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Making Shakespeare Accessible to More Theatergoers

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival offers sign language and other programs for all in 2024.

In an effort to show “all the world’s a stage,” the Oregon Shakespeare Festival is ready to meet the challenges of the last few years. After a year of hard-core fundraising and a new artistic director, Tim Bond, the rotating repertory company has new funding, new audience goals and a wide variety of offerings on its three stages. 

It’s also upped its accessibility initiatives for the 2024 season. As before, audience members can enjoy the plays using accommodations, including space and elevators for motorized scooters, wheelchair and companion seats, service animals, and OSF-provided audio augmentation and assistive hearing devices. The festival also has skilled performers providing accessible performances throughout the seven-month season.

ASL interpreters (Photo by Joe Sofranko)

Discover the Dazzling Art of Interpretation With ASL+ Weekends 

One of the more exciting developments is a series of American Sign Language performances called ASL+ Weekends — four in 2024, including April 26-28, June 28-30, July 26-28 and September 13-15. Visitors should reserve a spot in the ASL interpretation section as far in advance as possible and at least two weeks prior to the performance by contacting Access Services by email at accessforall@osfashland.org.

Shiree Dyson, manager of the theater’s access programs, pulls back the curtains on the ASL+ Weekends. Interpreters for 10 shows total this year — doubling 2023’s number — work with a team and a director of ASL. The interpreters not only speak ASL but they train long and hard to take what they see onstage and help convey it in a fully performance-oriented manner.

They get specialized scripts, watch videotapes of performances and rehearse, just like any performer. (For more, check out this video of a super-powered panel of theater folks talking about how these directors accomplish these challenging tasks.) 

Before 2020, Dyson says, OSF had a local group of interpreters who were familiar to deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences — but as with many cultural workers during the lean years of 2020 and 2021, many moved on from the theater. 

That means the festival hires interpreters from around the country, some who have Tony Awards, and some who are well known enough that they might not stay for an entire season if they’re wanted on Broadway or even larger stages; last year one ASL+ Weekend interpreter got a call from Beyoncé’s team to go work on the Renaissance Tour. But rest assured, there’s enough talent to make the 2024 season proud.

Closed-captioning used by a patron during a play in the Allen Elizabethan Theatre. (Photo by Kim Budd) 

Keep Up With Captions at Any Performance

Because most people attending the performances come from far away and plan entire weeks or weekends around being in Ashland, ASL+ performances may not align with everyone’s schedule. The festival has come up with creative ways to provide other options.

One innovative approach provides tablets with captioning for each play. Patrons should request the service no later than two weeks before the performance. 

Dyson says that 2023 “saw a significant difference in usage” for captioning services. After receiving feedback from members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities in 2022, OSF assigned staff members to stand in the lobbies before each show, holding up tablets and signs offering the service. 

Listen to Dramatic Audio Description

The festival also offers live audio description for those who are blind or have low vision. Dyson says live audio description takes intensive training and just the right kind of pleasant voice. It’s much more than describing what you see, she says. 

Audio describers set the scene, convey body movements, explain the action and stay as concise as possible. To prepare, they watch rehearsals and, with a team, prepare their own scripts far in advance, staying alert in the booth to live theater’s ever-changing challenges and adaptations.

Similar to the captioning service, audio description can happen with any performance except previews, and should be requested no later than two weeks before a performance.

The company isn’t resting on its laurels. Dyson says OSF knows it can do more, from adding sensory-friendly performances to improving wayfinding signs on the three-theater campus. But whether it’s ASL+, audio descriptions or wheelchair seats, OSF is hoping even more audience members will be able to attend and enjoy the performances.

ASL interpreters (Photo by Joe Sofranko)

If You Go:  

  • Find more details about accommodations on the festival’s accessibility page
  • For any questions about accessibility, contact Access Services by email at accessforall@osfashland.org. For ticket questions, call or email the box office at boxoffice@osfashland.org or 1-800-219-8161. 
  • If you’re looking for delightful stays in the Ashland area, the festival’s lodging partners page has a number of restful options that include discounts on theater tickets.
  • For even more fun in the Rogue Valley surrounding Ashland, check out area wineries, cultural offerings and more here.