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Theatre That Shatters Stereotypes About Disability
Episode 73
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Theatre That Shatters Stereotypes About Disability

CI to Eye with Adam Roberts

This episode is hosted by Erik Gensler.

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IN THIS EPISODE

Adam and Erik talk about the branding and positioning of TILT Performance Group. They also discuss what arts organizations can learn about working with people with disabilities and how Adam and his colleagues have built a growing company with such loyalty that season tickets actually cost more per production than single tickets.

Adam Roberts: When I was growing up, I saw the Deaf West production of Big River on the Tony Awards. Deaf West uses hearing actors, actors who are hard of hearing, and Deaf actors together on stage in ways that heighten the experience theatrically because you’re witnessing ways in which communication and a communication procedure and system, I suppose, like ASL, can be used gesturally in such a way that it heightens the experience that everyone is having. It both provides access to communication for those who are hard of hearing or Deaf and it also allows for a different theatrical experience for everyone who’s involved. So, I thought I would love to be at some point involved with some kind of performance company that engages with different modes of communication. And I, myself, grew up with a progressive vision disorder and optic nerve atrophy and at right about 20 or 22, I had to stop driving because of that. I had lived life with a disability pretty much since I remember, since third grade, but, very fortunately, have not been affected by it in any significant work circumstance. So, I think those two things together, both that lived experience and then also remembering just how amazing it was to see an accessible means of communication used in such an amazing theatrical way … As I grew through TILT and as I grew through learning more about disability as a broader topic than I had experienced it myself, was that Deafness is not considered a disability. Deaf actors, Deaf performers, Deaf people can do everything that any of the rest of us can do, but sometimes can be supported by access of communication. So, I always think it’s interesting that I go back to that story of Deaf West when people asked me about TILT, although TILT is a company that’s dedicated to disability. For myself, TILT has been such an educational vehicle about disability, and that’s a primary part of our mission, as well, at TILT, is to shatter stereotypes about disability, as we say. And education’s a big part of that.

Erik Gensler: So how would you describe TILT Performance Group?

Adam Roberts: The Genesis of the company started because one of my cofounders, Gail Dalrymple—she’s our Executive Director—her son was about to matriculate out of the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Gail had realized that Peter had really benefited from theatrical programs, both in terms of expression, but also in terms of the de-isolation component. So, she realized when he was about to matriculate out of the school that he might not have a social network beyond the friends he had had in theater there. TILT was started by Gail, myself, and Peter’s theater teacher at the Texas School for the Blind, Robert Pierson, as a means of continuing folks who had been really impacted by theater, their experience in community. And that was our start and now ,we have probably about 20 to 25 active company members at any given point and we have maybe 10 to 15 folks in an average production. We do four productions a year now and we do educational outreach and a lot of our actors now have also been brought in as consultants or as guest artists at other theaters and the Austin Independent School District, for instance. Things like that have become our reach in these six years and through our strategic plan, we’re continuing to grow in new ways as well.

Erik Gensler: And I understand you make an intentional choice to not produce work about disability.

Adam Roberts: That’s right. This is something that also evolved for us as we grew and progressed through our philosophy and vision at TILT. We had, pretty early on, a discussion about how we would talk about disability and whether we would even make that a contributing factor in our marketing materials and in our PR. Would we talk about this as being a company dedicated to performers with disabilities and the disability community or would we allow people to learn that for themselves as they came to our offerings, to our productions? And one of the things we did, especially at Robert’s urging, was that we went to the company members themselves and we said, “What are your thoughts on this? Do you feel as though we should, exist as a theater company that’s called TILT Performance Group and let folks learn for themselves what it is to experience this theater company or do you feel that we should be, for lack of a better word, upfront and forward-facing in the disability component.?” And we wanted to make sure that we weren’t being perceived as a cause because that’s very important to us, that that’s not the case. And things over time revealed themselves. The ways in which we would use that rhetoric and going to the company, eventually, about, “What is the wording that you think is most appropriate for what it is that we do?” and pretty much across the board, every company member had the same feeling that disability was really the right word. Certainly, that became helpful as we made partnerships and pursued collaborators who were very interested in that particular corner of the theater world and what it was that we were doing. We started as primarily a devising theater and I think that surprised a lot of people because I think, you know, there’s this misconception that folks with disabilities are unable to contribute creatively to the level that one would then produce in a large city like Austin. And our very first production that we ended up titling 45 Degrees, because of its tilted slant, was a completely devised piece by the company around the topic of technology and the ways in which technology interfaces with our lives. And we then started to do a few scripted productions like a traditional theater company and we still do one or two of those in a season, but we’ve come to learn that the devised works, the original works that we create as an as a company, tend to be a favorite for our audience members and our season-ticket holders. They very frequently ask if the production that we’re about to do is one that was created by the company and I think those stories that present themselves through the cast members’ experiences and through our discussions and our devising are very palpable. We don’t necessarily do a lot that hits disability on the head and through all of this devising that we were doing throughout our various seasons, we came to recognize that disability was the lens and the allegory through which we wanted to tell stories about society’s fringes. So, disability is almost our lens as opposed to our target. And we often talk about how fortunate we are that folks in the “traditional theater community” would love for original devised works to be their bread and butter and in our case, it really has proven to be that they are.

