Interview with Josette Todaro

Josette Todaro is a director of the Amaryllis Theatre in Philadelphia.

WG: Amaryllis Theatre is a rather unique organization, so let me start off by asking if you tell us a bit about what Amaryllis is and how you got involved in it.

JT: Amaryllis Theatre Company was founded in 1999 by Linda Merians, Mimi Kenney Smith and Steve Smith as the first professional theatre company in Philadelphia dedicated to the inclusion of people with disabilities. People with disabilities worked in the organization as actors, designers, technical and administrative staff. Since that time, we've become the state affiliate of VSA in Washington, D.C. and increased the scope of our work to include cultural access work designed to make the state's arts organizations more inclusive as well as continuing as a professional inclusive theatre company. Through Independence Starts Here!, we produced Pennsylvania's first Disability Arts and Culture Festival and designed the first membership program for sharing accessible technology such as captioning screens for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing audiences as well as Audio Description equipment for the Blind and Low-vision audiences. Now, we proudly serve many regions across the state as well as Philadelphia. At this time, we still only produce professional inclusive theatre in Philadelphia.

In 2003, I was working as a freelance theatre teaching artist in the Greater Philadelphia area when Mimi Smith told me that Amaryllis had been given a generous donation with the hope that she could begin to grow the staff. Naturally, I was interested; besides having a strong interest in playwriting and producing theatre, I had been teaching theatre to children with disabilities across the area for the previous 4 years. In September 2003, I was brought on to help manage the company and oversee educational outreach. Since then, my job hasn't changed much, just increased in scope as the organization has expanded to see more people with disabilities working in the arts. Over the past 8 years, I've helped to develop 4 original touring educational musicals that raise awareness about disability, worked with different adult populations with disabilities to create original theatre work and overseen numerous residency programs that pair professional artists with disabilities and classrooms for an extended period of time. Last year, I directed my first fully accessible professional show, I Am My Own Wife and this year, I will direct again. Overall, I find as the company grows and expands to include more and more people over a greater geographical region, it has also allowed me to continue my growth as an artist.

WG: What were some of the challenges you faced in producing I Am My Own Wife?

JT: There were a couple of challenges in producing I Am My Own Wife, but my greatest challenge was trying to get past my own indecisiveness. Since it was the first professional show that I directed, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get everything just right and I hesitated to make final decisions for fear that I might make a bad one. And then, I would get really annoyed at myself for being indecisive! While the production director is there to provide vision and guidance, the director isn't making every decision by themselves. They have (hopefully) surrounded themselves with a group of talented and dedicated people. Once, I opened myself to being part of a creative TEAM, I found that decisions were easier to make and progress was more consistent and artistic. It was a huge relief.

The second challenge that comes to mind was understanding the culture and context of the play. This was an interesting challenge because it can is also be incredibly exciting and joyful. It really required a lot of immersion into Germany during both the Nazi and Stasi periods for both the production team and the actor. Because the play was based on a real person, there was also biographical information to understand as well as foreign language and accent work to be mastered. Doug Wright wrote the play for one person to play the over 30 roles so, as you can imagine, it was quite a treasure trove of acting for Charlie DelMarcelle who played Charlotte von Mahlsdorf. Regardless, challenges are ultimately a growth experience, and we (as a company and as artists) were all the better for the lessons.

WG: Obviously, working with actors with physical disabilities you encounter considerations and circumstances that the ordinary producer may not. Victoria Lewis has pointed out a number of these in Beyond Victims and Villains, but I'd like to hear what kinds of adjustments you've had to make at Amaryllis?

JT: Amaryllis, since 1999, has worked with many artists with disabilities and since disability is often as different as the people themselves, we treat each situation individually. When working with real live people, as opposed to theoretical situations, you must really take time to work through each particular person's accessibility requirements; there is no "one" accessibility plan. At Amaryllis, when an actor or designer or staff is hired, we sit down and devise a plan to accommodate their specific requirements. This interview can take as little as 30 minutes, but it helps us define how we are going to work, build sets, arrange our office, develop schedules, etc. Very often, people with disabilities have their own list of strategies to make accommodations work for them and we modify their plan to work in our theatre or on tour or in our office.

Here are some particular instances: we've worked with many Blind artists, but their accessibility requirements were all very different. One actor from New York City, could read printed material, but needed her script to be enlarged so she could use her monocular to its best ability and she required thick felt tipped black markers to make notes. She did not require any particular floor grid, which is often a common accessibility device for actors who are Blind or Low-Vision, but she did need to work on the set many weeks before we usually prep the stage with a set so to get its configuration into her "body" or physical memory. .

