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New York City’s infrastructure is notoriously difficult to navigate for disabled people. Accessible subway stations make up only about 25 percent of the total system, and poorly maintained elevators are frequently out of order. Affordable housing can be difficult to find, as many of the city’s more reasonably priced units are located in older, pre-Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) buildings. Going out for a coffee or a bite to eat, businesses that seem accessible to people with limited mobility quickly reveal themselves to not be. Behind a step-free entrance , there may be a set of stairs to access a bathroom in the basement. And when new accessible designs are proposed, they may find themselves mired in red tape as property-owners fret about “liability.” In his new play, Dark Disabled Stories, performance artist Ryan Haddad explores the indignities New York City’s infrastructure and public spaces— from buses to curb cuts — pose for disabled people like himself. But Haddad also had to contend with other infrastructures specific to the performing arts: for a play that puts access front and center, how do you find and design an accessible space for audiences and artists alike?
It’s not easy to build a career as a performing artist in New York City. Venues for emerging artists and non-profit rehearsal and studio spaces are shuttering across the boroughs. Rents are at record highs and out of reach for artists operating on a shoestring budget. For playwright and actor Ryan Haddad, who uses a walker, navigating New York City presents its own challenges. Haddad makes autobiographical performances, many of which highlight his everyday lived experiences navigating life as a disabled gay man. His solo play, Hi, Are You Single? explored sex and dating, including Grindr horror stories and the challenges of inaccessible gay bars. In a 2021 video installation at Signature Theatre, Haddad explored the complicated joys of swimming as a disabled person.
In his new play, Dark Disabled Stories, at The Public Theater in a co-production with The Bushwick Starr, Haddad plumbs the inaccessibility of New York City’s infrastructure: cars parked in front of designated bus stops that prevent ramps from properly operating, and dangerous curb cuts that do not meet the road evenly. But the production primarily focuses on Ryan’s interactions with strangers: bus drivers who refuse to help wheelchair users safely strap in and TSA agents who will not listen when disabled people advocate for themselves. Accessibility is built into infrastructure, but also enacted by the people who work and interact in public spaces. In one monologue, delivered by cast member Alejandra Ospina, who uses a motorized wheelchair, she describes encountering a broken elevator in a subway station, and approaching staff for help, only to be refused for “liability reasons” and instructed to call 911 instead.
Dark Disabled Stories had a long developmental road, prolonged by the Covid-19 pandemic. But finding performance space that was accessible for both the show’s performers and audience was an additional challenge. Theaters suffer from accessibility issues across the board. Many old Broadway houses have no elevator at all; accessibility features are often built for audiences but not for the performers and crew backstage. When Ali Stroker, who uses a wheelchair, won a Tony for her role as Ado Annie in Oklahoma!, she had to wait backstage at Radio City Music Hall, separated from her peers in the seats, in case her name was called. And most performances in New York City do not take place in Broadway houses. The theaters that present work by emerging artists like Haddad are often on the upper floors of formerly-industrial buildings, and can be reached only via stairs or sometimes a freight elevator.
Haddad recalls his first experience at La MaMa, the storied institution at the origins of the off-off-Broadway movement, as part of an undergraduate study program. He performed in La MaMa’s Club, which was up two flights of stairs: “I’m young, I’m not like ‘Aww, what a shame.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my god, I get to perform at La MaMa, how fantastic! This is iconic! This is legendary!’ The stairs didn’t diminish that excitement for me.” But with a twelve-inch step to enter the building and no elevator, many disabled artists and audiences have been unable to take part in La MaMa’s programming, especially in the second-floor club space. The theater’s founder, Ellen Stewart, lived on the fourth floor of the building into her nineties, and struggled to climb up and down the stairs in her later years. Staff members fashioned a chair that Stewart could sit in while they carried her to and from the apartment. Remarking on navigating an inaccessible building with a limited budget, La MaMa’s managing director, Mary Fulham, remarked, “You do what you have to do.”
When Hi, Are You Single? was ready to be produced, Haddad discussed presenting it at La MaMa with programming staff: “There was this difficulty of their club space, which would have been perfect for the show, being prohibitive for people with mobility disabilities. I knew who my audience was when it’s a show about living and dating with cerebral palsy. And I said, sort of gently but firmly, ‘I don’t think that this is the right space.’”
After Haddad workshopped what would become Dark Disabled Stories at several festivals, he sent an audio recording to The Bushwick Starr, another non-profit that champions the work of emerging theater artists. The Starr expressed interest in developing and producing the show. Haddad had never been to the theater before these discussions began. “Because I use cars to supplement the subway system, going back and forth to Brooklyn is wildly expensive. I don’t go there for fun. I had a vague feeling that it was an old building that wasn’t accessible, and I was right.”