Erik Gensler: Do you offer audience education, and perhaps what that looks like?

Adam Roberts: The kinds of education that we do typically involves audience talkbacks. And I know from my work in the more “traditional” theater community and in theater circles, it can be hard to get folks engaged and wanting to stay after a production or an experience for a talkback. And interestingly, what we started to learn about with TILT was that nearly the entire audience would stay every time after a production and that opportunity to interface with our actors and to really experience their ability to intellectualize their ability, to analyze how their ability to be very vulnerable about their emotions and their experiences, I think, is really inspiring to a lot of people. And so, over the years, we’ve really had people stay for those talkbacks and that engagement. And I think that that is a primary way that we go about our education initiatives. We also do go into occasionally summer camps or into the schools in various different ways to some of our company members are guest artists, some of our company members are consultants, and things like that, as I mentioned before. And so, it’s pretty cool that we’re able to continue their employment, as well as their exposure in the rest of the greater-Austin theater community because employment has been a big motive and value of ours since the inception of TILT. We’ve paid our company members since the very beginning for every production in which they’ve been involved. So, the opportunity to go out and do that, whether they’re more specifically in a role as an educator or an advocate or an ambassador or a performer in a TILT production, has been really fulfilling and rewarding.

Erik Gensler: How do you fit into the broader ecosystem of theater and the arts in Austin?

Adam Roberts: I actually think that Austin is a pretty perfect place to do something like what we’re doing with TILT or to do the things that we’re doing with TILT. I think in our second or third year of existence, we were honored with a B. Iden Payne award—and a special B. Iden Payne award, a special citation. The B. Iden Payne awards are the regional Austin-based awards for excellence in theater and we had done a production of a musical that we had helped to develop and reincarnate that was about the musicians and the artists in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. And we did that as a collaborative production with the Austin Jewish Repertory Theatre, which I was also director of at the time. And so, what was really encouraging and valuable about that particular award was that the greater-Austin theater community was pretty immediately recognizing the need and value and the place of an organization like TILT in the landscape of Austin theater. And I think that one of the especially cool things that has started to happen for our company members in the past couple of years is that now they’re coming up with conflicts with some of our TILT productions, which we’re really happy about. You know, they’re dedicated to TILT as a company member, but they’re getting offers at other professional theater venues to go out and be cast in productions in the more “traditional” theater world. So, it’s been cool because there’s been almost a diaspora, if you will, of our TILT company members, their philosophies as individuals, but also our group philosophy as TILT that has gotten out there into the Austin theater community and has really, I think, heightened our level of awareness here of access, of inclusion, of differing abilities, and the contributions that each of those things makes to the live performing arts here in Austin.

Erik Gensler: Which naturally segues into the following question, which is, how you see or measure the impact of the work you’re doing? And that can be something that you just said around the broader conversation with the theater community in Austin or perhaps as small as an interaction with one person.

Adam Roberts: Well, I think that one of the ways that we have come to measure the impact of TILT from an internal perspective is that we have recently been having a lot of conversations about the fact that we’ve kind of almost hit our ceiling in terms of the amount of company members that we can accommodate at this moment. And so, I would say that the fact that that is true certainly points to our success because we are now such a known company in Austin that folks … we’re not able to cast everyone who would like to be a performing member of TILT. Of course, we work to find other ways in which folks can be involved with TILT, if not onstage. So, that measure of success alone, hopefully, we’ll soon be able to balance that with resources that allow us to bring on some more staff and some more finances that allow us to accommodate all of the folks that would like to be involved. That’s one measure. I think another measure for us has been the continuity with which we’ve received some pretty significant grant funding. We just received our third Challenge America grant annually, consecutive Challenge America grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. We’ve been funded by the city of Austin Cultural Arts Division with increasing funds since our inception. So, certainly, from a standpoint of donor interest, we’ve engaged a lot of corporate sponsors in our past couple of years. It’s evident that the word is out, that the impact is being felt. We’re very keen on surveying all of our audience members and incentivizing that process so that we get the kind of feedback that we need to know what is resonating with folks and what might not be. And so, I think that the intentionally steady strategy with which we’ve worked to develop both outreach and engagement and development tactics and then, also, as you mentioned, measurement tools for the impact that we’re making have all coalesced into where we’re at today. And that success.

Erik Gensler: What has been the most challenging aspect of building the company?

