Issues of accessibility are expansive. This article primarily focuses on the accessibility of virtual content for the disability and neurodivergent communities. It should be noted that access to internet and an internet-connecting device are also access barriers. 
Featured companies were chosen based on size, existing commitments to accessibility, and varieties of programming and engagement opportunities and content. Madeline works at Children’s Theatre Company as a teaching artist and Sensory Friendly Liaison; she has not worked professionally with any other theater mentioned. 

As in-person content and programming shifted to fully virtual in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the possibility of reaching a new, wider audience was touted as a source of excitement. As companies celebrated acquiring engagement from people across the country however, there was little acknowledgment that many in our local communities remain excluded.

Many Twin Cities area theaters have crafted missions, values, and inclusion statements that specifically address their desire to be welcoming homes for all. While the Twin Cities theater community has invested in accessible performance experiences (Table 1), that same intentionality has yet to be consistently present in the virtual sphere. The accessibility of content on social media, virtual fundraisers, and education programming varies greatly. Many in the disability and neurodivergent communities (and others with access needs) have been excluded from equitable engagement opportunities. Essentially, some who would like to be engaged can’t.

This review looks at the presence and practices of Children’s Theatre Company, Guthrie Theater, the Jungle Theater, Mixed Blood Theatre, Park Square Theatre, Stages Theatre Company, and SteppingStone Theatre. These theaters were chosen because of their ranging size, existing commitments to accessibility, and their varieties of programming and engagement opportunities and content.

Table 1: Live Performance Accessibility Options

Live Performance Accessibility Options

Theater

ASL Interpretation

Assisted Listening Devices

Open Captioning

Audio Description

Large Print Programs

Braille Programs

Sensory Tours

Sensory Friendly/Relaxed Performances

Financial Aid Program

CTC

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

ACT Pass*

Guthrie

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Sometimes

Gateway Tickets, scholarships

Jungle

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

No

JungleConnects

Mixed Blood

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

No

Yes

Sometimes

Radical Hospitality

Park Square

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes

No

No

No

Stages

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

No

No

Yes

Yes

Open Door* + Pay What You Can Shows

SteppingStone

Yes

Yes

No

Yes

No

No

No

No

Pay As You’re Able Shows + Scholarships*

I. Social Media

Considering the content and programming that’s been shared since Governor Walz mandated the closing of theaters, the lack of accessibility is discouraging, disheartening, and, for those who need it, painful. The most frequent accessibility measure employed by these theaters is the captioning of video content (Table 2). According to Non-Visual Desktop Access (NVDA), a screen reader, alt-text for images on these companies social media pages including those that contain important messages for patrons is not provided. No additional transcriptions, image descriptions, or visual descriptions were found.

Captioning makes videos accessible to d/Deaf and hard of hearing people as well as those with sensory processing challenges. Additionally, captions are frequently used by language learners and those who encounter the video in a setting where they will not have sound on. Captions, when done correctly, greatly increase the accessibility of videos. Unfortunately, the most some companies in this review have done is provide auto-captions inconsistently. Practically a synonym for erroneous, these are referred to by many in the d/Deaf and hard of hearing communities as “craptions.” They average multiple errors per minute and lack the punctuation, capitalization, speaker tags, and non-dialogue sounds vital to an equitable—and often understandable—viewing.

Table 2: Content Captioning on Facebook from March 16 - August 18 as of August 18, 2020

Content Captioning on Facebook from March 16 – August 18

Company

Number of Videos1

Percent Captioned

Percent Captioned If Unedited Auto-Captions2 Aren’t Counted

Children’s Theatre Company

53

79%

26%

Guthrie Theater

9

67%

67%3

Jungle Theater

5

20%

0%

Mixed Blood Theater

14

21%

14%

Park Square Theatre

15

0%

0%

Stages Theatre Company

100+

<15%

0%

SteppingStone Theatre

7

0%

0%

1,Includes each post of a video created by the company, including links to YouTube or Vimeo; excludes virtual event recordings and content shared from other sources.

2. Becuase auto-captions on Facebook may be edited and adjusted, videos were checked for accuracy. Some videos were partially edited; if errors or omissions remained, they were not counted.

3. The Guthrie Theater has since updated the previously uncaptioned content to include captions.

As of August 18, On Instagram, the closest any of these companies had comes to implementing accessibility is a video from Stages. It features decorative text of the dialogue that is not always readable due to the background. In September, CTC began posting Instagram videos with open captions.