Initially an illegal live-work space for a theater collective, The Starr became a full-time theater in 2007. As its profile and audience grew, the accessibility problems of the space, at the top of some pretty old stairs, became more marked. “It did not have a passenger elevator,” The Starr’s artistic director, Noel Allain, recalls. “It had a freight elevator that looked like it was from 1800 and obviously is not a legal mode of transportation for humans. But if someone needed an elevator, we arranged to use that freight elevator with our landlords. That was our kind of escape hatch — I brought Edward Albee up once.”
The Starr slowly made changes. The space had just a single restroom, and the plumbing was raised, so people had to climb a step to enter. As their audience grew, staff enlisted a “carpenter friend” to transform the restroom into three smaller stalls, still on the raised platform. The step to the bathroom and the small size of the stall presented issues for audiences and artists with mobility disabilities, so, in consultation with the landlord, The Starr sunk the plumbing below the floor and combined one restroom stall with a neighboring closet to make a larger, accessible stall. Allain remarked, “That was something we could afford to do and felt like was a priority.”
But The Starr needed more capital-intensive changes to the building to make it accessible for artists and audiences with mobility disabilities. After visiting the space, Haddad said: “This freight elevator’s not going to cut it. This big step up, one step up from the street, not going to cut it. And these bathrooms, not going to cut it. If The Bushwick Starr wants to do my show, you either need to fix these things, or we’ve got to find a different space.”
Around 2008, The Starr’s landlord had registered the building with the Loft Board and began major improvements to the building. “They had to install a passenger elevator,” Allain recalls. “We had talked to our landlords about the possibility of it, but they didn’t do it until they had to do it. It was very fortuitous, where we could do the bathroom, and then I could say to Ryan, ‘There’s a passenger elevator being put into our building.’ Ironically, before the elevator was ever really functional, the pandemic happened, and we had to get out.”
The renovation process “took more than ten years and ultimately led to the reason we had to leave, because all the spaces became residential,” Allain remarked. The landlord’s financial investment resulted in the theater company’s displacement. Accessibility features do not come cheaply, and the expense of creating upgrades can paradoxically place them out of reach for disabled people. “The access that I require costs more,” Haddad reflects. “The things that would make the lives of many disabled people easier, suddenly, are cost prohibitive. Because new equals accessible, but new also equals luxury, and luxury equals cost.”
With The Starr’s space unavailable as they built out a new home, they partnered with The Public Theater, where Haddad had interned and later presented Hi, Are You Single? as part of their Under the Radar Festival. “The Public was built for artists like him,” said Associate Director of New Work Development, Jack Phillips Moore.
The Public Theater is housed in the former Astor Library. Opened in 1854, the Northern Italian Renaissance-style building featured a grand marble staircase leading to a second floor reading room with vaulted ceilings. The Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society took over the building in 1920 and transformed the library’s grand spaces to accommodate a synagogue and a dining hall. HIAS moved uptown in 1964, and the building very nearly saw the wrecking ball before community activists led a charge to save the building using newly passed landmark law. Joseph Papp, The Public’s storied founder, moved to purchase the building and reconstruct it as a new home for performing artists.
Giorgio Cavaglieri renovated the building, preserving its exterior — as required by its landmark status — while making room for new performances spaces inside. Initially, there were just two theaters, one a thrust stage housed in the former library reading room, and the other in a proscenium orientation with raked seating. Additional performance spaces, including the cabaret venue Joe’s Pub, followed. The Shiva Theater, where Dark Disabled Stories is being presented, is located just of The Public’s first-floor lobby in HIAS’s former synagogue space.
While Papp had promoted free theater for all New Yorkers uptown at Shakespeare in the Park, the costly building renovations meant that audiences would have to pay for tickets on Lafayette Street. And Cavaglieri’s designs, sensitively attuned to the building’s historic character, held their own assumptions about the kind of person that would perform or attend performances there. Sketches show a small staircase leading into the lobby and large, open performance spaces where audiences stand or sit on the floor around grand pianos. There are no chairs for those who might use walkers or canes. In the 1980s, The Public submitted proposals to the National Endowment for the Arts to fund improvements to the lobby and public spaces, including new box office space and, notably, an enlarged elevator, as the small existing elevator was difficult for many guests to navigate. Many of these grant proposals, including one in 1983 for a passenger elevator that would reach all levels of the theater, were unsuccessful. Guests who could not climb the stairs into the lobby eventually were able to use a small chair lift.
