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Creative COVID Captioning: Q&A with the Irish Classical Theatre Company

For this month’s Accessibility in the Arts spotlight, we sat down with Kate LoConti Alcocer, Executive Artistic Director of the Irish Classical Theatre Company, to learn more about the organization, their programming, and how they are leading the charge to make theatre more accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing communities.

The Irish Classical Theatre Company, located in Buffalo’s Theatre District, presents Irish plays, both traditional and contemporary, international classics, and modern plays of exceptional merit and high artistic quality. They are just beginning their 30th anniversary season under new artistic leadership.

ASI: Tell me a little about the history of the Irish Classical Theatre Company: When and how did it begin?

KLA: ICTC began 30 years ago, when The O’Neill Brothers, Chris and Vincent, along with Josephine Hogan and James Warde, joined together to start a theatre dedicated to Irish and Classical plays. For the first few years, they traveled around to various locations in WNY, before taking home at The Calumet on Chippewa St. From there, ICTC moved to the current location of The Andrews Theatre, located at 625 Main St. Though we started with humble beginnings, with thanks to our ICTC Board, Donors, Subscribers, and Community, we have grown to one of the longest running and most revered, theatre companies in Buffalo.

ASI: Are there any individuals, organizations, or programs within Western New York or beyond that have influenced or helped to shape your vision for the theatre? Is there anyone you’d like to shout out?

KLA: In terms of revamping programming during COVID, within WNY, I have been impressed with the way Musicalfare has found exciting and accessible ways to connect with their patrons, and the larger Theatre Community. It seems like there is always something fun going on there! Outside of WNY, I’ve closely been following Irish Repertory Theatre and The Stratford Festival to gauge programming and audience engagement. Want to give a shout out to our friends at Detroit Public Theatre as well, for always thinking outside the box, and remaining relevant and connected.

ASI: How have you needed to adapt in response to COVID-19? What are some of the challenges you’re facing? Have you been surprised by any unexpected advantages?

KLA: In March, we began to make the difficult, but necessary, decision to cancel the remaining productions of the 2019-2020 Season, which ended up extending to include our Fall productions as well. Though these decisions were so heartbreaking to make, it created the space to try new projects we would never had had the possibility to otherwise. With the incredible support of our Board, and creative skill sets of our Staff, Sea Marks was born! Our first digital production, fully rehearsed and recorded in The Andrews Theatre, in collaboration with Pan-American Film Division, running October 16th – November 1st. We are proud to announce that this project is in partnership with Deaf Access Services, an affiliate of People Inc., and will offer both ASL and OC options, the first of such offerings in the WNY Region. I can honestly say this production would not have happened without needing to respond to COVID-19. It is the best outcome we could’ve hoped for.

ASI: Can you expand on your partnership with Deaf Access Services and how you plan to include ASL interpretation and open captioning in your productions?

KLA: ICTC’s 2020 inclusion initiative focuses on providing equal access to the theatre for those identifying as Deaf or Hard of Hearing by providing captioning and American Sign Language (ASL) services and to increase public awareness of access for people with hearing loss, moving the general public and arts community towards greater inclusion. Generally, captioned and ASL interpreted theatre is a rarity thus unintentionally denying a population of individuals the powerfully connecting and enriching, shared experiences of live theatre. This project will open an avenue of entertainment, educational experiences, and art appreciation opportunities to an often marginalized population.

This project will open an avenue of entertainment, educational experiences, and art appreciation opportunities to an often marginalized population.

With funding provided by the J. Warren Perry and Charles Donald Perry Memorial Fund at the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, ICTC will offer Open Captioning (OC) and American Sign Language interpretation for ICTC’s first virtual production of Sea Marks. The second phase of this grant was intended to bring OC & ASL services to live performances during the 2020-2021 Season. However, in response to the global pandemic, those live productions have been postponed. We are hopeful the grant will be extended to ICTC’s 2021-2022 Season.

The original award was to fund the purchase of Open Captioning sign equipment, and provide OC and ASL interpretation for 2 performances (1 “Talk Back Thursday” general performance and 1 Student Matinee) for 2 different productions in ICTC’s 2020-2021 Season. The desired outcome would be to create a demand for theatre by this population, and to have these services be on-going in consecutive seasons. The project also incorporated hosting moderated and ASL interpreted post-show interactive forums for each of the 2 performances featuring a Q&A session with the actors and director, a facilitated discussion about the play and its themes including how they relate to contemporary life, and an opportunity to evaluate the effectiveness of the captioning service and overall experience. Deaf Access Services in particular will be ICTC’s primary partner to provide a Captioning Theatre Specialist and ASL Interpreters for the productions. By providing these services, the Perry Memorial Fund, Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, and ICTC will be offering a richer quality of life for those in the WNY community identifying as Deaf or Hard of Hearing (HOH), increasing awareness among local theatres of the importance of accommodation, and expanding ICTC’s audience reach.

Deaf Access Services in particular will be ICTC’s primary partner to provide a Captioning Theatre Specialist and ASL Interpreters for the productions.

In preparation for this initiative, ICTC’s Director of Development and Project Lead has formed a Consultation Committee with prominent community stakeholders. Members include WNY DAS Director who is hearing and Community Engagement Specialist who identifies as Deaf; Erie County’s Executive Director of the Office for People with Disabilities who is hearing; Niagara University’s Faculty Fellow and Coordinator of ASL and Deaf Studies and member of the Deaf Advisory Council for People Inc. who identifies as deaf; and St. Mary’s School for the Deaf’s (SMSD) Teacher and Director of Drama who is hearing. ICTC in partnership with SMSD, has also developed a Junior Consultation Committee of two students from their Junior National Association of the Deaf Chapter to take part in the testing, implementation, and provide feedback through the process of this project. These Committees and collaborations are essential to ensuring that the Company rolls out these new offerings effectively and sensitively to this demographic not previously appealed to by ICTC.

ASI: With regard to accessibility, diversity, and/or inclusion, what kinds of things would you like to see from arts and cultural organizations in Western New York? What can our community do better?

KLA: This year has seen many new initiatives that have been incredibly impressive and true testaments to what can happen when the focus is put on including the community in its entirety. Distancing and the digital world can make us feel very far away, but inclusion, diversity, and accessibility are the keys to keep more people connected.

ASI: Other than what you’ve already mentioned, where would you like to take the theatre next?

KLA: I am hoping for the day we can return to live performance! But, how and whenever that may be, the most important thing is to continue to uphold our Mission to produce classic plays, and plays of exceptional merit, with the highest level of artistic integrity. Within that world, there is whole lot of room to explore and engage and open up. That’s what excites me the most about the future of the Company.

ASI: Is there anything else you’d like to share?

KLA: ICTC is grateful for ASI’s continuous support not only of WNY’s Arts and Culturals, but of the connections the Initiative makes between companies and programs, to share resources, and embolden our region’s rich cultural fabric. Many thanks for including us!

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