At the start of the pandemic, Children’s Theater Company was producing multiple weekly series: Mindfulness Mondays, with emotion-regulation and empathy exercises through a lens of awareness and equity; Write On Wednesdays, in which CTC actors and their families transformed scripts from young people into short videos; and Suggestion Saturdays, which provided an opportunity to submit ideas for future works. CTC also shared a variety of videos about the theater and introduced Virtual Academy, their virtual education program, and its faculty. Except for the promotional videos for what was to be their 2020-21 season, the presence of correct captioning on videos posted directly to Facebook and those shared from YouTube was inconsistent. According to Director of Community Partnerships and Inclusion Michael Winn, the reason CTC has not consistently provided accurate captions is due to a lack of consistent practices across departments in combination with a lack of proactively budgeting for them. “We are committed to captioning from here on out and we are developing best practices for captioning across departments.”

Video content on Facebook for the Guthrie mostly revolved around prompting their Virtual Fundraiser. For the Guthrie, Associate Director of Marketing Elizabeth Deacon noted, “We’ve made the choice to caption all videos for social media, and have done so for the past several years.”. Despite this, three recent videos on their Facebook page were not captioned (West Side Story Studio Session, “Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat” from Guys and Dolls, and a feature on Sally Wingert). When this was pointed out, captions were added from when they premiered live. “Each video is captioned by our Accessibility Manager, Hunter Gullickson. (The timing of the decision to caption everything coincides with the organization hiring a full-time videographer to produce videos in house, and the uptick in content we were sharing.) We’re also working to add captions to earlier videos in our archive.” The Guthrie acknowledges practices to make social media content in place are “a work in progress.” “Before the pandemic hit, we began the process of adding alt text to images on our website, and that work continues. Though we occasionally add alt text to social posts, we’re working to establish a consistent practice.”

Park Square has started a puzzle series but to date has not provided any access supports for viewers. Park Square did not respond to comment. This piece will be updated to include their response if one is received.

In response to the inquiry regarding accessibility on the Jungle’s social media, Managing Director Robin Gillette expressed gratitude for an inquiry about accessibility on social media. “We're digging into that now and will improve our practices,” said Gillette and Marketing Manager Carly Caputa in a joint response, “We're also working with a consultant at Accessible360 to improve overall online accessibility—we're long overdue for a website overhaul, and while the COVID-induced economic crunch this spring/summer put those plans on hold, we're putting them back in motion this fall.” Additionally, Gillette shared that the company now plans to caption future videos.

Mixed Blood has commissioned Mixed Blood Responds, a series of “video, image, and textual responses to [the killing of George Floyd] born from systemic racism and fear.” They’re currently in the process of adding captions to videos. “It’s important that people keep us accountable,” said Audience Engagement Manager Tim Komatsu, “We want to do everything we can to be accessible. We’ve spent a lot of time to make our website accessible. But we’ve taken that time on the website and not social media, so we need to do that now.”

Stages Theatre Company produced a great many videos as a part of Beyond the Stage, an educational pre-recorded series which started in March. Most of these videos lacked any captions at the time they were removed from YouTube as did the promotional videos for the segments shared on their Facebook page. Highlights from the series were made available via link on the Beyond the Stage webpage; one of these video lacks any captioning and the others are auto-captioned. Some videos on their website and YouTube page captioned by Stages contain the same errors common in auto-captioning.

According to STC Artistic Director Sandy Boren-Barrett, serving the community and making sure their programs are financially accessible is the priority for Stages. “We are exploring ways to continue to serve our community, with virtual offerings and through our Open Door program will work to provide scholarships for families who would like to participate, we anticipate the need will be great, particularly now.” Currently, STC is balancing creating their content for their Out of the Box fall programming with exploring options for captioning or ASL interpretation for said programming. “We’re test driving a lot of different software options for the best way to provide access to our families,” Boren-Barretts said. She’s also thinking about the lasting impact of investing in accessibility now: “All of the technologies we’re exploring now will make our services better when we [return to in-person].”

The videos SteppingStone Theatre shared on Facebook featured their young artists and promoted virtual programming opportunities and their production of Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr. “Last school year, we committed to captioning our public YouTube channel,” said Director of Marketing and Communication Kiersten Birondo, “However, when reviewing our practices for this article, we found a video from the last year without closed captions. We have captioned it now, but it is a reminder to remain vigilant because our community deserves equitable access to our programming. SteppingStone has been grateful to our employees, student artists, families, and community who support us every day as we discover new growth areas.” While some videos do have accurate captioning, several of the videos on SteppingStones’ YouTube channel merely have auto-captioning. For images, Birondo said the company uses the information tree from Web Accessibility Initiative to inform their accessibility practices for online content.

“We exist to support young people, schools, and their families and feedback is important to the learning process, “ said Birondo, “Some things take time to do well and consistently because of resource limitations that are particularly prevalent during the pandemic. However, if there are things we need to do differently, we want to work towards a solution.”

