Interview by Samm Madsen
Samm Madsen I really I loved your presentation yesterday. I was laughing so hard at what you said about your husband being your cane, I don’t know if you remember, but my mom has M.S, and she always told people that the whole reason she gave birth is she wanted to expand her cane collection.
Talleri McRae My spouse always says I don’t care why you married me as long as you did. He’s so sweet about it, he’s like “I don’t care”.
Samm Madsen That’s so wonderful. So I know in your presentation you were talking about terminology and I feel like that is a good place to start, because this is where people get caught up a lot. Could you briefly go over that again? What are some things that are safe say, and how do we go about choosing the right words?
Talleri McRae Words are important Words communicate our thoughts and our feelings and our perspective on things. And so when you look at the history of disability, the words that we’ve used over the years have really given us a lot of insight about how we thought about disability in the past. So when you think about a difference or a disability, you might think about it as somebody to be pitied. You use a different word than thinking about if you talk about it in medical terms, right? Today the disability community really encourages us to think about disability from a social perspective. So sometimes when we’re worried about talking about disability we’re worried about describing an individual in a way that’s really respectful and the disability community says that’s always important, right, to talk about somebody how they want to be talked about and to be respectful. But you can talk about addressing disability, about making a space accessible and inclusive, in a way that addresses your responsibility to make that space welcoming rather than focusing on an individual and why they might be different. So instead of worrying about, “Oh, do I have the right word for M.S. or for Tallori’s cerebral palsy or for somebody else’s Down syndrome?” Instead of using a respectful word to describe your individual characteristic- what I like to encourage people to do is think about how we can flip our language to talk about the space we’re creating. How can we make the space accessible, inclusive and welcoming to other people? Because if we’re using that language, that reminds us that individuals can come as they are, and they know themselves really well. We’re the hosts. We know the space really well, therefore we talk about the space and let them talk about themselves. We can come together from a point of mutual expertise and mutual respect. Also, I think it’s a really personal question to talk to a person about how they’d like to be referred to themselves, no matter what it’s about, right? If it’s about your age, your gender, your identity, your sexuality or your stability. That’s just hard to talk about, especially if you don’t know someone. So if you’re making a theater performance and you’re inviting relative strangers that you don’t know, it’s kind of personal to say, “How should I talk about you?” But if you say, “How should we talk about the space we want to create?” Then that feels more respectful. So I like to talk about accessibility and making space accessible and the tools I use to make spaces accessible. Another helpful phrase is “reasonable accommodations”. “Are there reasonable accommodations that I can make?”
Samm Madsen So asking something like, “What are some reasonable accommodations that will help you?”
Talleri McRae Yes, yes. “What do you need to feel comfortable in our space?” If that makes sense.
Samm Madsen Yes. So looking at BYU’s production, what are some accommodations you could see us using for the spectrum friendly performance?
Talleri McRae When you think about about creating relaxed performances, or spectrum friendly performances, there’s really two pieces to that. One piece is to find a way to communicate to people in advance what they can expect. In my work with the autistic community, the feedback I have heard from them is that they really appreciate as many details as you can offer them about what the experience might be like. Not just what the experience will be like for them and their senses but also what expectations there are for them socially and how they’re expected to behave. And so the biggest thing that we can communicate to a new audience that’s coming to a spectrum friendly performance is that they’re welcome to come as they are and that we’re happy that they’re here. It’s really setting that tone. Then all the details – like making a guide for how to get to the theater, making a resource for what happens in the play and who are the characters in the play, making a guide for where in the theater space they might be able to take a break if they need one- all those details are helpful and important, and we can talk about those endlessly, but overall the biggest thing is that everybody involved in that performance knows that they’re going to be welcoming people to come as they are. We are comfortable with whatever behavior they bring to the space and that they’re welcome to engage with that performance in whatever way makes the most sense to them.
Samm Madsen With that, when people hear spectrum friendly, people usually think about autism, but it’s my understanding that these spectrum friendly performances can benefit more people than just those on the autistic spectrum. How do we get the word out to our friends and neighbors in a way that is inclusive? Because you know someone might have a need to come to this performance and they don’t have autism, but they could use it.
Talleri McRae It’s tricky. You know you want to make sure that the people you’ve designed the performance for feel welcome but also part of our job is to let people without disabilities know that it’s not going to be that different. It’s not going to be that scary, it’s not going to be that unfamiliar to them to come partake in the same experience. So it’s kind of a tricky line to walk. You want to say to one group, “We’ve made adjustments for you” and then you want to say to another group “We haven’t made that many adjustments!” But really both are true right. A little bit of a paradox in that way. Because of this, I like the phrasing to say “We’re just kind of relaxing the theater rules. Those unspoken theatre rules are being relaxed a little bit.”
