Imagine you are taking in Theatre In the Park's production of Finale. When the lights come up, Edwin Booth is locked away in the basement of his own theater preparing to open a trunk that once belonged to his brother (and President Lincoln's assassinator), John Wilkes Booth. Booth is writhing with displaced guilt, his conscience requesting its own restitution for his brother's crime. See the wrinkles gorging Booth's forehead as he battles to confront the ghosts his brother left behind. Visualize the sweat dripping from his turn-of-the-century satin robe--the set mocking the musky heat collecting in the theater basement, the graying walls and matching mood--a single white light illuminating the dusty trunk. Now close your eyes. Behind your lids, the world is a blank canvas decorated by your own imagination.
Arts Access is a 2003 Indie Arts Award recipient because for the past 21 years, they have painted canvases of inclusion for the Triangle's disabled art-lovers. For theater-goers like Rene Cummins and other partially blind art patrons, however, the scene is not so clearly set. Audio describers recruited and trained by Arts Access Inc. transmit narrated details of performances such as Finale through short-wave radio (and a sleek listening device) directly into the users' ears.
Established in 1982 by the Raleigh Arts Commission, Arts Access has worked with a host of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill art providers and venues to make "equal access" less the exception in Triangle Arts. Paul Siceloff, president of Arts Access, foresees audio description being as available to those needing visual assistance as signers are to the hearing impaired. Siceloff suggests we reconsider the phrase "open to the public," by asking if the intended "public" includes all people, even those with special needs.
"Availability, awareness, and utilization," says Siceloff, "are the three goals of Arts Access." By way of attaining these goals, Arts Access has been especially busy this year, increasing the services it provides to the special needs of uniquely abled arts communities at no extra cost to them. In conjunction with The North Carolina Deaf-Blind Association, Arts Access sponsored the 30th anniversary performance of the African-American women's a cappella sextet Sweet Honey in the Rock, at the BTI Center. The organization has also embarked on a "Make Your Accessible Mark on the Arts" campaign, which includes a photography experiment conducted at 2003's First Night Raleigh. People without physical disabilities clad in wheelchairs and visual-impairing goggles, took snapshots from what they found to be a challenging and vulnerable perspective. The photos, along with quotes from the participants documenting their experience, mapped the walls of Raleigh's Municipal Building through Thursday, June 19.
The exhibit featured tangible artwork by Wendy Lincicome and various Artsplosure patrons. Lincicome and co-artist Sloan Meek are the designers of Sloan Wolf, winner of the Art Commission's People's Choice Award for "Most Kid-Friendly Wolf," in Raleigh's Red Wolf Ramble competition, and a permanent display in the BTI Center lobby. Lincicome and Meek designed the wolf to be "interactive and accessible to people of any age or ability" by adorning Sloan Wolf with over-sized Braille phrases, nearly 1,500 beads, and a mountain of textured reds, blues, and greens that encourage anyone who visits Sloan to pet him like they would any people-friendly companion.
Meek, who is cortically blind and has Cerebral Palsy was Lincicome's inspiration for the wolf that bears his name. Lincicome sees the Sloan Wolf project as a catalyst for promoting advocacy for accessible art and legislation to support "self-determination," a growing movement in the disability service system, where choices concerning people with disabilities are made less by bureaucrats and more by those who the services directly impact. "When we step out and talk to someone not part of our lives, part of our worlds," says Lincicome, "we appreciate difference. Some people don't understand why there should be a cut in a curbside for someone in a wheelchair to ride up or why there should be a larger bathroom stall. It's not so foreign and it's not special treatment. It's equal access."
Both Sloan and Lincicome are adamant that Arts Access be recognized as a collaborative effort of its 30 board members, audio describers, theatrical and performance arts venues, and other special needs service providers and patrons. Siceloff considers the mission of Arts Access to "make arts accessible to everyone" the driving effort that has lead to their receipt of the 2003 Indy Arts Award.
Twenty-minutes before Finale opens, I receive my personal listening unit from Marie de Jong, equipment manager for Arts Access. I take my seat next to Rene Cummins and we both cup our devices around our chosen ear. Reid Dalton, "secondary describer," is vibrantly painting the dimly lit stage for us from a booth above and behind center stage. He calls our attention to the wooden prop chairs dangling from the ceiling of the replica theater. He tells us the play takes place after the Civil War on 23rd and 6th in New York City, and enables us to imagine the hoop skirts ballooning out from the women's waists. He points out the medieval, double-edged sword perched stage right that will be handled by the actors from time to time, the felt-cushioned folding chair where Edwin Booth will sit and take sips from the beverage canter of brandy quaintly situated on the oval table alongside two glasses. When the lights come up and Booth appears, Mike Feltman, "primary describer" (and Arts Access Board Member) takes the reigns, whispering a description of John Wilkes Booth, detailing the villainous moustache that races down the sides of his mouth, his tall black boots and matching tails. Later, Feltman describes the sinister leer of the bellhop who delivers the expected bad news to Booth, a detail that would be difficult for someone who is visually impaired to process. Throughout the production, Feltman interjects particulars between character dialogue to create a scene that makes me close my eyes and trust his.
Arts Access Inc. has imagined those things some have trouble envisioning, challenging us all to behold a much broader (and brighter) view.
For more information about Arts Access Inc., visit www.artsaccessinc.org