It is not obvious to say that you cannot see Bricolage Production Company of Pittsburgh’s latest immersive experience OjO: The Next Generation of Travel. One, it was featured last month at La Jolla Playhouse’s Without Walls Festival and is no longer running. But two, you literally cannot see it, because for long portions of the experience we remove the audience’s sight.
The frame of OjO is a “next generation” travel agency offering “travelers” a 75-minute perspective-altering urban adventure. We forced participants to engage with their other senses in experiencing the play, opening their minds while also shining a metaphorical light on blindness, an experience rarely portrayed in the theatre. At the heart of the completed work, OjO’s travelers encounter Ann Lapidus and Bob Kanish, two wonderful actors who represent very different perspectives on blindness (Bob is blind from birth, and Ann lost her sight at age 24). The piece received raves from both critics and audiences.
But OjO did not set out to be an “accessibility piece.” When the creation process began over two years ago, our team never could have anticipated where the final piece would end up.
In 2013, through an artist residency with the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, Bricolage was charged with creating an immersive theatrical experience for the Three River’s Arts Festival in downtown Pittsburgh. Our team was particularly interested in the behavior of art viewers. An early beta test for OjO at Pittsburgh’s New Year’s Eve celebration (First Look! First Night!) aimed to provoke interaction between participants and the art contained in three downtown galleries (SPACE, Wood Street, and 707) and a bookstore (Amazing Books). This whimsical experience prompted participants to share impressions and opinions, make connections with strangers, and finally promote speculation about the cultural assumptions inherent in the art viewing experience, as well as what people consider art to be and why.
But most viewers seemed to encounter the works in a processional way, as if they were searching for something—moving from one disparate painter, photographer, booth, etc., to another, often not spending any real time with the works on the wall. They were grazing and non-committal. Was it the art or the habitual viewing mechanism that was somehow lacking?
All of this begged the question: is it even possible under these circumstances to truly experience works of art in the way the artist truly intended? And why do we say “look at” art, and not “be with” art? So we began asking different questions. What if we instead focused on the artist’s initial impulse, rather than the art itself? How might we position a participant/viewer/traveler to achieve a similar internal space, one more attuned with an artist at work? One more engaged in the same discovery process?
We of course related as a team to this idea—the terror of not knowing, the exhilaration of heading into the unknown. It is quite like heading into the dark…
Wait, what? That was it! What would happen if we deprived viewers of the primary sense involved in participating in a visual arts festival? Immediately, we knew we were onto something that we could really sink our creative teeth into. Nine months later, OjO was born.
In creating an authentic and genuine experience for participants, rather than imposing our own concept or simulation as outsiders, it was paramount we included someone with first-hand knowledge of blindness. I remember the first time I met Ann Lapidus and Cindy (her guide dog). My wife and creative partner, Tami Dixon, and I met Ann at a bar in Squirrel Hill. Her quick wit and dry sense of humor disarmed us immediately, and we were quickly talking as if we had known each other for years.
Ann’s willingness to share her experience led us to schedule a series of recorded conversations with lead writer Gab Cody, which became the heart of the show. She was very concerned from the outset about the “gimmick” inherent in placing a sleep mask on a participant. And the notion that for them it was a type of “game” they could call quits from at anytime, with no real consequence.
In the final version of OjO, mounted in Pittsburgh in 2014 then again at La Jolla, anyone who removed their mask was removed from the performance. It was paramount that the audience experience vulnerability. It was also important that we not portray her or her condition as a “disability,” as she told me:
To me, this has always been more than just a show about blindness, At its core, it’s about change, vulnerability, and loss—concepts that everyone can connect with and relate to. When we blindfold our participants, we are not merely taking away the functional aspect of their sense of sight; we’re exposing them to the range of emotions intrinsic to the reality of a person who is blind. From this, it is my hope that participants leave this experience with an understanding of all that we take for granted, and are able to access the greater sense: empathy.
Now, almost two years from the time we began, Bricolage admits that we are still at the very beginning of this accessibility journey. I am proud of the progress we’ve made over the last several years toward accessibility and inclusion. When Bricolage embarked on a facilities renovation early this year, one of our top priorities was increasing accessibility for patrons with physical disabilities—something that provided a greater sense of equal inclusion rather than just the basic accessibility measures. We created a seating bank with a removable platform to accommodate wheelchairs, and walkers that seated those patrons within the audience, rather than in a separate location.
We also created two unisex, rather than gender-specific, bathrooms in order to expand inclusivity to transgender and gender non-conforming patrons.
And thanks to donor support this year, we now have full audio description capabilities, ASL interpreters for each program, and sensory workshops for the blind and low-vision community during our Midnight Radio series, and we are providing accessibility training for administrative and front of house staff members. And led by our newly formed board-level Accessibility and Inclusion Committee and our general manager—a yearly attendee of the annual Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conference—future plans will open our doors to an even wider array of patrons from the Pittsburgh community who have previously been excluded from our productions.
Despite our progress, taking on accessibility and inclusion in the arts is a journey with no end. There are no silver bullets or quick solutions. And though it seems the cultural community in America is now beginning to speak to the issues, we are a long way from transforming ourselves to address them. Rather, it’s a multifaceted dilemma demanding a multifaceted approach. Providing comfortable seating for someone in a wheelchair is a wholly different challenge from providing audio description to someone with a visual impairment, or an ASL interpreter for someone who is deaf. And we are learning that addressing one over the other often excludes those with compound impairments. And these are just the physical barriers.
What about “translating” Shakespeare to make it more accessible to a younger audience? Or making ticket prices more affordable (or free!) for those with financial barriers? We must accept there are as many “solutions” as there are people who don’t, won’t, or can’t attend theatre.
And those willing to take on the task of overcoming these many barriers must cultivate, similar to the audience in OjO, a state of mind to create a culture of accessibility and inclusion. The heroes and pioneers featured in American Theatre tell stories of incredible courage—and we must look to these sowers of hope, but we also must find our own solutions through asking and listening with patient resolve to the diverse voices in our own communities, to keep working to find more dynamic and deeper ways to connect.
Whether physical, generational, cultural, economic, racial, or other (the list goes on), accessibility must address the specific needs of our specific communities. Only then together can we steer the theatre back into cultural relevance in America.
Jeffrey Carpenter is the artistic director of Bricolage Production Company, which he founded with his wife and producing A.D. Tami Dixon.