I know at StageOne, the Family Theatre in Louisville, people found for our sensory friendly performances to be a place that they could bring their whole families including baby brothers and sisters. They were welcome to not just come to the theater, and be in the lobby, but they could come into the performance because crying was OK. That was allowed. We found that grandparents felt really comfortable coming to the shows or sometimes even great grandparents because they needed to take a restroom break. They didn’t have to wait for an intermission they could just use the restroom and come right back in. So by relaxing those theater rules you’re actually opening the doors a lot wider. Of course it’s for the autistic community but it can go far beyond as well to say, “Just come on in and check it out. See if you like it.”
Samm Madsen That is so neat. I know my daughter Hollis would love this. She’s younger and sometimes she’s got to wiggle and I haven’t even thought about how it could include her, thank you for sharing that. To wrap up this section of the interview, what have been some of your most rewarding experiences working in this area of theatre?
Talleri McRae Well one has been most recently one of the last sensory performances I worked on was a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Actors Theatre of Louisville, and they cast an actor with autism in the role of Christopher which was incredible. I’m neurotypical and so my rule of thumb is if I’m having a conversation about somebody I want them to be in the room. So I connected with the Kentucky and Autistic Spectrum Alliance, which is a group of young autistic adults in the Kentucky and Indiana area, and they agreed to work with me as coach/consultants. Anytime I had a question or any time the marketing department was putting together materials or any time we really weren’t sure how to proceed, we checked in with these autistic adults and said how does this feel to you? Does this feel respectful? And they were really honest. They said things like “We see what you’re trying to say here, but we talk about it this way.” And it was such a great reminder that we don’t have to be experts on everything. It was such a great reminder that accessibility is a true partnership and that if it starts to feel like a charity that you might want to reframe how you’re thinking. You can really come at it as equals and co-learners in that space.
Samm Madsen Co-Creators.
Talleri McRae Co-creators, too! And I started doing presentations with some of the individuals from that group when I was working with different departments in the theater and it was much better than a presentation I would give on my own. To have somebody say, “I’m autistic and here’s how I engage with the space and here’s what’s helpful to me. And here are some misperceptions about autism that I’d like to share with you.” That was so much more powerful than if I just stood up and said “I studied this blah blah blah.” So that was a very meaningful learning experience for me.
Samm Madsen Listening to what you’re saying I just feel like connection is so key, really. Making these genuine connections. And that’s a big part of advocacy, it’s not just advocating at arm’s length-
Talleri McRae -that’s right-
Samm Madsen -But really advocating together.. I think this is a good place to transition. If you’re comfortable with it, could you talk a little bit about how you found this life map and what have been some roadblocks along the way? Who have been people who inspire you?
Talleri McRae So I’ve got a disability for my whole life. I have mild to moderate cerebral palsy. Anyways, I was always interested in theater since I was very young. I went to college to study theater, and while I was in college I was cast in a production of To Kill a Mockingbird and I was Scout -which was amazing! During the very last performance I was in the lobby after the show and I overheard some middle school students who had come to see the show talking and one student said, “Ah, man, that actor who played Scout…” and the others said, ” Yeah?” she continued, “She played Scout’s disability so well!”
And I was so struck by that comment because obviously Scout Finch doesn’t have a disability; I do. But I thought it was so great that this middle schooler’s like “that’s just who Scout is. Scout’s just limping around the stage making trouble like she does.” And it really just caught my eye and caught my attention. So when I went to graduate school several years later and I was looking at writing a thesis and I thought, “You know there’s something to this. This idea of looking at how we cast plays and what can happen when we’re really thoughtful about casting actors with disabilities, particularly in roles that aren’t necessarily written that way. What can that mean for audiences?” And as I studied, I looked at young audiences in particular. How does a young audience respond to that kind of inclusive casting? Long story short, I found that most of the time kids don’t care. They’re like, “Oh that elephant in that play uses a wheelchair, cool beans.” Kids don’t care. Many adults on the other hand are like, “I’m very confused. What is going on? Elephants don’t usually use wheelchairs so I’m confused.” Or they’ll see the actor in the lobby after the show and they’ll be like, “Oh, I thought your wheelchair was a prop.” No! Who would do that? Of course there are paradoxes in that too, because you want to be really careful how you cast an actor with disability.
