Seesaw Inclusive Theater Festival Returns This Year

Ashton Goren, Associate Arts and Entertainment Editor

Seesaw Theater presented its seventh annual Inclusive Theater Festival on Saturday and Sunday – a weekend-long conference that invites local theaters serving diverse audiences to celebrate progress and collaborate.

At Northwestern, Seesaw’s mission is to produce entertainment for audiences with disabilities. Weinberg Jr. and ITF conference director Monica Williams said Seesaw began researching and contacting festival attendees over the summer. One of the challenges of inclusive theater is visibility, she said. The ITF therefore seeks to raise awareness of the various types of theatre.

“I’ve been doing theater since fourth grade and (inclusive theatre) had never even entered my realm of possibility until first grade,” Williams said. “The ITF is a place where students and professional artists come together and really talk about how things are going in the world of creative theater for people with disabilities.”

This year’s festival is the first in-person conference since 2019. Presenters from Evanston and Chicago gave talks and held workshops at the Norris University Center for theater professionals, the disability community and educators working in inclusive theatre.

Rachel Hilbert, Communications Senior and Artistic Director of Seesaw, said inclusive theater is a relatively new field, so the festival is looking to connect new companies and artists to share inclusive theater production strategies.

“Sensory theater is so broad in terms of how you can do it and how you can do it well,” Hilbert said. “There’s so much to take away from every organization that does things like this.”

Hilbert said Seesaw’s primary audience is made up of both NU students and members of the Evanston and Chicago-area community with disabilities, including people with autism. Hilbert said Seesaw also produced shows for blind and deaf viewers.

Because Seesaw’s mission is broad, Hilbert said the conference can educate attendees about different types of audiences. She said it was important to understand the differences so cinemas could offer viewers better specificity and accommodation.

“It’s really exciting that there are enough people in the world doing inclusive art,” Hilbert said.

Some speakers included members of Babes with Blades, a theater company that recently produced “Othello” with an all-female, trans, and gender-nonconforming cast. Gianni Carcagno, theater manager and technician in Chicago, gave a workshop on subtitling and accessibility.

Special Gifts Theater gave a presentation on productions for actors with disabilities. The company brought student ambassadors to the conference to demonstrate typical production strategies, such as prompt-based improvisation. Other techniques were modified to accommodate the actors; the team shortened the songs for those who felt more confident performing a shorter piece.

Debbie Taus-Barth, Director of Program Operations at SGT, said the company is one of Chicago’s only therapy-based performing arts programs.

“We use the stage as a platform for skill building and social trust,” Taus-Barth said during the presentation. “Everything we do is adaptive and very specific to each student in our program.”

Taus-Barth said last season, a non-verbal, hearing-impaired actress played Dorothy on “Wizard of Oz.” The team changed the script to accommodate her disability and highlight her ability to play the role non-verbally, she said. Other actors verbally told the story to hear the audience, and Taus-Barth said the actress “was able to shine” through physical storytelling.

Williams said she is very excited that inclusive theater can open artistic doors for more artists and audiences. She said the ITF is not just about making theater accessible to more viewers, but is also a celebration of the contributions of various artists to the performing arts.

“Inclusive theater takes this art form that we all love so much and makes sure that every person can participate in it, however their heart desires,” Williams said.

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Twitter: @ash_goren

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