In 2012, The Public Theater undertook a $44 million remodeling of its lobby and entrance, designed by Ennead Architects, which greatly expanded the accessibility of its spaces. “As with all structures built in this period,” states Stephen Chu, the design principal for the project, the building “was not designed to be accessible, requiring careful, at times almost surgical, planning and detailing.” The architects sought to clarify and improve circulation in a structure designed for stairs. Installing exterior ramps under a glass awning on the building’s façade made it possible for people with mobility disabilities to enter the building without using a lift, as they had to do before the renovation. They also expanded restrooms, with some wider stalls for wheelchair users. The main entrance to Joe’s Pub, previously up a small staircase on the building’s North Alley, was moved into The Public’s lobby. The funding for the renovation came from a mix of private and public sources: $28.5 million was provided by the City of New York through the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the New York City Council and the Manhattan Borough President. The price tag for this work is outside of what is achievable for many theaters with less staff and less support from private philanthropists.
But even after the renovation, the theater spaces are still problematic for audiences with disabilities. The director of Dark Disabled Stories, Jordan Fein, observed, “by nature, the way audiences are arranged is not accessible in essentially any theater.” Seats are traditionally placed on stepped levels so that audiences have a clear view over the heads of the people in front of them. Obviously, wheelchair users are not able to navigate their way to every row in this seating plan; they usually end up in an accessible section at the very front or very back of the house. The Public’s website details each venue’s architecture, highlighting the amount of steps to get into each row — anywhere from zero steps for wheelchair-accessible seating to thirty steps down to the front row in the Newman Theater. While accessible seating is available in every venue, the vast majority of seats require going up or down stairs. For Dark Disabled Stories, The Public expanded the wheelchair-accessible seating to ten out of the Shiva’s 99 seats by removing seats from the theater’s front row.
Ramps and elevators are not the be-all-and-end-all of accessibility. The disability community is diverse, including not only people who use wheelchairs or walkers, but also blind people and people with low-vision, Deaf or hard-of-hearing people, and people with autism, among many others. For Dark Disabled Stories, the production team designed the show to center the expanded accessibility features they’ve implemented for audiences with a wide range of needs. During the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, when they would meet regularly on Zoom to discuss the play, Haddad recalls, he and director Fein “had this shared epiphany that access could be part of the design. That what I had seen, over and over and over again, in disabled spaces, but really hasn’t existed off-Broadway, at least not in this in this way where it’s fully available at every performance.”
When most theatrical companies offer captioning or ASL interpretation, these do not take a central focus in the production’s design. Closed captions may be displayed on an individual handheld device, commonly using an app called GalaPro. Open captions and ASL interpreters also may be placed on the far side of the stage, and largely outside the field of vision of those who do not use captions or ASL.
In Dark Disabled Stories, access is designed into the show, not on top of it. The production takes place within a large box built into the theater, with a ramp leading up to the performance area upstage. (The set and costumes were designed by dots.) Three blue bus seats downstage echo the setting of many of the stories in the show. The set and two large structural columns in the space, are covered in hot pink paint and sequins, creating a distinctly queer esthetic. In her audio description, cast member Alejandra Ospina contemplates: “Is it a bus? Is it a pink box? Is it a gay bar? Is it a gay, pink bus?” Ospina, who uses a motorized wheelchair, provides audio description throughout the performance, describing its visuals and blocking. While audio description usually takes place on headphones worn by blind or vision-impaired audiences, Ospina’s audio description is broadcast over the theater’s speaker systems, a narration for the evening’s proceedings. A lightbulb illuminates when Ospina speaks, so that Deaf or hard-of-hearing audiences can see that audio description is being provided.
Rather than the traditional crawl of text on a small LED screen, captions for the performance — by video designer Kameron Neal — appear in a dynamic display on a large projection surface at the rear of the stage. The captions move around, framing the action, and also reflecting the rhythm and tone of the piece. When two women argue on a bus, the captions “volley back and forth” in the same way that their insults do. Deaf performer Dickie Hearts — an actor, not an interpreter — performs in the show using ASL. Hearts and Haddad, who both play the character of “Ryan,” perform a sort of duet, telling the same story in ASL and English, occasionally playing off each other. At individual moments in the show, Ospina and Hearts each take center stage and share their own stories of navigating the world as someone who uses a wheelchair and as a Deaf person, respectively.
The commitment to serving audiences of a wide range of abilities extends beyond the proscenium. A spokesperson for The Public wrote in an emailed statement: “The Public’s audience service team has coordinated interpreters and translators on site for all performances to support the Hard of Hearing and Deaf community when interacting with our front of house and box office teams.” A designated ASL interpreter (not Hearts) interprets the pre-show announcements. In addition, a space where audiences can freely move has been added to the house-right section, and a touch wall allows audiences — especially blind or low-vision audiences — to engage tactilely with versions of elements of the set design.
