Virtual theater production company Access Classics premiered its accessibly-made adaptation of screenwriter Adrienne Kennedy’s Electra at the Women’s Theatre Festival Fringe 21 this summer. The show was featured as part of the second-ever virtual Women’s Theatre Festival since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. Electra’s cast, which included renown Deaf dancer and performing artist, Antoine Hunter, performed in physically separate spaces, all joined together onscreen by Zoom.
In addition to premiering on YouTube Live via Zoom, they rehearsed the show entirely on the video-communication platform made popular by the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. The world of theatre has undergone intense upheaval since then. Broadway show productions in New York City were shut down for at least a year until recently, giving virtual theatre festivals and outdoor theatre room in the market to thrive. Stage performers in the entertainment industry have been dealt a lot of challenges with the changing landscape of their industry but, as Hunter said, “The show must go on!”
Electra was particularly intent on being accessible to disabled people, namely those who are Deaf and hard of hearing. The show featured American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters as part of the stream design and performance. Hunter also incorporated sign language into his own performance of various characters in Electra, including Electra herself, which all cast members portrayed at least once throughout the play. His signing was theatrical in nature, involving large gestures and graceful finger movements.
“I’m not really using BASL in the expression,” says Hunter. “I am using a theater-code sign language, but I am Black, so therefore it would be a Black, theater-code sign language. Therefore my Black expression will always be Black.” Hunter’s recognition of Black American Sign Language as a dialect of American Sign Language reflects the current conversations circulating on social media within the disabled community regarding the suppression of BASL’s usage in the public sphere. Access Classics, the production company behind Electra, has also made efforts to spotlight actors of various disabilities. In a statement about the production, Access Classics wrote: “This production centers on the creativity and leadership of BIPOC, Disabled, LGBTQIA2S+, Women and other community members burdened by systemic oppression; our vision is an anti-racist, trauma-informed, accessible, ensemble production that embodies the complex identities and outstanding talents of our team.”
The show’s premise, design, and casting are dedicated to creating classical theatre for a global audience through a feminist, decolonized, inclusionary lens. Stream designer Keyanna Alexander presented an all-inclusive digital design by including details like printing each character’s names on a monotone colored background to illustrate which character is speaking.
The festival took place amidst nationwide conversation about the importance of technological accessibility for disabled people. The global shift to virtual services has made for easier physical, mental, and financial access for everyone, but especially people with disabilities.
“Electra, through its virtual platform, demonstrates how we can level the playing field. As a virtual production, it has unlimited shelf space, global distribution, and is less costly to produce. This is the future: new media combined with traditional,” said Michaela Goldhaber and Heather Ondersma in a press statement.
Now that Broadway recently celebrated grand reopening in New York City, reasonable concerns are arising about the continued future of virtual theatre and accessible tools such as closed captioning, ASL interpretation, and physical seating accommodations. In reaction, Hunter says, “We need to make an investment in theatre and access…some people feel like they have to pick one or the other: access or theater.” But In a world where Covid-19 continues to impact disabled actors and show-goers’ ability to attend and fully enjoy live theatre in-person, production companies like Access Classics must lead the way to a future of all-inclusionary theatre.
About the Author: Natalie Crystal Doggett is a fellow with The Loreen Arbus Accessibility is Fundamental Program, a fellowship created to train women with disabilities as professional journalists so that they may write, research and report on the most crucial issues impacting the disabilities community.