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Community Voices: Growing Accessibility and Compassion in the Chicago Theater Community

Photo by Leean Torske of Steppenwolf Theatre

The Chicago theater community is working to provide options to disabled theater-goers, according to the Director of Audience Experience, Evan Hatfield at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. 

In addition to captioned performances and pre-show tours, Steppenwolf and other theater companies are adding sensory-friendly performances to their shows to be more inclusive of those who may be sensitive to certain sensory experiences such as bright lights or loud noises. 

Hatfield speaks passionately about this push for inclusivity and Steppenwolf's dedication to all of its audiences - not just traditional theater crowds. According to Hatfield, it's both the "responsibility and the pleasure" of the theater community to offer performances to people with disabilities. 

Full interview:

Hatfield: What is Steppenwolf Theatre Company? We are over 40 years old. We started small as one of the original small, storefront theaters in the city - up in Highland Park in a fabled church basement. It was started by a bunch of recent College grads that wanted to do theater on their own terms as a Rebellion against the formal of Theatre of the day.

Roehrs: Steppenwolf Theatre Company performs what they call “hyperrealistic shows”. They specialize in tangible and familiar sets and bring stories of everyday people to the stage.  They also say they're trying to do better by their audiences.

Hatfield: We’re historically a very straight white company...which is something we’re doing our best right now to both acknowledge and then reconcile. The world we live in and the world we want to live in is made up of a much more diverse group than that. So, for the last few years, under artistic and executive leadership, we’re trying to really diversify the storytellers that we’re championing, the actors on our stages, and also the audiences that are coming out.

Roehrs: Steppenwolf strives to create an environment where all audiences could enjoy themselves.

Hatfield: The basic mission for my department is to help everyone coming in feel safe, relaxed, and invited and it doesn't matter where you're coming from or who you are. If you're coming through our door, we want you to have that experience. You are physically and emotionally and intellectually safe, not comfortable, but safe.

Roehrs: Evan Hatfield, the Director of Audience Experience says the theater is now making the effort to make shows accessible to more than just traditional theater audiences.

Hatfield: We’ve been focusing very intently on our accessibility services for people with disabilities for about the last nine years at this point.We have created and are sustaining a very robust program. We have a very solid foundation that we’re operating on right now, but we're starting to dig into how to serve more diverse communities within the disability community.

Roehrs: The theater uses captions, pre-show tours, sensory-friendly nights, and a variety of other methods to cater to the diverse world of theater-goers, but...why?

Hatfield: Why is it important to bring this to a more diverse community? I think that there are...sorry...I get it, um...that question gets me sometimes... The world that we live in right now...we’re pretty steadling seeing examples of people not considering the experiences of... anyone else - especially people who are in positions of privilege who have the most responsibility to take care of people on the outside and bring them in. Being who we are in the world... it's our responsibility to...to make sure that we’re accessible to everyone. When I say “accessible” in this context, it’s not the capital “A” Accessibility in the context of disability, this is lowercase, general accessibility for everyone. How do we make it possible for everyone to be here?

Roehrs: During the upcoming production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time”, Steppenwolf will be offering a special performance for those who may be sensitive to certain sensory experiences.

Hatfield:  So what a relaxed performance does is it acknowledges there are various ways that people inhabit a space in the world and there are various ways people respond and there are various ways that people receive information. We place no judgement on any of them. All are okay.

Roehrs: Hatfield says Steppenwolf isn't doing this alone. The theater community in Chicago has worked together to make performances accessible to all audiences.

Hatfield: I just really need to acknowledge we aren’t the only ones doing this. We're strong because there are a lot of arts organizations in town that are also doing this work. I got to go to my friends and colleagues at the other theaters and say “Can you teach us?” and they lifted us up. Just a massive shout to the Chicago theater community that’s really doing this work together.


Lizzie Roehrs is a graduate of the University of Illinois in Springfield. Her work is featured in the Community Voices program for NPR Illinois. Her passion is human interest stories. In addition to producing Community Voices, Lizzie also worked in development for NPR Illinois as a graphic designer and social media expert.