II. Events

When accessibility is already integral to practices including initial planning, it’s easier to maintain, adapt, and expand it. As evidenced by local theater education programs and select fundraisers, accessibility in the virtual sphere is achievable.

CTC’s Curtain Call Ball on September 12 had ASL interpretation for the pre-party for young people and open captioning for the program.

The Guthrie provided a mix of opening captioning and ASL interpretation for their Virtual Benefit on August 1. Deacon said the Guthrie “felt it was critical to provide, at minimum, ASL interpretation and open captioning for the event, which featured live and pre-recorded material.”

The Jungle’s virtual fundraiser, B.A.S.H. 2020, did not have captioning or ASL interpretation. “We didn't have captioning or ASL interpretation for our benefit because, honestly, we didn't have time to figure out the technology in the crazy two weeks we had to pivot to the online format,” said Gillette, “We didn't want to have an ASL interpreter in the room for the live segments, because we kept the number of people to a bare minimum for COVID reasons, and we hadn't figured out how to add in simultaneous ASL interpretation or captions yet. For future online events, we will definitely incorporate captions and/or ASL interpretation.”

The Jungle has also produced Shine a Light festival, a multimedia event. There was both an in-person and socially distant experience as well as a virtual showcase on their website.  “We've tried hard to make the Shine a Light festival accessible from many angles, in addition to no admission charges for anything,” said Gillette and Caputa. “While the projections were limited to [night] because they required darkness, the window displays are viewable anytime, day or night, which makes them more available to people with varying schedules. The windows are easily visible for people of varying heights and those who use mobility devices; we were also careful to provide ample lighting for patrons with low vision. The prime viewing area for the projections was a wide sidewalk with ramped access. Check-in information was available in English, Spanish and Somali. The video projection had no words, so it was not captioned; it did have a music soundtrack, which was indicated with text at the beginning of the projection, and the music was playing on a speaker onsite, as well as being available by headphones on viewers' personal devices, so they could control their own volume levels.”

The virtual Shine a Light experience, however, had fewer accessibility supports. Transcriptions, translations, image and video descriptions were not available. Some text featured in audio recordings was posted but was not labels as such. “[Transcriptions are] a great idea, and one that we're working on,
said Gillette and Caputa.SteppingStone Theatre produced Disney’s Little Mermaid Jr. which performed in August.  For these socially distant live performances, SteppingStone worked with individual patrons to meet access needs. “For our socially distanced, outdoor, 3-performance run of Disney’s The Little Mermaid Jr., we provided a virtual, rather than a print program for the audience to limit physical contact,” said Birondo, “We also asked each order to inform us of any accessibility needs, including mobility concerns, audio description, and ASL interpretation, and provided all requested accommodations and services.”

III. Virtual Education Programming

CTC’s Virtual Academy maintained the access supports from in-person programming and is working to eliminate the access barriers to virtual learning. “In all our Education programs we acknowledge and affirm that learning and engagement look different for every student. We are happy to collaborate with families to design individual learning plans, welcome students using AAC, invite personal care assistants,” said Director of Education Ellie McKay. “As we make the shift into online learning, through Virtual Academy, we provide captioning for videos, offer audio versions of text, and have some access to ASL interpretation. By the launch of our fall session we will have a social narrative detailing the experience of logging into Zoom for class. We know we have a long way to go in achieving a truly equitable classroom and look forward to each next step we take.”

The Guthrie made the decision to pivot to virtual education programming last spring. “As we head into fall and apply what we’ve learned over the summer about adapting classes for Zoom, we expect [the] list of [accessibility supports] to evolve and grow,” said Deacon.

“Prospective students may sample classes to determine if accessibility needs can be met before registration and payment are required,” shared Deacon via email. “Guthrie staff will make best efforts to facilitate a virtual meeting between a teaching artist and student (in the presence of an apprentice or staff member), to address specific communication needs prior to the first class.” Upon request, class materials are sent by mail and can be made available in Braille or via audio recording. They also provide resources for using Zoom and hired staff specifically for tech support. For financial accessibility, the Guthrie offers scholarships, pay-as-able, and payment installation options.

Stages maintained its support practices from in-person programming when they transitioned to Summer Theatre Workshop: Out of the Box, virtual experiences of prerecorded video content for ages 4 – Grade 3 and live online class time for Grades 4 – 12 paired with socially distant events. “We do [personal phone calls] with every parent that asks or mentions access needs and supports on their registrations,” said Boren-Barrett, “We still do a follow up because every young person is different. We really believe that caregivers are the people who best know their young person.” Additionally, Stages has continued their C.A.S.T. program (Create, Artistic, Sensory-Friendly Theatre) for young people with autism throughout the pandemic as well with both virtual and small, in-person opportunities at the request of families.

