For Mollie Gathro, live theater was a once-a-year indulgence if the stars aligned perfectly.
Gathro has degenerative disc disease and Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, resulting in joint pain, weakness and loss of mobility. Because of her disabilities, going to a show meant having to secure accessible seating after hourslong phone calls with her “nemesis,” Ticketmaster; finding a friend to drive her or arranging other transportation; and hoping her body would cooperate enough for her to actually go out.
But when live performance was brought to a halt three years ago by the coronavirus pandemic, and presenters turned to streaming in an effort to keep reaching audiences, the playing field was suddenly leveled for arts lovers like Gathro.
From her home in West Springfield, Mass., Gathro suddenly had access to the same offerings as everyone else, watching streams of Gore Vidal’s drama “The Best Man” and of a Guster concert at the Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado. For a while, it seemed, everything was online: performances by the Berlin State Opera or the Philadelphia Orchestra; dances by choreographers like Alonzo King and a New York City Ballet Spring Gala directed by Sofia Coppola; blockbuster movies that were released to streaming services at the same time they hit multiplexes; even the latest installment of Richard Nelson’s acclaimed cycle of plays about the Apple family for the Public Theater was streamed live.
“I was overjoyed, but there was also this tentative feeling like waiting for the other shoe to drop because they could take the accessibility away just as easily as they gave it,” Gathro, 35, said, “which feels like is exactly what is happening.”
It is happening. With live performance now back, and some theaters and concert halls still struggling to bring back audiences, presenters have cut back on their streamed offerings — leaving many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, who have been calling for better virtual access for decades, excluded again.
Livestreaming “opened up the door and showed us what is possible,” said Celia Hughes, the executive director of Art Spark Texas, a nonprofit that aims to make the arts more inclusive and accessible. The door, she said, has begun to close again.
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Aimi Hamraie, an associate professor of medicine, health and society at Vanderbilt University who studies disability access, said that the decisions to cut back on streaming options “were not made with disabled people in mind.”
“We’ve all been shown that we already have the tools to create more accessible exhibitions and performances, so people can no longer say it’s not possible,” Hamraie said. “We all know that that’s not true.”
One in four adults in the United States has some form of disability, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But more than three decades after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act made it illegal to discriminate based on disability, advocates say that it remains difficult for many disabled people to navigate arts venues: gilded old theaters often have narrow aisles, cramped rows and stairs, while sleek modern spaces can be off-the-beaten-path or feature temporary seating on risers.
To be sure, there are far more streaming options available now than there used to be. The San Francisco Opera has been livestreaming all of its productions this season, and last month the Paris Opera announced new streaming options. Second Stage Theater simulcast the last two weeks of its Broadway run of “Between Riverside and Crazy” and “Circle Jerk,” a Zoom play that became a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for drama, returned for a hybrid run last summer for both live and streaming audiences. The Cleveland Orchestra has joined the growing number of classical ensembles streaming select performances. And this year’s Sundance Film Festival was held in person in Park City, Utah — but also online.
But venues and producers have cut back on streaming for a number of reasons: the costs associated with equipment and the work required to film performances; contracts that call for paying artists and rights holders more money for streams; and fears that streams could provide more incentive for people to stay home rather than attend in person.
Arts lovers with disabilities are feeling the loss.
“It made all the difference because I felt like during the pandemic, I was allowed to be part of the world again, and then I just lost it,” said Dom Evans, 42, a hard-of-hearing filmmaker with spinal muscular atrophy, among other disabilities, and a co-creator of FilmDis, a group that monitors disability representation in the media.
The recent experiments with streaming have raised questions of what counts as “live.” Some events are heavily produced and edited before they are made available online.
“It’s better than nothing, but it’s not the same,” Phoebe Boag, 43, a music fan with myalgic encephalomyelitis, who lives in Scotland, said in an email interview. “When you’re watching a live performance at the same time as everyone else, you have the same anticipation leading up to the event, and there’s a sense of community and inclusion, knowing that you’re watching the performance alongside however many other people.”
More venues are providing programming specifically for people with disabilities and their families. Moments, at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, for example, is geared toward people with dementia and their caregivers. “Our main goal is that everyone has choice, everyone can get access to what they want in ways that work best for them,” Miranda Hoffner, the associate director of accessibility at Lincoln Center, said.
These types of programs have been welcomed. But others say that presenters must do more to make all of their programming accessible.
“We need arts programs that are fully integrated,” Evans, the filmmaker, said.
Even as presenters have cut back on streaming options, many have stopped requiring proof of vaccination and masks — placing new barriers to attendance for some of the estimated seven million American adults who have compromised immune systems that make them more likely to get severely ill from Covid-19.
“It’s easy to feel just like you’re farther and farther behind and not only forgotten, but just completely disregarded,” said Han Olliver, a 26-year-old freelance artist and writer with multiple chronic illnesses who would like more access to the arts. “And that’s really lonely.”
Still, new opportunities have led to more connections for and among disabled people.
Theater Breaking Through Barriers, an Off Broadway company that promotes the inclusion of disabled actors onstage, has presented more than 75 short plays since 2020 that have been designed to be performed virtually. Last fall, it streamed a series of plays, including some that were created on Zoom and others that were performed in front of live audiences. Nicholas Viselli, the company’s artistic director, said the goal is to make streaming more regular.
There is an idea that “‘doing virtual stuff is not really theater,’ and I don’t agree with that,” Viselli said.
“It’s not the same as being in the room and feeling the energy from the audience and the actors,” he said, “but it is when you have artists creating something in front of your eyes.”
Gathro continues to take advantage of streaming options when she can from her home in West Springfield. But she hopes that more presenters will stream their work in the future.
“I wish I always had options for livestreaming, for really everything, because I would,” Gathro said. “For me, it’s worth paying as much as I would pay to see it in person. The accessibility is just that much more helpful.”