The Irish Classical Theatre Company’s production of “Sea Marks” in October of 2021 was a groundbreaking one for two reasons: It was the first-ever digital performance offered by the theatre, and it was the first in the area that gave full access to Deaf and hard of hearing audience members through ASL interpretation and open captioning services.
Part of the inspiration for this initiative came from NU’s ASL and Deaf Studies program.
The ICTC’s director of development, Cassie (Gorniewicz) Cameron, is a 2008 graduate of NU’s theatre program. The two ASL courses she took with Nanette Harmon, who was coordinator of the ASL and Deaf Studies program at the time, motivated her to bring those services to the theatre.
“Nanette is one of those talented teachers who left an indelible mark on my collegiate experience,” Cameron said. “She is compassionate and witty, knowledgeable, and invests in everyone's interests. She introduced me to this community and showed me how this language-study is an art form. It's expressive, imaginative, and takes dexterity. All of which are assets in the theatre world. She is the reason I brought these services to the Irish Classical Theatre Company, and ICTC's work is now more profound and inclusive because of her.”
Before bringing ASL and captioning services to the ICTC, Cameron had enjoyed performances in Chicago that offered them.
“Those experiences lit a personal fire within me,” she said. “Witnessing interpreters' sophisticated ability to interpret and perform simultaneously was mesmerizing. Their art form is just as imaginative and fully actualized as the performances on stage. I knew we had to share those opportunities with WNY audiences.”
Cameron noted that generally, captioned and ASL-interpreted theatre is a rarity in Western New York, which unintentionally denies a population of individuals the powerfully connecting and enriching, shared experiences of live theatre. In winter 2019, she launched an initiative to change that.
After receiving grant funding from the J. Warren Perry and Charles Donald Perry Memorial Fund at the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo and the TAP-Plus Accessibility Grant awarded by the Theatre Development Fund in partnership with the New York State Council on the Arts, Cameron began the work to bring an avenue of entertainment, educational experiences, and art appreciation opportunities to a population of individuals often marginalized.
Her first step was to form a consultation committee comprising both Deaf and hearing members from Deaf Access Services, the Erie County Office for People with Disabilities, the Deaf Advisory Council for People Inc., and St. Mary's School for the Deaf. This group played an integral part in the planning, execution, and development of the project, from mapping out the designated viewing area to adjusting the stage lighting on the interpreters and timing of cues. In addition, two students from St. Mary’s served as a junior consultants and took part in the testing, implementation, and feedback process of the project.
The project's full scope was to include an ASL-interpreted and OC performance for each of ICTC's productions, Cameron said. These performances would have also incorporate an interpreted, moderated post-show interactive forum featuring a Q&A session with the actors and director, a facilitated discussion about the play and its themes, and an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the captioning and interpretation services and overall experience.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic closed ICTC's doors, those plans changed. The Perry Memorial funds were reallocated to provide immediate captioning and ASL interpretative services for ICTC's virtual-pivoted programming, which included a 22-episode informational series and a holiday variety special, both available on YouTube with closed captioning; a virtual poetry fundraiser with CC; and two fully produced and professionally filmed CC and ASL-interpreted pay-per-view productions. It was clear that there was an audience for ASL and CC options, as more than 250 patrons selected the captioning service and 93 individuals used the ASL services for these two productions.
When the theatre reopened with “Waiting for Godot” in January 2022, an ASL-interpreted and OC performance was included, and ASL/OC performances are scheduled for each subsequent production through June 2023. Cameron says she is working to obtain funding to continue these services so that ICTC can “offer a richer quality of life for those in the WNY community identifying as Deaf or hard of hearing, increase awareness among local theatres of the importance of accommodation, and expand ICTC's audience reach.”
Interestingly, the second production of ICTC’s current season had an additional NU connection, Cameron noted.
“For our April 2022 production of Sarah Ruhl's ‘Stage Kiss,’ one of our initially scheduled interpreters was unexpectedly pulled away from the project five days before the ASL/OC performance date,” she explained. “NU's current ASL/DS director, Rachel Violanti, valiantly accepted the challenge to interpret the show with little rehearsal time. It was magical to watch how fast her brain works. That takes mastery and is a true testament to the skills developed in NU’s ASL/DS program.”