There was one actor I interviewed with a disability who wanted to play a villian in a children’s theatre performance. She really advocated. She said people with disabilities shouldn’t always be the good characters… and it totally backfired on her. She was a little person, and so the kids in the audience thought that a little people were mean and awful-it was terrible. So it’s about trial and error, right? And it’s about being brave enough to say, “I’m going to try this and see how it works.” And maybe it’ll be wonderful and people will just say,”Oh, that elephant rolls around the world.” Or maybe it will be terrible and we’ll say, “Oh, now we’ve got children that do not understand how little people work. We must do some work here to rectify this. “
But I found that it takes a lot of bravery to do that, and that really got me started. I also found some wonderful resources. I found a real hunger in professional theater -both for young audiences and for adults- that people wanted to learn more about disability, about the disability community, about what access means. And so I’ve been really lucky. I think we’re in a really good moment. A lot of people around the country want to be more inclusive and accessible, they just don’t have the tools to do it. That wasn’t always the case, you know 10 even 20 years ago, you still had to convince people that it was a good idea. And I’m so glad to say we’re beyond that and that people think it’s a good idea. They just don’t know how to do it. So we’re getting there.
Samm Madsen So what are some victories that you’ve seen? Example good theatres you’ve worked with, or…
Talleri McRae Well, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime is a really great example. That play has been around for a while and in the fall of 2017 was the first time in the United States that an autistic actor (Mickey Rowe) played the role of Christopher. I think that play initially premiered tables ten years before, maybe not in the US but it was over in London for a while. [Casting an autistic actor in the role first] happened in Indianapolis and I was a part of that productions because Indianapolis is pretty close to Louisville. Then when Actors Theatre of Louisville said that they were doing the show they said to me, “We are really interested in casting an actor with autism.” And I said, “You should!” And so the director was really brave, her name is Meredith McDonough she’s a wonderful human, and she said, “I’m not interested in seeing an actor for this role unless they have autism.” And the casting directors in New York and Chicago were kind of like, “Are you sure?” She said, “Yeah.” And they said “OK… But then for callbacks we’ll bring in some actors without autism.” The director said, “No. No, I want to make sure we cast an actor with autism.” And she did it and I love telling that story because I want other people to feel guilty for even thinking about casting an actor without autism
I think we want to show that it’s possible. I think we want to show that actors with disabilities can be dynamic and disciplined and rigorous and wonderful performers. And I think we want to show college professors and training programs that you can admit students with disabilities and train them. They might look and feel a little different than what you’ve done before, but it’s possible. So I think that’s really exciting to think about the changes that are happening in the world.
Samm Madsen I love that. Not just, “Come be a part of our audience,” but “Come be a part of the production team. Come be on the stage.”
Talleri McRae Yes! Come direct, come be the lighting designer. Another great story, I don’t know if you here with BYU when they were working on A Taste of Sunrise…
Samm Madsen Oh I cried the whole play, I was eight months pregnant though, so that might have factored into it.
Talleri McRae Well there you go, well they did a production of that show in Boston, and the production had a lighting designer who was Deaf, that designed the play. That lighting designer intuitively understood how to light sign language, how to focus not just on a face but on the torso, in terms of catching all of the ways that sign language works. She said, “I couldn’t even describe-” I’m getting goosebumps as I tell you this, she said, “I couldn’t even describe it, but it was such an effective design.” When you think about the possibility of what that means for that play and that designer, it could be cool if there are other designers with disabilities out there that can work on plays in the same way and inform them in the same way.
Samm Madsen Like the set design, creating things that are beautiful and functional for someone who can’t climb stairs, for example.
Talleri McRae Exactly. There’s a costume designer named Mallory Nelson who is an amputee and she loves designing for actors with disabilities because typically, not always, but typically if you have a costume designer working with an actor that uses a wheelchair you get kind of a costume that’s from the waist up and Mallory was like, “No, we’re going head to toe.” And she’s like, “We’re gonna design the chair.” Which is tricky because a chair is like your shoes, really. But she does it! I mean she did the Tin Man in The Wiz, and the whole chair is decked out with like steel and all the way down to the toes. It’s so much cooler than if you saw somebody’s sitting down the whole time, costumed just up from the waist. But again, that perspective comes from somebody that understands and knows, “OK I’ve lived this difference. I understand this. I’m going to put this in a different lighting.”
