Josie: I met Scotty Reynolds when he coached me as a seventh grade speech competitor at Benilde-St. Margaret’s School. He told me about his interesting work as the Artistic Director for Mixed Precipitation Picnic Operetta. I auditioned for a production as a seventh grader and for the next three years, I was fortunate enough to join the company as an actor and eventually served as an Accessibility Intern. From these varied experiences with Scotty, I learned that theater and storytelling do not need to happen within a traditional theater space. To reach broader audiences, you can go into the community and provide access. For Scotty, this access meant traveling to community gardens in Minnesota to perform free picnic operettas to communities that would not have access to theater, let alone opera.
Matt Jenson is the Director for Arts Programming at Minnesota’s Association for Children’s Mental Health. I met him as an actor when he directed Fidgety Fairy Tales, a company that stages musical productions to re-imagine myths and legends to raise awareness about children’s mental health around the state of Minnesota. After acting for several seasons, Matt offered me a role as a student director. In addition to spreading a message about the importance of removing the stereotypes and stigmas surrounding mental illness, my involvement in these productions helped me understand another important element of accessibility: theater access is not limited to the audience; the cast can include different members of our community. For example, Matt does not limit the cast to fully-abled people, but instead includes children ages 7-18 who have mental health disorders or physical disabilities.
I acted at Stages Theatre Company in their first sensory friendly show, which allowed people who are deaf, blind, or on the autism spectrum to come and watch the performance. These shows allowed the audience members to watch the performance regardless of their needs, including dimmed lights, lowered sound effects, and a chance to meet the actors before the show. When I saw the look of happiness on these children’s faces, I realized what I was doing made a true impact. Through this experience, I came to see that everyone deserves to have access to theater. I began to research training opportunities in the Twin Cities and learned that the Children’s Theatre Company offered training on how to work with people with special needs to its in-house employees, and I begged to be a part of the program. I was trained alongside the employees and was asked to work for their summer camps with children with special needs. I shared this knowledge with other theater programs, volunteering as an accessibility intern for three theater companies.
Another time I was able to fine tune my skills was as a cast member in a production at Chaska Valley Family Theatre. A young woman in our cast grew up with two deaf parents. Her father had been diagnosed with cancer and was likely to pass away during the run of our show. I knew how much his daughter would have liked to have her father experience one of her shows. Not knowing how to provide quality theater experiences to the hearing impaired, I began to research community resources. After learning how to find qualified American Sign Language interpreters, I raised money to provide an ASL interpreter for two of our shows by selling some promotional items to audience members before and after each show. I raised $3,000, which covered the expenses of the interpreter. These shows were dedicated to the father, and many deaf people, including the the actor’s family, came and enjoyed these shows. I started a fund in memory of the father that provides an ASL interpreter at one show in each of the theater’s productions.