In another case, we had a Blind actor from Los Angeles. He was not able to read the printed page either in large print or Braille, but instead he used a handheld recorder to keep notes and practice his lines. And unlike, the actress I mentioned earlier, he preferred to have a floor grid. In his case, we used either clothesline or rubber floor moulding securely mounted to form a "T" on the stage floor. This allowed the actor to track his place on stage with his foot as he performed. Sometimes, for educational purposes and to raise awareness about accessibility and inclusion, we will point these devices and techniques out to colleagues and audiences, but otherwise, most accessibility is included in how we design our sets and performance areas. Right now, we are producing a play where the lead actress has a disability and walks with an uneven gait. As indicated in the script, the set might have been designed to have a planked floor leaving a small space between each piece of wood which could likely present a hazard to an actor with a mobility disability. Instead, our designer took accessibility into account and decided for the floor to be universally accessible, it would have to be painted to resemble hardwood, avoiding the dangers of spaced planking. .

Most people think that to hire actors, designers and staff with disabilities, one most spend a lot of money to renovate building, stages, etc. While that may be the case in some instances, (Amaryllis has made accessibility improvements to our home at 2030 Sansom Street recently that include a new elevator, a permanent fixed wheelchair accessible entrance and a wheelchair accessible lobby restroom), there are many things that we can do to make environments more accessible simply by re-arranging furniture to clear wheelchair paths, raising desks to accommodate staff who use wheelchairs, printing materials in large print for persons with Low-vision or providing visual cues such as fire alarms or door bells with flashing lights to signal persons who are Deaf and hard of hearing. In one recent case, our office assistant who uses a wheelchair, requested a table for her chair. This table would be used to hold her laptop and office supplies while she was working. It had to be light enough for her to pick up and strap onto her chair by herself as well as functional as a writing/computer desk. She met with our production manager, and in a few days he had made her a custom-fit tray for her chair. The cost was less than $30 and our production manager's time. Really, the most important tool for providing accessibility is open communication. Plans evolve as does the availability and affordability of technology.

In 2004, Amaryllis became the Pennsylvania state affiliate of VSA, the international organization on arts and disability. To that end, we expanded our scope of work from the Greater Philadelphia area to the state. Our hope is that one day soon all of the cultural institutions in Pennsylvania will have access plans in place that provide greater inclusion for people with disabilities, whether it be as audiences, artists or staff. As it is now, we provide accessibility technology through our Independence Starts Here initiative. For an annual fee that's one tenth the cost of captioning for one performance, cultural colleagues can have audio description and captioning for every production and training and marketing to go with it. Independence Starts Here now operates in the Greater Philadelphia area, the Lancaster/York area, Pittsburgh and the Lehigh Valley.

WG: There is no question that the work you are doing is extremely important. I remember seeing a reading at Amaryllis of Paul Kahnís play, The Making of Free Verse. Two things really impressed me. One was that one of the key actors was reading from a Braille script. The other was that shortly after the performance, Paul passed away. I thought it was really important that you provided a forum for quality work that might not have been seen otherwise. Can you give us some idea of plays you are considering producing in the future from writers that may not be household works yet?

JT: Just last year, we began a series called quot;The Greenhousequot;. The reading and performance series is intended to highlight work of emerging artists and/or to workshop new material especially that of artists with disabilities. As you mentioned, in the past we have done readings of plays from playwrights with disabilities such as the late Paul Kahn and LA's Lynn Manning, a playwright and actor who is Blind. This year we have two promising plays on the roster, one by a non-disabled playwright, Bill Rolleri and another work in progress called Sleek for the Long Flight by Dave Simpson, a local poet and musician who is Blind. In the first piece, one of the characters has a disability and provides a great opportunity to call in an out-of-town actor with a disability. In the second piece, Dave Simpson himself performs. Also, because of multiple public readings, audiences will have an opportunity to watch this play develop over a year of workshopping. In February, we read a Canadian play called Albertine by Michel Tremblay which although didn't have a disability theme or playwright, gave opportunity for non-traditional casting. One of the goals of the company is to think and cast outside the box by showing that people with disabilities are good choices for many roles not just roles calling for a character with a disability. Later this spring, we will host two musical events through the series featuring musicians from the disability community. And then in June, we will host a performance of Ping Chong's Inside/Out....voices from the disability community through the Greenhouse series. There will be a small charge for the Ping Chong event, but in all other cases, the events are free.

WG:It sounds as though you have some really interesting work lined up. Thank you for doing the inteview and be sure to let us know when the future performances that you mentioned come up.