A Sign of Change for Accessibility in Theatre
Image a world without theatre. Pretty hard, right? The origins of theatre date back to 384 BCE. Theatre is engrained in our society, our day-to-day entertainment, and it influences our perceptions of the human condition. Now Imagine a world of silence. For many, this is a reality. A reality for our deaf community that rarely involves participation in theatre. In 2015, Deaf West, a deaf acting troupe in New York premiered on Broadway a new kind of musical that brought together deaf and hearing actors in a revival of Spring Awakening. As a producer, I was deeply moved by Deaf West’s innovated inclusivity practices. The Flowertown Players may be a small fish in comparison to Broadway but don’t we have, if not more, of an opportunity and obligation to our community to be as inclusive as possible? New Artistic Director, Ernie Eliason, and I thought so. After 2017’s successful run of Cognac and Roses: A Toast to Edgar Allan Poe, conceived by Chrissy Eliason featuring ASL interpreters, the cogs were turning as we were thinking about the positive outcomes of the event.
Kerston Sallings a Charleston interpreter first got his start in performance interpreting with the Charleston Pride Festival. At a young age, Kerston was exposed to sign exact English by a deaf friend but didn’t take steps to become one of the most requested interpreters until he met his husband, Clint, who is deaf. After only 5 years of active practice and multiple tests passed, Kerston has set sail on quite an exciting career in interpreting. Having been one of the ASL interpreters for our production of Cognac and Roses, Kerston put two and two together. “I realized the disparity to the deaf community…the level of access is challenged,” he commented. A realization that theatre could become more accessible to our community. “What really got my attention was going to the movies. For me to go to the movies, I can sit down and watch it with no problem. For my husband to go he has to call ahead and order close caption goggles, make sure they are charged, and we have to arrive 30 minutes before so they can put it on the right channel.” The process is cumbersome, to say the least, but at least the movies had a process. Where was ours?
Kerston’s exposure to the arts came in the form of church choir. The choir was his expressive outlet. His husband’s was ballet. With prior knowledge of his husband’s struggle for interpreters at dance performances, it made the case for theatrical interpreting even more crucial. Kerston sees and envisions as most of us do, theatre as an inclusive home, “Theatre allows for everyone to come together as strangers at first but your family in the end. It’s doesn’t matter your background, if you’re black, white, yellow, gay, straight, deaf, hearing, blind, or handicapped.” He’s right, these criteria hold no merit or dictate your ability to participate in the arts. As I write freely and strongly on this subject, it’s not an easy task for every small non-profit arts organization to accomplish this as some accessibility endeavors require additional funding or special performance nights.
“I don’t like the word accept. I don’t have to accept everybody but you do need to see from their side,” says Kerston. Theatre does a magnificent job of exposing audiences to other perspectives through storytelling in a visually stunning way. As producers, we set the stage with works of art that broadcast a variety of people. But after a few moments of Kerston’s words sinking in I thought, what are we doing as an organization to walk a mile in our community’s shoes? Our actors do it on stage all the time. We have a strong and vibrant deaf community that deserves the opportunity to experience an art form that has truly changed my life and those that call Flowertown Players a home.
The Red Velvet Cake War was the first show of our 43 season to have an ASL interpreter. Kerston attended as many rehearsals as possible to understand the director’s intention for each character and learn their emotional states as everything is expressed through his hands and face during the performance. “I went to as many run throughs as possible to hear the critiques from the director on how she wanted them to be portrayed…very prissy or sad…very country,” he explained. He jokes that if he were to stand completely still with no facial expressions and sign he would still be during his job but has no intention to be the actor from the Visine commercial as it would do a disservice to the audience. He’s diligent in understanding the script, the characters, and distinguishing them from each other which he was recently commended on by ASL students attending the show.
Kerston has graciously agreed to interpret each show for the rest of the season and is scheduling more for our 44th season. If you have a friend, family member, or you yourself would benefit from our interpreting night please check out the schedule of shows below.
A huge thank you to Kerston Sallings on the amazing work he is doing for our community and The Flowertown Players.
Crimes of the Heart - March 14th @ 8 pm
Seussical the Musical Jr. - April 5th @ 7 pm
Hands on a Hardbody - May 30th @ 8 pm