ADA Accessibility & Burlesque

Photo: Angela Gaul - Milestone Images
Photo by Angela Gaul – Milestone Images

ADA Accessibility & Burlesque

By: Elsa Sjunneson-Henry

One of the things I love about the burlesque community is that we can be quite accepting when we feel like it. Not always. Sometimes we falter. Today I’m addressing one of those falterings in the hopes that we can perhaps step it up. I remember performing my mother’s 50th birthday shindig. I was performing as a surprise for that evening. On my way sneaking away from her table, I had to run up black stairs, past a glass door, up another flight, and down another flight of stairs. The venue is not ADA accessible for performers, at least not as far as I’m aware.

This is how I managed to slam into the glass doorway at full speed, and slid down the glass in my teal and purple dress and ostrich feather plumes, recreating the Roadrunner of Looney Tunes Fame for a moment. I nearly broke my glasses. If that door hadn’t been made out of glass – if there was a safer way to get from one spot to another, perhaps this wouldn’t have happened. And if I had broken my glasses, I never would have been able to get on that stage.

You have disabled performers in your midst. You have disabled audience members. You have Legends.

We need to take care of these members of our community a lot better than we do – and one of the ways in which we can do this is through ADA Accessibility.

Does this mean we need to work harder? Absolutely.

Will it be worth it? Absolutely.

Why will it be worth it? One of the reasons is simply because as an artistic community we should always be striving for more diversity and a more interesting community. Through not giving people with disabilities opportunities to perform we’re also denying that they have something to offer. Disabled performers are just as sexual as able bodied ones, and perhaps offer a different perspective on human sexuality, just because of who they are. Furthermore, creating safer spaces means making it easier Legends to perform, making more opportunities for us to learn from them.  Without Mat Fraser, we wouldn’t have the same burlesque world that we do. There’s probably way more Mat Fraser’s than you would expect.

And then there’s a diversified audience. Right now most burlesque festivals have almost entirely made it impossible for visually impaired audience members to access their shows, and this is unfortunate, because most of us can see something, and why wouldn’t we want to watch burlesque? Many venues for the New York Burlesque Festival aren’t ADA Accessible, meaning that wheelchair using patrons cannot attend shows, and I have to climb stairs in the dark.

There's a venue in NY with stairs like these to the dressing room. (Photo: Orli Nativ)
There’s a venue in NY with stairs like these to the dressing room. (Photo: Orli Nativ)

Step one is address physical accessibility – not just for people who use wheelchairs, but for Legends who maybe don’t walk as confidently as they once did. Here’s what isn’t accessible: Stages which have steps (even one!) going up to them. Elevators in kitchens which aren’t for public use (in this instance I hauled my suitcase up and down the stairs with the assistance of my peers.) Not a perfect solution, but it was a solution.

We can’t remove glass doors, but we can make them more obvious – by placing warnings, or by having decorative (and these can be classy) stickers marking where the door is. Producers don’t have the discretion of moving walls, but they do have the discretion of where they choose to produce – and perhaps by asking venues to make themselves more accessible, we can begin to fight the tide of inaccessibility.

Step two is addressing issues of sight, hearing – if you’ve got visually impaired audience members, or Deaf audience members – you should make it so they can sit close to the stage. Offering accessible seating is just as important as offering accessible venues  – we can’t make shows financially accessible for everyone, but we can set aside a few seats at every show Just In Case someone needs it. For example, while the Triple Door was nearly the sight of the Great Spectacle Debacle, they also made sure every time I attended a show that I had a decent seat. They never penalized me for it, and they were always helpful when it came to my needs.

Step Three – Ask questions. If you’re not sure that the cast will be aware that a castmate has a disability, ask them if it’s OK to disclose (or even if it’s needful) before doing so. Ask what accommodations are necessary for your performers. Feeling welcome is a huge piece to this – I’ve worked with casts who didn’t give a damn whether or not I could get to the stage, and I’ve worked with casts who went so far as to make sure I could get all my makeup on even when they were pressed for time. Being the kind of cast that helps the visually impaired performer is where you should strive to be. It doesn’t just extend to disabled performers either, being a warm and comforting community makes for better working environments for everyone.

Elsa as Kaylee in Whedonesque Burlesque (Rehearsal photo by Jules Doyle)
Elsa as Kaylee in Whedonesque Burlesque (Rehearsal photo by Jules Doyle)

Step Four  has to do with flexibility. If you know that you’ve got a performer with an illness, you have to be prepared to replace them at the last minute if something goes wrong. This does not mean that you should penalize sick people by never booking them. It just means that you need to be an excellent communicator. Are you able to say to the performer “Are you feeling comfortable enough to go onstage?” Are you willing to be supportive of them? Are you willing to not be angry at them when they call and tell you “Hey, there’s no way I can perform tonight. I’m having an episode.”  Does it suck to have people end up not being able to do a show last minute? Absolutely. But if you’re working with quality people, they’ll have someone lined up to take their spot long before they call you. And if they don’t, that’s something they can likely remedy.

As performers ourselves, we can be thoughtful. Strobes are sometimes necessary for theatrical effect, but perhaps putting them in the middle of a crowded show isn’t the best idea. Submitting something which requires you to blind your audience temporarily may be suited to a smaller show where there are escape routes for visually impaired and epileptic audience members. Posting signs in the theater are also necessary.

We never fully know who is in our audience, sometimes people don’t want to be known as disabled, some people don’t want to identify in this manner. However – we’re there and we need your help sometimes in enjoying the show.

Creating accessibility doesn’t mean that we have to step entirely out of our way to make things easier, it doesn’t mean that we have to choose between making money and making art. But it does mean that we need to make a safer and more welcoming community – so that when people do come out as disabled, they don’t feel like they’re the latest addition to a minority in a community, but that they are equal and welcome members of an artistic world.

Elsa Sjunneson-Henry will be teaching an Accessibility Guide for Burlesque Producers class at Boston Burlesque Expo in March. For more of Elsa’s work, see her blog: Feminist Sonar.

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