Adam Roberts: The most challenging aspect as the Artistic Director of the company has been, as I mentioned before, a lot of … a lot of companies, I think, that are focused on something niche—in our case, disability—might have only members of a certain segment of that community as company members. For instance, there might be a theater company that deals primarily with autism. There might be a theater company that deals primarily with blindness or visual impairment. For TILT, we define disability very broadly and across the board. So, one of the stories I always like to tell, because I think it illustrates what we do well … one of our devised pieces that we wrote as a company together had a character and actor in it who is Deaf and also a character and actor in it who has a seizure disorder. So, in order for the actor who is Deaf to be able to know where the beat was in the music, we needed to do some pulsing of lights that fit in artistically with what was going on. At the same time, that character who had the seizure disorder needed to be choreographed so that she was facing away from that lighting. So, one person’s accommodation, in that case, was another person’s trigger. And that happens quite frequently in TILT and that’s one illustration of it. But the coordination of the different accommodations, even within a performance, has been both a really rewarding challenge and a really daunting challenge that we … I think we’ll always probably continue to grapple with and, hopefully, always overcome.

Erik Gensler: What do you want other arts organizations to know about working with people with disabilities and building an audience for this kind of work?

Adam Roberts: I think the first thing that I would say is, even though I myself have a disability, I know that when I went into my first TILT experience, I really kind of stood back and observed and really gave Robert the reins because Robert Pierson, who I mentioned before, Co-Founder of TILT, is the theater director at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired and had been there for many years. So, I knew that Robert really was the one with the experience. And so, I really observed that first time and I learned a few things that I would hope that other theater companies or any kinds of arts organization might take into account, one of which was that process exactly was very important. If there is the opportunity to have a consultant or if there is someone who has a lot of knowledge already and experience working in and with actors with disability, I think that it was invaluable for me to observe what was happening for a bit and then contribute in my way. Very quickly, I learned, I think, my second revelation or recommendation to people, which is that it really is not as scary as it seems, as long as you have a support system within your company. I think I had much lower expectations for what our company members would be able to do and achieve and accomplish and very, very quickly, I was one of the first people, probably, who was affected by TILTs mission of shattering stereotypes about disability because right out of the gate, I was astonished at what we were able to do and accomplish together. And so, not to take for granted what folks are able to contribute. And the last thing I think that I would say is to engage the company members or the actor or the patron themselves in the question that you have. So, it can be very easy to sit in a room and say, “Should we be forward-facing our focus on disability to the rest of the world?” among three folks without any of our company members in the room. And very quickly, someone said we should ask our company numbers. So, engaging the company members themselves in that conversation and oftentimes leaving the solution in their hands is really important as opposed to talking around it or making decisions not in the presence of the person with the disability. That can be an easy trap to fall into. And, I think, including and even prioritizing that person or that cast’s perspective in a decision-making process is really paramount.

Erik Gensler: Definitely. Is there a network or group of organizations that have a similar mission or you say there are other organizations across the country doing work that you look to as peers or colleagues?

Adam Roberts: I don’t know that there’s the stalwart professional organization nationally around what it is that we do. And I would say that other companies that we have certainly visited or looked to, I can think of one that’s an example, of Phamily in Denver, Phamaly Theatre Company. They do a lot of similar work, although I think they tend to do more work that is maybe titles that are more well known. I’m not sure that they do as much devising as we do at TILT. But we certainly … they’ve been around for decades and we certainly very frequently check in with what it is that they’re doing, make an effort to keep up with their changes and their marketing and the things that they’re doing so that we can, as you mentioned, be part of a network as opposed to just an isolated subset in Austin. But I think that more than that, we really look to what traditional theaters are doing because one of the things that we have really realized is that we’re probably more like a traditional theater than we’re not. We’ve definitely kind of discerned that through our years of existence and our challenges and our successes. I thought when I started with TILT that it was going to be something just completely different from the experiences that I have in the rest of my life as a theater professional. And as I mentioned before, really, we kind of align with what other professional theaters are doing that are maybe more traditional in scope. And so, rather than look at only at the other niche organizations, we’ve really found the benefit in looking at what the wider theatrical landscape and beyond the … it sounds like the people who are interested onstage and behind the scenes that universe of people has grown.

Erik Gensler: Has the size of your audiences grown and your subscription base?

