When it comes to making theater accessible to audiences with disabilities, a lot has changed over the past four decades. In Lisa Carling's 39 years at TDF (aka Theatre Development Fund), she has not only been heartened by those advancements in inclusion, but she has also spearheaded some of them as the Director of TDF Accessibility Programs.
"One thing I love where I've seen progress over all these years is that accessibility services are standard accommodation now," she says. "There's no need to go after producers and say, 'Hey, can we do this? Can we do that?' It's part of our theatergoing knowledge and that's very exciting to me."
While TDF is well known for selling discount tickets at its Times Square TKTS Discount Booth and through its membership program, TDF Accessibility Programs (TAP) offers a membership exclusively for theatergoers with disabilities: individuals who are hard of hearing or Deaf, have low vision or are blind, who cannot climb stairs or require aisle seating or wheelchair locations. TAP members get access to discount tickets as well as services such as open captioning, American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation and audio description. There is no annual fee, but proof of eligibility is required.
During Carling's tenure, TAP membership has grown exponentially thanks in large part to the addition of services. A former performer who appeared in shows at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven, Connecticut and Classic Stage Company Off-Broadway, Carling initially took a part-time job at TDF answering phones. But when a position opened in the Accessibility department, she immediately applied. "My brother has hearing loss and I have other family members with disabilities," she explains. For her, the work was personal.
Carling's passion for bringing the power of the performing arts to everyone soon became her life's calling. By the mid-'90s, she was promoted to Director of TDF Accessibility Programs and since then she's helped develop many new initiatives, notably open captioned performances in 1997, TDF Autism Friendly Performances on Broadway in 2011 and the TDF Veterans Theatregoing Program in 2017.
According to Carling, "These programs came from the community, from advocates who came to me and said, 'We aren't able to attend theater performances,'" due to various barriers. Take open captioning. Because of the service, TDF welcomed, "a whole audience of people with hearing loss that had not been going to theater," says Carling. "We were instrumental in creating that opportunity."
While Carling is proud of all TDF Accessibility Programs, one holds a special place in her heart. "Introducing Autism Friendly Performances to Broadway is the most exciting thing I've ever done," she says. Over the past decade, TDF has presented autism-friendly performances of more than 18 Broadway productions, starting with Disney's The Lion King, so individuals on the spectrum can enjoy musicals and plays in a supportive environment alongside their families and friends.
"These performances mean so much to this community," she says. "Everyone can be themselves. No one needs to worry about others judging their child's behavior. There's always so much joy."
Even with everything she's accomplished, Carling continues to brainstorm new ways to expand access to theater and dance. Her current project: hosting more touch tours, so theatergoers who are blind or have low vision can familiarize themselves with design elements of a show ahead of the performance.
"We did one for Manhattan Theatre Club's Ink, and I've been talking to our friends at Disney Theatricals about this and they were very enthusiastic," she says. "We understand the groups can't go on stage, but we would like to find a way to have a few props or costume items in the lobby before the show begins, so our students who are blind have a chance to feel them to get a better sense of what will be happening."
"As a professional Deaf theater artist, the accessibility that TDF provides has been a true lifeline to the stage," says TAP member Garrett Zuercher. "Without them, I would not be able to experience the work of others in my field. TDF has made possible nearly every theatrical experience I've had in New York City over the last two decades. TDF is not just committed to providing accessibility, but thoroughly and completely dedicated to doing it in the best possible way. Anytime I have feedback or suggestions on how to improve the experience, they are nothing less than fully receptive and I almost always immediately see the changes implemented."
"Attending my first open captioned theater performance sponsored by TDF in 2013 changed my life," says TAP member Holly Cohen. "With my hearing loss, it had been challenging to hear all the words spoken or sung on the stage. Open captioning is a gift to me and my hearing loss community."
"The audio described performances offered by TDF enable me and many others who are blind or have some visual impairment to enjoy an array of live theatrical performances," says TAP member Karla. "The wonderful staff makes sure that every attendee is in the optimal seat for the greatest enjoyment, and a state-of-the-art receiver and a live audio describer bring us right into the action. Eyesight may be limited, but now our enjoyment of theater doesn't have to be!"
While Carling is used to accolades like these, she never tires of them. "We are here to advocate for audiences and to make sure that they have the accessibility accommodations that they need," she says. "It's wonderful that there are so many options available now."
Get a list of the accessible MTA stations here
TDF Accessibility Programs That Require TAP Membership
Click here if you're interested in applying to become a TAP member. Membership is free, but proof of eligibility is required. TAP members have access to:
Open Captioned Performances
An electronic text display is positioned to the side of the stage and shows what the actors are saying or singing. Patrons are placed in seats that ensure they can see both the stage and the caption board during the performance.
American Sign Language-Interpreted Performances
A team of experienced theater interpreters stand to the side of the stage and translate what the actors are saying or singing into ASL.
Audio Described Performances
A specially trained describer verbalizes what's happening on stage during pauses in dialogue. The describer uses a headset microphone and patrons listen through a receiver with a single earpiece.
Seats are guaranteed to be in the orchestra, so members who cannot climb stairs are accommodated. Members who use wheelchairs can obtain the seating they require. Members who have low vision or hearing loss can order tickets that place them closer to the stage. Patrons who use service animals can obtain appropriate seating.
TDF Accessibility Programs Open to Nonmembers
Autism Friendly Performances
Slight adjustments are made to the production, including reducing jarring sounds or strobe and spotlights that shine into the audience. House lights are faintly dimmed but remain on. TDF works closely with professionals in the field and with consultants on the autism spectrum to make each show accessible and enjoyable for everyone in the community. TDF creates resources such as character guides that help prepare audiences for the show. A team of volunteers and autism specialists are available throughout the theater, and break areas are open to those who need to leave their seats during the performance. Sign up for the TDF Autism Friendly Performances email list.
Theatre Access NYC
TDF partnered with The Broadway League to develop TheatreAccess.NYC, the official site for accessibility information for Broadway shows. Those who are hard of hearing or Deaf, have low vision or are blind, who cannot climb stairs or who require aisle seating or wheelchair locations, who are on the autism spectrum or have other developmental or cognitive disabilities can find out everything they need to know to choose a show, buy tickets and plan their Broadway outing.
Veterans Theatregoing Program
New York City veterans attend shows on Broadway and beyond alongside their peers. The program is offered at no cost to veterans organizations within the five boroughs. If you're a veteran who lives in NYC, email email@example.com for more information.
Raven Snook is the Editor of TDF Stages, the online culture blog for TDF, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to bringing the power of the performing arts to everyone. TDF membership is one of many TDF programs that help make theater accessible. Learn more about TDF at tdf.org.