It’s no secret that the arts, and live performance in particular, have long struggled with the notion of providing accessibility for patrons with disabilities. Recently, the Eastern Michigan University Theatre program took steps towards providing a more inclusive theatergoing experience with the help of Elena Sanchez Flys, an assistant professor of Arts Administration with a passion for accessibility design.
This season, two of EMU Theatre’s shows (James and the Giant Peach and Much Ado About Nothing) offered accessibility services such as American Sign Language, audio description, captions, tactile tours and programs in both large print and Braille. In addition, both shows offered sensory friendly performances – special performances designed to create a safe and welcoming experience for patrons with sensory disabilities such as those on the autism spectrum, as well as people with other sensory sensitivities.
Since EMU is the home of the Entertainment Design & Technology (ED&T) major, a number of productions have student designers and/or technicians working on shows. For the recent production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado, the production team featured students in a number of design roles, such as lighting designer, projection designer, assistant sound designer, and assistant accessibility designer.
Becca Bedell, the lighting designer for the production, was tasked with creating a design that addressed the needs for accessible and sensory-friendly performances. One major component was the use of special “warning lights” for sensory friendly performances. In previous shows, accessibility performers had been positioned onstage and used colored glow sticks to indicate various stimuli (red for loud sounds, yellow for bright lighting / strobes, and blue for actions which might create stimulation). For this performances, Ms. Bedell wanted to replace the glow sticks with lights used to splash color on the side walls of the theatre as indicators. Since the warning light system would not be used for every performance, she decided on creating a separate lighting control system that would be independently controlled by a member of the accessibility design team. To pull this off, I worked with Becca to create a QLab lighting control rig, using QLab running on a MacBook Pro, an ENTTEC OpenDMX Ethernet interface, and a small array of Chauvet Freedom PARs provided by TLS Productions Inc.
QLab proved to be the perfect choice for setting up a lighting control system. QLab 4 added Light Cues to its already formidable array of media and show control options, allowing you to control lighting systems over ArtNET ethernet interfaces or certain varieties of USB/DMX controllers. For our system, we connected an ENTTEC OpenDMX Ethernet interface to the MacBook Pro’s Ethernet port and ran a 5-pin DMX out from the interface into the Freedom PAR’s wireless DMX transmitter. With a quick amount of programming, we were able to add four basic Light Cues to send control signals to the Freedom PAR’s – red, amber, blue, and blackout.
This lighting system would be operated by a crew member positioned in the theater’s trap room, watching a live audio/video feed of the performance and following along on a marked script (similar to a traditional stage manager). This person had no previous experience in operating a light board, so we decided to create a user-friendly interface custom made for the show that would require minimal training to operate. Once again, QLab offered a great solution to this problem in the form of its Cue Cart function. A Cue Cart allows the user to create a grid-style interface with buttons to trigger cues in the workspace. We programmed three simple color-coded buttons that allowed the operator to click a button and trigger a colored light (red, amber, or blue). The light would stay on until the operator clicked the blackout button, which was programmed to fade out any light in the workspace. Since all of the Freedom PAR’s were addressed to the same control channel, this meant that the operator could easily control all of the lights in the rig at the single touch of a button.
We discussed the pros and cons of having a system in which the cue carts would be connected to a MIDI push-button interface that allowed for a pushing a button to turn on the lights and the light turning off when the button was released, but decided on this approach of lights being on until turned off for fear of the operator accidentally creating a strobe effect by bumping the MIDI buttons. The only downside to the method we settled on was a need to turn off the lights by pressing the blackout button each time, but after a quick discussion with the operator we felt this would be the safer approach.
Technology is always changing and giving us new options for problem solving. Luckily, these changes are allowing us to become more creative in the ways that we build inclusive theatergoing experiences. I would love to hear some of the ways that you’ve been able to use tech to bridge these gaps. As always, feel free to share your thoughts!