This summer, SteppingStone offered both virtual and hybrid summer camp options. “For [hybrid camps] and virtual studio classes, we provided dedicated teaching space and access to strong broadband internet for Teaching Artists leading virtual programs,” said Director of Marketing and Communication Kiersten Birondo, “We also continued our class and camp scholarship program through the summer because we believe that no child should be turned away due to inability to pay.” This school year, SteppingStone is raising money to transition all of their programming to Pay-As-You’re-Able. Their programming will also include socially distant events at Park Square Theatre. “Their theatre in the Hamm Building is more accessible than our Victoria Street location in terms of both ground-level access and proximity to public transportation.

There are many factors, known and unknown, that impact each decision made by a company. An unfortunate reality of living in an ableist society is knowing that the decision to leave content or programming inaccessible isn’t always an intentional decision. Sometimes no one involved is thinking about it, or those involved don’t see it as a priority. There needs to be a change in how and when we think about accessibility so that it is prioritized—and not just for fundraisers and revenue sources.

IV. Moving Forward

Accessibility measures such as captions, alt-text, visual descriptions, and content warnings do, like everything else in our field, take time and require a skillset and knowledge. Often, companies across our country respond to access requests related to virtual content with platitudes about caring about access for all but lacking some combination of time, funding, and personnel. This attitude indicates viewing accessibility as optional. Accessibility should never be thought of as something separate or additional to planning and execution. Once we understand that accessibility is not a superfluous favor or gesture, the value of investing in it is clear.

Theater companies reevaluate and reimagine how they do things. Processes are changing as companies wrestle with how to remain relevant, effective, and meaningful. Most are navigating this time with smaller staffs, fewer resources, and additional needs. There are many challenges that come with this that cannot be ignored. Any moment that asks a company to reimagine its practices also contains opportunity. One such opportunity is to prioritize accessibility in new and adapting models of planning and creation. As Ryan J. Haddad wrote in “Disability Scorecard,” “Best practice is to lead with inclusion, lead with accessibility.”

Theaters in our community say they are “committed to removing any and all barriers to accessing our programming” (Stages), include “universal access” in their vision (Mixed Blood), list Inclusion/Inclusivity as a core value (Guthrie, CTC, Park Square), and desire to be a place “where all are welcome and everyone is home” (Jungle). However, if these commitments will not apply to specific content or programming, greater transparency is needed about the engagement restrictions companies are willing to place those with access needs. The intention behind statements of inclusion, visions, and values, as well as the failures to fully follow through, are not unique to theaters or to our area, but that is not an excuse. While issues of inaccessibility existed before the pandemic, until addressed, they will continue to exclude and keep people from fully engaging with and enjoying the theater community.

Adding captioning to all videos with sound and providing alt-text, image descriptions, and visual descriptions for content is needed and important, but those are not the end game of accessibility. Accessibility is not about completing a checklist. At its best and most effective, accessibility is a continual commitment to increasing the equity of experiences; accessibility is supported by actions to proactively identify and remove barriers as well as improve the experiences of those with access needs so that it can be as equitable as possible. Whomever the company is seeking to serve should be consulted and involved. Whether it is a need shared by a community, such as captioning for the d/Deaf and hard of hearing communities, or an individual need, such as a domestic abuse survivor with PTSD needing a description of what is meant by the content warning “violence,” meeting access needs should be understood as respecting a right, not doing a favor.

Theaters in our community have already made strides and commitments to creating more accessible, inclusive theater experiences—those experiences ought to extend beyond what happens live and in-person. Particularly as the pandemic wears on, these digital experiences will remain a vital artistic experience for many. Just as accessibility is never solely a select person’s job, it should never be reserved for solely select performances or fundraisers. The disability and neurodivergent communities as well as others with access needs deserve to be considered a part of target audiences, not separate. To truly be included in the community, opportunities for accessible, equitable engagement must extend to social media content, websites, emails, virtual programming, and all else companies offer. Twin Cities area theaters could commit to greater, holistic accessibility and, by consistently doing so, begin to set a new, equitable standard for the field.

Consult the disability community and others with access needs. Listen. Follow through.

If you encounter a lack of accessibility in content, messaging, or programming, please reach out to the company and ask they make it accessible.

Resources

Resources to Help Ensure Accessibility of Your Virtual Events for People with Disabilities from National Endowment for the Arts
Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG) Overview from Web Accessibility Initiative

Captioning Standards and Best Practices from Berkley’s Digital Learning Services Accessibility Hub

Seven Factors That Make Websites Accessible to the Visually Impaired from Veronica With Four Eyes (Veronica Lewis)

How to Add Alt-Text on Social Media from Veronica With Four Eyes (Veronica Lewis)