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Pittsburgh's art groups forge ahead on accessibility

"They really work this as a community."

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Marty Mathews examines a costume as she and Maurice Johnston take a PBT sensory seminar with the Alyssa Herzog Melby.
  • Photo by John Colombo
  • Marty Mathews (left) examines a costume as she and Maurice Johnston take a Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre "sensory seminar" with the PBT's Alyssa Herzog Melby.

In the early 1970s, Marty Mathews was a recent graduate of Carnegie Mellon, where she studied piano. Mathews is blind from birth. So whenever she attended a play, the self-described "culture vulture" arrived hoping that one of her seatmates would read her the program.

Today, that's less of a problem: Many theater companies offer programs in Braille, or online versions accessible with audio readers. But arts groups, advocates for the disabled and disabled people themselves continue pushing for other forms of increased accessibility — including those that make disabled patrons feel not simply accounted for, but actually welcome.

Mathews, for instance, hasn't seen much dance, but she's a Tchaikovsky fan and wanted more. So 90 minutes before October's Sunday matinee of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's The Sleeping Beauty, she and a friend joined PBT's Alyssa Herzog Melby in a cozy Benedum Center lounge for a "sensory seminar."

Melby, PBT's director of education and community engagement, produced the Lilac Fairy's costume, and Mathews felt the tutu's layered tulle; she discovered that it sticks out, rather than laying flat, like a typical skirt. She inspected props, including the witch's devious means of pricking the princess's finger: "I didn't know that's what a spindle looked like."

Mathews also examined two doll-sized, jointed wooden artist's models that Melby used to demonstrate ballet moves. And Melby coached her through acting out Carabosse's sinister pantomime cursing the princess, including an evil, belly-shaking laugh. Following the half-hour seminar, Mathews quipped, "Now I'm gonna be in the ballet, right?"

"I like to touch things that I wouldn't normally get to touch," says Mathews, a retired computer programmer who's also done pre-performance "touch tours" of sets at local theaters. Also helpful was the live audio description that Melby and volunteer MaryAnn Graziano did for Sleeping Beauty, outlining the action through headsets for a handful of visually impaired patrons.

The PBT's audio-description program began in December 2012, one in a new, citywide wave of access initiatives. For a visually impaired person, the benefits of audio description are obvious. As Mathews says, "It just makes a difference knowing what's going on."

The modern era of arts accessibility dates to the American Sign Language performances some theaters offered in the 1970s. Following the federal Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, wheelchair access to public venues of all sorts became standard.

But if you were blind, deaf or faced other sensory or cognitive challenges, the new ramps and elevators got you only so far. For visually impaired patrons in Pittsburgh, at least, a breakthrough came in 2003, when Pittsburgh Opera began offering audio description at one performance of each production. Today, the service draws up to 70 listeners per production. City Theatre followed suit two years later, and now averages 20 audio-description patrons per selected performance

Such early efforts were seeded by grants from the Pittsburgh-based FISA Foundation, and it was FISA that sparked the current surge in arts accessibility here. In 2011, FISA and the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council began offering accessibility workshops for arts groups.

Since then, things have moved quickly. With FISA support, more local arts administrators began attending the annual Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability conference, a professional network affiliated with the Kennedy Center, a national leader in arts access. By 2013, both Melby and a team from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust (which owns the Benedum Center, the Byham Theater and other Downtown venues) had won LEAD awards as emerging leaders.

Three years ago, the only sensory accommodation the Trust regularly offered was ASL at selected performances of touring Broadway shows. Now, says Trust director of accessibility Vanessa Braun, there are also large-print programs, audio description and closed captioning on hand-held devices at selected shows and on request (given sufficient notice)

One accessibility frontier involves audience members on the autism spectrum, who might be especially sensitive to light and sound, or who might behave in ways unacceptable in traditional theater settings. In September 2013, the Benedum Center became just the third venue nationally to host a "sensory-friendly" performance of Disney's The Lion King. And that December, the PBT hosted the nation's first sensory-friendly performance of holiday favorite The Nutcracker.

In these shows, the house lights were dimmed only halfway, and lighting and sound effects (like Mufasa's roar) that might alarm some patrons were softened or eliminated. More important, though, was the "relaxed-rules" atmosphere that made it OK for patrons to talk during scenes, or even get up and walk around.

Nearly 2,400 people with autism, their family members and caretakers, attended that Lion King. Braun says many families reported that it was the first time they'd taken their autistic child to a live show. Jim Walter, of Shaler, enjoyed that Lion King with his wife, his older daughter and Lily, then age 7, who is autistic. "The stress of managing her behavior throughout the performance was relieved," says Walter.

Accessibility issues are only becoming more prominent. The PBT plans another sensory-friendly Nutcracker, and then, in February, Beauty and the Beast. The Pittsburgh Symphony just announced its first sensory-friendly concert, next June, and The Andy Warhol Museum is planning sensory-friendly days.

Starting next year, moreover, the sales-tax-funded Allegheny Regional Asset District, with its $91 million budget, will require each of the arts groups and other cultural assets it supports to designate an accessibility coordinator, so that potential patrons will know whom to contact for help. And this year, ARAD set aside $500,000 in grant money for accessibility projects and unrelated "connections" (i.e., merging of operations). So far, only about $234,000 of the funds have been successfully applied for, to fund things like audio guides, accessibility training for staff and even "virtual tours" of physically inaccessible spaces.

Pittsburgh in fact is known nationally for how its arts groups cooperate to promote accessibility. "They really work this as a community," says Betty Siegel, director of accessibility at the Kennedy Center.

But plenty of work remains. For instance, Joyce Driben, a longtime arts patron who is blind from birth, says that the Carnegie Museum of Art offers no audio descriptions of its exhibits. And unlike museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, she says, the Carnegie lacks tactile resources, like touchable replicas of 3-D artworks.

Carnegie Museum of Art spokesperson Jonathan Gaugler responds that the museum has some tactile displays in its decorative-art exhibit. And he notes that there is a Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh initiative to explore adding tactile displays; the Warhol, in fact, has been testing tactile versions of 2-D works like Warhol's soup cans and self-portraits it plans to have on display by the end of 2015.

Still, advocates for the disabled say accessibility isn't just about gear (though things like a new automatic door-opener at Downtown's Theater Square Box Office certainly help). It's also a mindset.

"Access is really more than compliance [with laws]. It's making people feel welcome and valued," says Anne Mulgrave, GPAC's manager of grants and accessibility. She recalls fielding stories from hearing-impaired concert patrons frustrated by 40-minute delays waits for assisted-listening devices: "People with disabilities felt like they were problems, and they wouldn't show up."

"If you care, that's the biggest first step," says Ann Lapidus, who became blind as an adult and now consults informally with arts groups. "How may I help you's the general question to want to ask everyone."

Or as Mulgrave puts it, "Accessibility is just good customer service."

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