In the Vineyard Theatre's latest production, Harry Clarke, actor Billy Crudup plays a con man from the American heartland posing as two Londoners in a scheme to penetrate a well-to-do New England family. Crudup also plays nearly two dozen other characters in the one-man show.
What's special about Harry Clarke—besides the many roles Crudup effortlessly tackles within 80 minutes—is that the Vineyard is working to bring the show to people outside of its 132-seat theater. The not-for-profit, Manhattan-based theater company has partnered with Audible, the Amazon-backed e-books company, to create an audio play of Harry Clarke.
"For people who can never come to New York or for whom watching a play is not an option for other reasons, they have access to this storytelling and story we've created," says Vineyard managing director Suzanne Appel. The recording will be available in late January.
With plays and musicals staged in large, historic theater houses, I've climbed many stairs questioning how anyone who isn't able-bodied would be able to get to a mezzanine seat or basement bathroom. Both performers and audience members with disabilities have been frequently relegated to the shadows of the theater world, mirroring their treatment outside of the theater as well.
In 2014, the Nederlander Organization (one of the three most powerful theater ownership groups) was sued by the United States government for failure to adequately comply with the Americans With Disability Act. The settlement, which was filed the same day as the suit and detailed by the New York Post, included increases in wheelchair-accessible seating; the elimination of more than 500 accessibility barriers in restrooms, concessions, and box offices; and a $45,000 fine.
Since then, the tides have slowly started to change. As producers realize there is both aptitude among these performers and dollars to be spent, performers and audience members with disabilities have seen a small growth of increased accessibility among New York's highbrow theater arts.
Last season, Madison Ferris, an actress with muscular dystrophy, acted in a wheelchair alongside Sally Field in a revival of Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie, pushing the boundaries of how the play's young character is usually portrayed. Deaf West, a California-based theater company, put on a Tony Award-nominated revival of Spring Awakening in 2015. The show featured the first actor using a wheelchair on Broadway ever, and was the first to give interpretation services to deaf and blind participants.
The Broadway League, the trade group representing theater owners and managers, announced last fall that the majority of Broadway houses will be able to provide assistance to audience members beyond just "assistive listening devices" beginning in January. This will include closed captioning and audio description services, Broadway League Chairman Robert E. Wankel said in a statement to Playbill.
With their partnership with Audible, the Vineyard is joining the slow-moving change for more accessible theater arts. Appel said the recording will be made after the run concludes.
"We're really thrilled that what the Audible audiences will be getting is the result of all those different live performances," Appel says. "It is really special, that relationship between a performer and their audience. When they go in and do it in the studio, that will be the performance built off of these responses he's been getting from our audiences over the last seven weeks."
In May, Audible announced a $5 million fund to commission and develop English-language works from playwrights around the world, focusing on one- and two-person plays driven by the voice—something that can open up the insular theater world to all fans.
The U.S. has a rich history of recorded performance. By bridging the gap between theaters and recorded shows, the universality of Audible allows the audience—whether or not they are living with disabilities—to experience the full breadth of a theater-going experience.