Community Case Studies: Gideon Productions (2)
Thursday, October 20, 2016 12:00 AM


Gideon Productions on Reaching New Communities: Part Two, How It Went 

By Sean Williams

Photo: Deborah Alexander

Our production of Universal Robots was opening in June of 2016 and by the beginning of May we were set to implement our community outreach initiatives. The interpreters were in place for our performance for Deaf Audiences, we had the devices on hold for Blind Audiences, our venue, The Sheen Center, had provided us with space for our Parents Initiative… It was all falling into place. So we sat down to prepare the Invisible Disability Outreach.

Again, Marielle Duke from Adaptive Arts was an enormous help. We started writing out the Social Story and planning for the alterations in the staging and audience interaction… But after a few weeks of work, it began to dawn on me that this was more than we could accomplish. The play was simply not designed to work with these modifications and when we looked at our production team we had to admit that we didn’t have the manpower.

Our production company has been incredibly lucky in many ways. The press has consistently been kind to us and our audiences have been passionate and supportive. But this gives the illusion that we’re a well-organized team with a solid infrastructure and we’re just not. We’re essentially just a few people who rely on the generosity of a lot of people.

This community-based approach to creating theater works well only if we ask for things people are comfortable giving and can pay people back with opportunities they would enjoy. The people we work with have never done this kind of outreach, and didn’t have the first clue how to help. After some soul-searching, Marielle and I canceled this initiative.

We still had three other programs to work on; so, I first turned my focus to reaching out to the Blind Community. I spent hours and hours on outreach via email, texting, and letter writing. And I was so frustrated that I wasn’t hearing back. We had set up a special performance, we had invested time and money. Why wasn’t the Blind community responding? What more could they possibly want?

Eventually, we had to face the facts. The Blind Community simply wasn’t interested, for some reason, in our show. I threw my hands up and called the rest of the Gideon Team and the Sheen Center to let them know I was canceling the assistive listening devices for that performance.  They all congratulated me for trying so hard and we all agreed to focus on the other two outreach initiatives.

I turned my attention to the Deaf Community. I had hired two of the best interpreters in New York, Dylan Geil and Lusanne Massaro, and we had a huge response to our email and phone call outreach. The interpreters were going to reach out to their communities and one of my close friends is deeply engaged with the deaf community.

But still, as we got closer, the tickets set aside for the Deaf Community hadn’t sold. Not one. We had received rave reviews in publications all over the city, we were selling out every single performance and those audiences were raving. Why weren’t Deaf Audiences coming to the show? Again I asked myself, what more could they possibly want? We couldn’t cancel the performance, I’d already hired the interpreters and the show was already selling out with other audience members, but we ended up having only one Deaf audience member – a friend of ours who bought his ticket a few hours before the show.

Three out of the four felt like total failures. I told myself that I had been magnanimous and generous but…  maybe these communities simply weren’t interested in our show. Maybe theater itself is such a difficult sell that these people weren’t going to come no matter what I did.

The performance for parents was turning into a bigger success. Because I have two kids of my own, my personal community is all theater people and parents. A group of my theater-parent friends had reserved tickets for the show and on the day, we had four teaching artists doing theater games and building art projects with the kids while their parents watched the performance.  It was the only successful bit of outreach we’d done.

The show closed and as part of the depression/decompression that accompanies a closing show, I looked back on the outreach. I had written the whole thing off as a failed experiment. But the recurring question, “What more could they possibly want?” went from a comforting mantra to a nagging question that needed to be answered. The more times I asked myself that, the closer I came to an uncomfortable truth.

We wanted to reach out to four different communities, but I was only personally invested in one of them. I have kids, I know a lot of people who have kids. We share stories, we have playdates. We set up a show for parents because parents came to us and said, “I wish you had a show for us.” That’s something they wanted.

When it comes to outreach, we have to be really careful about cultural appropriation. And that’s essentially what I had done with the other three groups. I don’t suffer from a disability that would keep me out of the theater and I don’t personally know anyone who is Deaf or Blind. In fact, I had to check with several people just to suss out the right language – are they hearing-impaired or Deaf? Visually impaired or Blind? I had no idea.

As a counterpoint, some years ago we decided to change our hiring and casting practices to be more diverse and inclusive. This has been hugely successful for us - our audiences are more diverse and our shows are more vibrant and artistically informed. But the reason we did it is because we were asked to do it. A friend came up to me at the end of a show and said, “You don’t know how frustrating it is to see a play this good with almost no people of color. I want you to do more, I want you to do better.” And we’ve tried. 

With the Disability Outreach, it was as if I walked up to the door of a community center that I had never been to before and said, “I have one single performance set aside for you, you’re welcome. By the way, my name is Sean. See you at the theater!” When I think back to how frustrated I was that the Blind community didn’t respond to my emails and letters without considering that written text might not be the best way to contact them, I feel considerable shame.

The solution moving forward is to be in touch with these communities as we begin to plan our productions and actually ask them, “What more can we do? What more do you want?” and then see if there’s a way to implement those suggestions.

We can’t confuse outreach with investment. I was measuring the response to my initiatives in terms of audience members who showed up at the theater, but that means I was looking to capitalize on an underserved community instead of legitimately serving them. As we look forward at 2017 and beyond, I intend to be in dialogue with these communities because that’s the only way I will know what I have to do to make all of these people feel welcome at our productions. 



This post is part two of two. Did you miss the first one? Read it here.

Community Case Studies is a new, ongoing series of blog posts from members for members to share stories about implementing new practices and trying new strategies. Is your company embarking on a new endeavor? Are you taking a risk and making a change to how you do your work? Share that experience with us. If you'd like to contribute, reach out to Kati Frazier at [email protected].