Brent Crabb recently discovered one small advantage of seeing "The Lion King" from a wheelchair.
Before the show started at Hollywood's Pantages Theatre, as he was shown to the wheelchair seating area, he was ushered through an aisle not visible from the main theater--and he got a sneak preview of the elaborate costumes that would soon be worn in the show's opening procession.
Likewise, wheelchair user John Pixley received a dash of extra service when he was shown to his seating area at Troubadour Theater's "A Midsummer Saturday Night's Fever Dream," at the Miles Playhouse in Santa Monica last summer. "An actor very kindly, almost gallantly, almost in character, showed me up the elevator and through the backstage passage," Pixley said.
In some cases, the services now available for theatergoers in wheelchairs--or those with other distinctive physical needs--go far beyond pre-show pleasantries. Throughout Southern California, theater companies are taking actions to make their offerings more accessible to patrons with special needs.
The Mark Taper Forum recently presented "The Body of Bourne," a play about a man who lived with severe physical deformities, written by a disabled playwright. The cast featured two actors in wheelchairs. The Taper itself, in downtown L.A., was renovated earlier this year to provide more accommodations for audience members who can't walk, as well as for disabled actors.
Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood presents shows in which deaf actors play many of the leads, moving sign language from the side to center stage--while speaking actors voice the lines for hearing patrons. The company moved into a new theater last year, spending $20,000 on lights that focus especially on the signing actors and $12,000 on a customized sound system with sub-woofers under the seats--so that deaf theatergoers can feel the vibrations of music.
Last month, the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa introduced a new device for assisting theatergoers who are hard of hearing. At one performance of the stage version of "Saturday Night Fever," every word spoken or sung onstage also appeared on a small digital screen visible from a designated area of 40 seats near the left front of the orchestra section.
The final dress rehearsal of every production in the Civic Light Opera of South Bay Cities series in Redondo Beach is reserved for disabled audiences, free of charge. Because few able-bodied patrons are there on these nights, the theater can accommodate more wheelchairs than usual.
Audio-described performances for blind theatergoers are offered by Center Theatre Group, which operates the Taper and the Ahmanson Theatre, and Ventura's Rubicon Theatre Company. At one performance of each production, headset-wearing theatergoers can hear descriptions of what happens in between the spoken lines.
Many of these features were spurred by changes in disability law in the last 30 years. For any theater that receives federal funding, Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 prohibits discrimination on the basis of a disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 extended such prohibitions to any form of public accommodations, although existing facilities were required only to make "readily achievable" changes to promote accessibility. Wayne Cook, ADA coordinator for the grant-giving California Arts Council, said he has received only a couple of complaints about theater accessibility during his four years on the job.
Nevertheless, "accessibility in smaller venues remains a challenge," said Olivia Raynor, director of the National Arts and Disability Center at UCLA. And even at larger venues, "the disabled audience has not been as included as other community members from other diverse groups. It's an untapped market and an untapped audience in many ways."
It's also an audience, Raynor noted, that's bound to get larger as the baby boomers swell the ranks of the senior population and encounter the disabilities that often accompany old age. Increasing accessibility of theaters, said Raynor, "isn't only about satisfying a niche audience. It's about expanding the audience in general."
Although most large theaters can accommodate audience members who arrive in wheelchairs, chair-using theatergoers cite three main areas in which their experiences could be improved: seat location, restroom accessibility, and transportation to and from the theaters.
Wheelchair seating is seldom in the center of the theater. It's usually at the back or on the sides of the hall--sometimes at a price that's no lower than more centralized seats. The assigned side seating is often in the front corners of halls.
"I don't think I've been in a theater where you've had much of a choice of where to sit," said Norma Vescoso, 65, who sometimes uses a wheelchair and works as executive director of the Independent Living Center of Southern California in Van Nuys.