The expanded accessibility of Dark Disabled Stories comes at a significant cost. Haddad noted that the production’s budget is double what it would be without this degree of access. But through embracing an esthetics of accessibility, Haddad, Fein, and the rest of the team create a space for audiences with disabilities to experience a show that speaks frankly about the experience of being disabled — a rare occurrence on stages in New York City.
The Public has deeper pockets and a much larger staff than many off- and off-off-Broadway theaters, but smaller institutions are working to make their spaces more accessible, too.
La MaMa recently completed a $24 million renovation of their four-story building at 74 East Fourth Street, with the goal of expanding accessibility and making other improvements for artists, audiences, and staff. Beyer, Blinder, Belle Architects & Planners LLP greatly expanded the 60-square-foot first-floor lobby, where prior to renovation, audiences packed like sardines or spilled out onto the street. New glass doors and windows replaced the old brick wall and solid doors at the entrance, inviting the public to see what’s happening inside, and letting in natural light. Architect Chris Cowan said of the new interaction with the street: “La MaMa has always been very open and inclusive in terms of inviting the community — all types of people — into their theater. The new wheelchair accessible glass entrance affords a visual connection into the building, creating a welcoming environment.” The building now has an elevator that travels to all floors in the building, as well as handicap-accessible bathrooms and dressing rooms. Mary Fulham remarked, “We want artists like Ryan to have space to do their work. Underrepresented artists need to be heard, and that includes disabled people. This is essential to our programming.”
The Starr has moved to a space which they will own outright. Its new home in a former industrial warehouse on Eldert Street was funded through a $10 million capital campaign — $5 million of which is dedicated to the renovation of the building. $4 million came from state and local sources, while the additional $1 million came from a mix of private individual and institutional donors. The building, designed by Peter Zuspan and his firm Bureau V Architecture, is set to open later this year. Its first-floor space welcomes audiences in directly from the street level, avoiding many of the awkward workarounds — like coordinating use of a freight elevator with the landlord — that they’d devised in their previous space.
The spacious lobby will also be home to talks, educational programming for children and teens, and a community space welcoming artists and neighbors. Allain said, “The other way I think our old space wasn’t accessible is that you could walk by the building and not even know it was there. You did not come up to the theater unless you had some kind of invitation in, because it was behind a locked door in a mixed-use building.”
To design the space, The Starr met with a range of neighborhood groups, including their community board and El Puente, a Williamsburg-based nonprofit. “The initial inspiration for the whole endeavor was to build an artistic community. That doesn’t necessarily mean being in rehearsal, you know? It could just mean hanging out,” Allain observed. Designed with flexibility in mind, their lobby will be able to be transformed into a venue for film screenings and talks, as well as a communal space with tables and chairs. While they construct their new home, they’ve already been loaning parts of their footprint to community groups: a free store now operates out of the side of the building.
Haddad spoke of the importance of creating a welcoming space beyond design guidelines: “I’m hoping new buildings will recognize the advantage they have in welcoming disabled artists, technicians, audiences, and be willing to meet the welcome nature of their space with programming and/or opportunities and initiatives that also say, ‘You are welcome here.’ Because the building is just a building and can’t say it on its own. The actions of the people inside the building have to say that.”
Finding funds to retrofit old buildings or create new facilities can be a challenge for many institutions. “I am aware that this is the truly worst financial time in the arts across the board, particularly in the live performance space. People are strapped for cash all the time,” Haddad said. “But if I have a choice between a building that is really welcoming to me and one that’s not, I’m always going to choose the place where I feel that I can come and go and not have to feel oppressed by a literal building.”
Interventions to make spaces more accessible don’t have to be architectural. Haddad offered suggestions for institutions contemplating how to improve accessibility but without a large budget:
If your primary obstacle is money, I think it’s deeper than that. Money is necessary, and money can be found. It’s important that money not be seen as a barrier to inclusion, and that institutions, when they want to be welcoming to all kinds of people, included in that “all kinds of people” are disabled people. If you’re planning some sort of gathering that’s open to the community, please always include access information on your advertising. Start with that: To remember disabled people exist costs no money. Then to have outreach to disabled groups, and individuals, and organizations, to provide a welcoming invitation, also costs no money. If you don’t have it in you to make the invitation to begin with, then you can’t say that you’re wanting to be inclusive, because we’re a significant, worldwide population, and we’ve spent centuries being cast off to the side. And the least you can do is say, “We want you here. How can we help? What do you need? We want you here, and we’re going to figure it out together, because it’s important to us that you’re part of our group, our event, our community, our world.”
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.