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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






Community Case Studies: Gideon Productions
Thursday, September 22, 2016 12:00 AM


Gideon Productions on Reaching New Communities: How We Started 

By Sean Williams

Photo: Deborah Alexander

The mission statement for Gideon Productions is a paragraph long but there is one sentence in the middle that we use as a crucible for any piece we’re considering producing – “We explore what’s strange about being human and what’s human about being strange.” To this end, we’ve told stories time and again about people who, for one reason or another, aren’t moving through the world the same way everyone else is. But we’d never taken the next logical step – to reach out to the communities who literally experience the world in a different way and who haven’t been targeted as audience members.

So we started brainstorming. A performance for the Deaf? Of course! There was already a roadmap for that. Can we do a performance for the Blind? I bet we can. What about people who can’t normally come to the theater, people with Tourette’s Syndrome or social anxiety disorders, can we reach them? And what about the group I belong to – those who can’t see theater because their kids can’t be left alone and babysitting is expensive? We decided to try to reach all four of these communities.

My first and best phone call was to Marielle Duke at Adaptive Arts Theater Company ( Her organization is working to bridge the gap between disability and the arts. She helped to spearhead nearly every single aspect of these outreach programs for us.


Performance for the Deaf  

Obviously, there is already a roadmap in place for this, and I’m also lucky that one of my oldest friends is an interpreter. We contacted Dylan Geil and Lusanne Massaro and only once they enthusiastically agreed to do it did we realize we’d stumbled on to two of the best interpreters in New York. Before the interpreted performance, they sat in the back of the house for two other performances and practiced switching parts back and forth.

To reach the Deaf Audience, we contacted New York Deaf Theater, Theater Breaking Through Barriers, Hands On and several other organizations. We even donated tickets to a fundraiser for NYDT in order to help them while they were spreading the word.


Performance for the Blind

After some research, we found the organization called Sound Associates that has hardware and software to provide what is called “D-Scriptive” service. Through this, a Blind person can wear a single ear bud and they can listen to a narration that accompanies the performance. The narration can either be recorded or performed live.

To reach the Blind audience, we contacted the American Foundation for the Blind and followed up with Theater Breaking Through Barriers. We also found a lot of support from the people who work at TDF, even though they generally only give official support to organizations that are working with them in a professional capacity. These programs inspired a lot of people to want to help.


Audiences with Invisible Disabilities

One of our initial goals was to create accessible performance specifically targeted to audience members who struggle with social interactions. We planned to create a “Social Story” on the website—a clear, step-by-step guide for patrons new to Gideon Productions or for whom this would be their first theater experience. We talked about creating special seating for any patrons who may need a break during the performance and spoke to the theater about where this break could occur. We began the conversation about how to prepare our actors and designers for a performance with audience members who may not relate to the theater in the same way we are used to (or we have learned to expect). Our hope was to create a fully comfortable experience for individuals who traditionally experience difficulty entering new spaces, particularly spaces bustling with people. For people who wanted to experience theater but didn't feel a physical theater space was a safe space for them, we began talking to Equity about doing a livestream performance.


Parents with Small Kids

This was, in a lot of way, the easiest because I knew if I couldn’t find any other solution, I have about fifteen people who could sit with the kids during the performance. Right away, The Sheen Center (where our show was being produced) offered us the use of several rooms on site. This allowed us to split up the kids into two groups: ages 4-8 and ages 8-12. The production was recommended for kids 13 and up, so older kids could just watch the show with their folks.

Facebook and personal email was the best way for us to reach parents. There are many, many groups on social media that will pass along offers to parents and we have a huge network of theater-parents that we’re close with. So many organizations are out there with teaching assistants who are trained to take kids through projects and programs and we had an outpouring of help from places like the New Victory, Lincoln Center and NYU.


So, we found ourselves a few weeks before opening with everything set in place. We had a dedicated performance for the Deaf, a performance for the Blind, a performance for Parents with small kids, and an educated, articulate approach to audiences with invisible disabilities. Our next step was implementing these ideas and organizing the audience, which I’ll talk about in my next piece. 



This post is part one of two. Keep your eyes peeled for the follow-up on how it went in October.

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






This Is What We Do
Wednesday, September 21, 2016 12:00 AM


By Ann Marie Lonsdale, Director of Programs


What a month! With the announcement of both the opening of the A.R.T./New York Theatres and the new NYSCA-A.R.T./New York Creative Opportunity Fund, I can't believe how much we have accomplished since the beginning of our fiscal year. When I reflect on this, what I am most proud of is how many resources A.R.T./New York will be able to flow into the theatre field in the coming years, in the form of cash grants and the subsidy as part of renting the spaces on 53rd Street. I wrote a little while ago that for A.R.T./New York, support comes in many forms, and with our recent flurry of activity, I know that we are not just saying that but living that through our programs. 

The Creative Opportunity Fund is particularly exciting for me personally. When I started at A.R.T./New York a little over two years ago, I heard from so many members about the need for additional grants, that funding is scarce, and resources for small companies were lagging behind. When NYSCA came to us with this opportunity, I really got to dig in and think about how to design a grant from the ground up, and how to address these concerns. My process really started by asking a series of questions: How can small and mighty companies apply for grants more efficiently? How can we increase the size of grants to small companies? How can we help companies all over the state thrive? How can we support administration and production? Can we even do this? 

Thankfully, my incredible colleagues Adeola Adegbola and Kati Frazier said YES to that last one. Of course we can do this. This is what we do, and we can take our systems that work well and make them available statewide, we can figure out how to review work samples, we can manage a larger applicant pool, we can go to Buffalo (fingers crossed) for a grant information session in December, and we can make it simple and straightforward. 

Over the course of the next six months, we are going to learn so much, and I am so grateful to be able to bring this new program into being. Creating something new is scary and weird, but also really rewarding and wonderful. Knowing that this grant is going to help make theatre is without a doubt one of the best parts of my job. 

So, to everyone who decides to apply in this inaugural round, thank you! We are so excited to learn from you and make this process even better in 2018 and beyond.


Best wishes,

Ann Marie







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