Adam Roberts: Absolutely. Our engagement and our audiences have grown substantially and exponentially. One of the things that really surprised me about when we started, I never imagined that we would likely have season-ticket holders. For instance, I figured that most of the people who were attending would have a particular interest in disability for some reason or connection to the disability community, maybe a family member or a friend. But what really shocked me is we have some of the most loyal patrons and diverse patron base of many theater companies in the traditional world that I’ve worked with, both now and in the past. And one of the things that we do—and we piggybacked on Ground Floor Theatre, which I mentioned earlier, in a strategy that they have in this way, is our season tickets actually costs more per production than a single ticket. So, it’s kind of the opposite of what you would ordinarily do when you sell season tickets and you say you’re getting a discount per production if you have a subscriber base and that’s what you’re doing. One of the really interesting things is that we were able to up our season tickets by offering them for a little more than you would pay for an individual ticket because we made it known that that’s how we provide financial access to TILT for folks who are unable to afford to come to one of our productions or initiatives. We’ll never turn someone away at TILT for an inability to pay to experience one of our productions or our initiatives. And so, through the support of folks who pay a little more for season tickets, and, again, we took the strategy from one of our partners, Ground Floor Theatre, we were able to really increase our subscriber base and our season-ticket base by charging more because they know that they are contributing to folks who do show up for TILT, who are unable to afford access. And so, we see that as another means of providing access in what we do with TILT. So, it’s been really fulfilling to see these audiences grow so exponentially, but also the subscriber base to grow like it has.

Erik Gensler: So, you’re talking about growth and success. What about … talk about, like, a big mistake you made and what you learned from it.

Adam Roberts: So, one potential mistake is that we hit this place in our life cycle where we went from 40 miles an hour to 160 miles an hour, pretty much overnight. And, so far, that’s actually been very successful. But, of course, we’re all aware of the case studies and stories that illustrate that later on down the line, that kind of acceleration so rapidly could potentially come back and not work out so well in the long run. So, knock on wood, the hope is that we’ll continue driving forward in this direction, but we went from producing on a pretty small budget and on a pretty small scale and not necessarily in larger theaters pretty frequently—and that was primarily what we were doing—to, pretty much, overnight, getting the opportunity to partner with other organizations of large scale and to be in spaces that we didn’t think we would be able to be in so soon and to commission works and to bring in guest artists, and all of that happened very quickly once we became known and our work became known. So, I’ll say preemptively, I hope that that turns out to be a really successful decision as opposed to a mistake. But I think we’ve been very, again, strategic, calculated, in our strategic plan about knowing that that’s the case and making decisions that could hopefully stave off any obstacles that might present in the future.

Erik Gensler: Growth is hard.

Adam Roberts: Yes, 100%. It really is. And, like I said, as much as we want to be able to accommodate everyone who wants to perform with TILT, one of those curses of growth is we’ve now really, for now, hit our ceiling in terms of the resources that we are able to put toward our individual company members experiences and our productions and still feel like we’re operating at you know, 150% excellence because we really … that’s of prime importance to us. So, balancing that equation when more resources come in and we’re able to open up membership again and things like that is going to be very exciting.

Erik Gensler: So, what has doing this work taught you? If you were to start back from where you started, you can tell yourself some advice. What would you say?

Adam Roberts: Gosh, I think that the advice that I would have for myself is that if I were ever to start an independent theater company of some sort again, that the absolute necessity of having a really passionate, competent … more than competent, you know, an excellent, seasoned, passionate, and available Executive Director is paramount.. I know that without our Executive Director, Gail, who is a retired former attorney, which means she has a lot of contract and legal and administrative knowledge, in addition to time without that person in place. I very much believe that it is quite unlikely that TILT … that we would be here talking about TILT today, as much as people recognize the impact that we’re making both in terms of our own company members and our audiences, and hopefully the greater Austin community. We were really fortunate that Gail is who she is, has the passion that she does, has so much experience with disability. And we actually, just a couple of days ago, posted for a new Executive Director because Gail is looking to transition her work and we’re at the point where we can bring someone new on. So, I guess my advice to ourselves at this point is to really consider those qualities and traits that Gail brought that have made TILT so successful in our search for our next executive leader.

Erik Gensler: So, that was the advice for yourself. And we always end with the “CI to Eye moment,” which is a the question, if you could broadcast to the executive directors, leadership teams, staff, and boards of a thousand arts organizations, what advice would you provide to them to help improve their businesses?

Adam Roberts: Have the conversation directly with the stakeholders themselves. So many times, over and over and over again at TILT, our work has been advanced, heightened, made more excellent by the contributions of our company members, who often are, again, classified or thought of as having a different type of ability. So, there is excellence in diversity and not to be afraid to go directly to folks, to have that conversation, to engage them directly in the decision-making, to make folks with disabilities an equal partner in decision-making; not either an afterthought or a requisite partner, but literally an equal partner at the table. that has proven time and again to make the work that we do with TILT all the more relevant, all the more rewarding and sustainable.

Erik Gensler: Wonderful. Thank you so much.

Adam Roberts: Awesome. Thank you.


About Our Guests
Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts
Co-Founding Artistic Director, TILT Performance Group

Adam Roberts is Co-Founding Artistic Director of Austin-based TILT Performance Group, a theatre company comprised of paid adult performers with disabilities.

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