Samm Madsen I just I love hearing stories about this. Now, I know in our community there is a lot of grassroots theatre. People with their little church group who put on a show. Or people who go into their kid’s elementary school to put on a play. What advice would you have for them in their quest to make theater more accessible? What advice would have for talking to students, talking to the parents, just creating a good inclusive environment in general? And also getting people to trust that this will be a good situation? Because young people have had bad experiences in the past, and not just people with disabilities, but shy kids…
Talleri McRae Right. So like we were saying before it’s really all about those relationships, and it’s all about communicating on an individual level: We’re interested in you. We want you to come in. We want you to be a meaningful part of what we do and that we’re willing to try together. We’re willing to muddle through it together if you can help me I’ll help you. We’ll see how we see how it goes. Part of it is being thoughtful and intentional about when you’re with a whole group -whether or not the kids have disabilities or some kids with disabilities and some kids don’t- the idea is that we say out loud what our values are as a group, things like: We really value difference and everybody is going to use their brain and their body in a different way, and that’s OK. We’re all going to get what we need and maybe somebody’s going to need something in this group that’s different than what you get, and that’s OK.
It’s about helping model for kids without disabilities in order to help them feel comfortable. They may be afraid to ask, “How do you interact with somebody with a disability?” So that adults can model that. Go up to a kiddo that uses a communication board and you say how is your day was it a good day or a bad day? And the other kids notice, “Oh that’s how you can have a conversation.” If you have a kid that maybe is having a hard time and is having a meltdown, you can help translate that for the whole group. “Oh, Talleri is having a really rough time, she’s going to step outside and take a few breaths and take calm down and when she’s ready she’s going to come back in and we’re going to be really supportive of her when she comes back.”
Samm Madsen OK. That’s okay, calling attention to it like that? Do you do it while the child is in the room, or after they step outside for a break? Can you dive a little more into that process?
Talleri McRae So I try really hard with any group of young people never to talk about negative behavior publicly whether or not disability is involved. Right. You praised publicly you address negative behavior privately. That’s just a personal. I try, I strive.
When possible, I try to make sure that the kiddo and the family that I’m working with, who might have a potential meltdown, I try to talk to them about what the plan will be for that meltdown beforehand. So questions like, “What might upset your kiddo? What’s going to help them calm down? If that does happen here’s how I might talk to the class about it… How do you feel about that? Would you like to be in the room when I’m talking to the class about that? Or would you like to be in your own separate space?” Have that conversation so that way you’ve got a plan as a teacher or volunteer. You’re not making it up on the spot-which is hard. And also that that kid or that family is in on the plan, they’re on board. So when that happens you could just say to the parents, “Oh by the way today’s the day we did the speech.” Instead of saying, “I had to do a speech and here’s what I said…” When it’s already happened.
Samm Madsen If I hear you right, it’s about making the space beforehand. Instead of just trying to shove square blocks into round holes, taking the time to make new holes and communicating with the family beforehand about the best way to do that. And also being okay when things don’t go exactly perfectly.
Talleri McRae You’re absolutely right. We had a kiddo in summer camp a couple of years ago and she was OK, but it was hard for her. She didn’t always have the attention to stay with her rehearsal for the time. And you could just tell by the end of the week that some of the other campers were just annoyed. And so I pulled some of them aside who were the most annoying and I was like, “Hey I can tell that this is annoying. It’s OK that you’re annoyed, you’re not a bad person that you’re annoyed by this. You know we’re trying our best as a group to support this individual, and a lot of that’s on me because I’m the grownup and I’m the teacher, so I’m going to give you the chance to take a break as well if you need it. You have that option because you don’t have to sit here at rehearsal and be annoyed the whole time. This person is going to be part of the show. It’s gonna happen. But if this person does something different than you expected it’s not going to distract from your performance, the audience isn’t going to blame you. It will be what it will be. But for the remainder of his rehearsals I’m giving you the option if you need a break you can take one too. You don’t have to just endure and then feel like a bad person.” It turns out they didn’t need as much of a break. I think once I kind of gave them that option they were like, “Oh OK. No I can I could stick it out.” But part of it’s just saying what’s going on in the room.
Samm Madsen Instead of staying quiet when something is happening, being unafraid to say, “This is just happening you know and it’s important that we’re all in this together-“
Talleri McRae “-Yes this person is doing their best and I’m doing my best. There’s only one of me and like nine of you so you know. So help me out too and we’ll off we kind of figure it out together.”
Samm Madsen Thank you so much Talleri. Do you have any final thoughts?
Talleri McRae Just take that first brave bold step. I mean it can be so scary to address a difference, to find the words to talk about something that as a general society we’re not great about talking about, to find the words that feel really good to us because sometimes the words that we do use as a society where we do talk about it don’t feel great, but it’s okay to try. And be OK with trying something and failing and trying again, finding that comfort and discomfort of saying, “Oh, I said something and it came out really wrong. I tried this thing and it actually had a negative effect and now I feel like that kid is more isolated than before I said something.” You know I think the best people to do this work are the ones that are just not afraid to fail and then give themselves a lot of grace and a lot of forgiveness and say tomorrow’s another day. Try it again tomorrow.