alive with music and descriptions that give the highs and lows of the characters, scenes and plots. I see a deep, emotional response that’s very moving.”
For more information on Broadway Sacramento services and accommodations for those with disabilities: www.broadwaysacramento.com/about/accessibility
For more information on the Mondavi Center in Davis accommodations for those with disabilities: www.mondaviarts.org/visit-us/accessibility
This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and Solutions Journalism Network. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19.