The Amazing Mission at Open Door Theater

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  • Liz Chirico

A bus stop doesn’t seem an auspicious place to start a theater company but for Open Door Theater, based in Acton, MA it’s at a bus stop where Penny Pitts and Nancy Carroll first conceived of Open Door Theater. It was 1980 and Penny, a puppeteer new to Acton, joined Nancy in her idea of a theater open to all where the idea of “all” really meant all. At Open Door Theater, actors who are cognitively and/or physically impaired and for whom participation in theater may not be possible with other groups, share the stage with neuro-typical actors. It provides unique opportunities and experiences for everyone on-stage, those working behind the scenes and for audience members.

Samatha Gould, President of Open Door Theater, says the group’s biggest challenge each year is in selecting a show that can support a large diverse, multi-aged, integrated, and uniquely talented cast. Previous shows have included Seussical, Once on this Island and last year’s hit, Cinderella. Their casts are large- upwards of 100 performers participate each year sometimes including whole family units. Every member of the production team along with all 100+ volunteer staff must have experience with and sensitivity to special needs. Recruiting production team members, in particular, is a many-months-long process. But it’s one that produces strong ties and bonds. In fact, such strong relationships are formed within casts and the larger Open Door community that performers who started as children often return as adult performers. In their current production of The Little Mermaid, both the Stage Manager and Ursula participated with Open Door as children and are back for more.

Open Door provides a meaningful and powerful experience for its audience members as well. Many drive considerable distances, including coming down from Brattleboro, VT to attend their shows! Open Door provides a safe and welcoming theatrical audience experience like few other community or professional theaters. Audience members frequently make comments like, “I was blown away with all of the accessibility options and inclusion for all.”

The bonds formed working in the arts run deep, but perhaps the relationships formed by Open Door casts run a bit deeper. Because cast member regularly interacts with those who have different needs than they do, there’s a willingness to learn more about others than perhaps one finds in the outside world. For example, many cast members begin ASL lessons during rehearsals and continue taking classes long after the production closes. Said one cast member, “seeing my children befriend and work with people of all ages and abilities not only warmed my heart, but it also gave us all a deep appreciation for community and teamwork that we can apply in our everyday lives.”

In last year’s production of Cinderella, several roles were filled by Deaf actors including that of Gabrielle, one of Cinderella’s step-sisters, along with the Prince. Another Deaf actress was hired as one of 3 ASL interpreters. Through a combination of script memorization along with being fed lines by one of the other hearing interpreters, she was able to provide interpretation for performances. Open Door Theater also utilizes an open caption system for all their performances, using integrated projections on our proscenium wall not a ticker tape system. For Cinderella, three performances were interpreted into ASL (up from 1 in prior years), audio described performance, a sensory-friendly performance and all performances were open captioned.

As you can imagine the technology and manpower to make their performances accessible to so many patrons doesn’t come cheaply. Open Door does not charge a participation fee making it one of the few in all of Central Massachusetts. Instead, they rely on ticket sales, grants, and donations to continue their essential and much-needed mission.

For more information on how to donate or volunteer with an upcoming show visit: www.opendoortheater.org. And for those readers in the New England area, take a drive to Acton, MA for this year’s production of The Little Mermaid running March 29-April 7! Come see for yourself how the connections, kindness, diversity and cultural exchange that happens during each Open Door production knows neither intellectual nor physical boundaries.