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Art-Reach: Making the Arts Accessible for Everyone

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Art-Reach: Making the Arts Accessible for Everyone

By Emily Cutler

Growing up, I became friends with a girl who was deaf. It saddened me that she couldn't experience plays and concerts the way I could. My memories of our friendship have stayed with me for years and I thought of her this past summer. I interned at Art-Reach and had the opportunity to help make the arts accessible for everyone. Through this experience, I gained a deeper appreciation of the arts.

I fell in love with theatre when I stage-managed the Theatre Arts Program’s production of Iphigenia during my first semester at Penn. I have been writing plays since high school, but as a stage manager, I became immersed in the production process, from organizing the prompt book to running production meetings. I decided to look for a summer internship that would allow me to use the skills I learned as a stage manager. I found my internship at Art-Reach through the Civic House Philadelphia Nonprofit Internship Program at Penn, which enables students to work in local nonprofits while attending biweekly seminars about the nonprofit sector.

Art-Reach’s mission is to connect underserved audiences, including people with economic disadvantages or disabilities, with the arts. My main project for the summer was to market their program Independence Starts Here, which provides services such as ASL interpretation, open captioning, and audio description to theaters, making shows more accessible to people with hearing or vision loss. I spent the first few weeks researching organizations that might be interested in the program, including schools for students who are deaf or blind, assisted living homes, and senior centers. After that, I spent most days making phone calls to these organizations, promoting the program, and encouraging participation. In my day-to-day work, I also arranged logistics for museum visits, called theatres and other venues to encourage them to pledge tickets to Art-Reach, and designed marketing materials for Independence Starts Here.

I was surprised at first: the work of my internship at Art-Reach actually had little to do with the arts. I did use the administrative and organizational skills I learned as a stage manager, but my daily work did not directly relate to theatre or any other type of art.

Then, about halfway through my internship, I attended an event that changed my perspective. Art-Reach partnered with the People’s Light and Theatre to host a fully accessible performance of Noises Off, a farce by Michael Frayn. Before the show, I watched as our associate director gave a sensory tour to a group of people with vision loss, letting them feel the props and costumes that would be used on stage. Some of the younger students staged a fight with a prop sword. A middle-aged woman pretended to take in the scent of fake flowers, laughing. A girl with glasses described a dress to her friend. During the show, I occasionally glanced at the open captioning screen, flashing the dialogue of the play, and at one of our staff members, who was describing the visual aspects of the play over a headset. Everyone in the audience laughed at the same moments and applauded together after each act.

During intermission, a woman with a Braille program turned to the man sitting next to her, who was reading a standard program.

“I can’t stop laughing any time the characters refer to sardines,” she said. He chuckled. “Me neither.”

Looking back, the interaction was only chatter about an ephemeral moment in the play. But for me, it represented something bigger. Two audience members who might not have spoken otherwise had connected over the arts. That night, I saw art and innovation bring people together. I returned to my internship the next day continuing to make phone calls and arrange logistics, but the work felt more meaningful than ever.

During my last week at Art-Reach, I wrapped up the Independence Starts Here project and started a new, shorter-term project. I interviewed a woman named Anna, who has participated in Art-Reach events for several years, and wrote an article about her for the Art-Reach website. We talked for over an hour: she had so much to say about how Art-Reach has affected her life. An immigrant from Russia, she learned about the city by attending shows at different theaters, while the subject matter of shows such as The Scottsboro Boys helped her learn about U.S. history. Art-Reach events also helped her connect to her roots in Russia, as she saw shows such as The Government Inspector and concerts featuring the music of Russian composers. “It’s very special when the music is yours,” she said at one point. “It’s from my home.”

My internship at Art-Reach did not involve the arts for the majority of the time, but it was rewarding in a way that only work in the arts can be. An artist does not often get the chance to find out how a particular event has affected the audience. Art-Reach allowed me to discover the effect that the arts can have on individuals. 

Interning at Art-Reach was by far the best summer experience I’ve ever had. I learned that the field that I am studying truly can make a difference in the lives of others, which is the most powerful encouragement I have received as a theatre arts major and playwright. 

Emily Cutler is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. She has stage-managed two plays for Penn's Theatre Arts Program, and her short play The Road Trip will be produced as part of the program's 2013-2014 season. Emily also serves on the board of the Reform Jewish Community at Hillel and is a member of the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority. In her free time, Emily enjoys writing, volunteering, and exploring Philadelphia.

Coedited by Lauren Shapiro and Naomi Shavin.