Arun Rath: Every Friday, we like to bring you some joy from local communities onto our airwaves for our weekly Joy Beat. We showcase everything from activists to events to nonprofits that we think should be celebrated for the hard work they do. This also gives us the opportunity to allow listeners to call in and nominate someone they feel epitomizes joy — and that's exactly what Andrew Cranin did. Take a listen.
Andrew Cranin: I want to nominate someone who I think is a model subject for a story. Her name is Sam Gould of Foxborough, Massachusetts. She's devoted her life to making the performing arts an accessible experience for participants and for audiences alike. And she's really achieved some wondrous things that I think your listeners would find interesting and inspirational.
Rath: Sam Gould is the president of Open Door Theater, a nonprofit performing arts program that was recognized as the most accessible cultural institution in Massachusetts by the Mass Cultural Council. This week's edition of The Joy Beat will spotlight her and her incredible work in the community. Sam, thanks for joining us.
Sam Gould: Thank you, Arun. In virtual spaces, and especially for radio and people with low vision, I like to identify what I look like. So I am a 50-something-year-old Ashkenazi Jewish woman with salt and pepper hair. I also would like to mention that I'm also with Think Outside the Vox, so it's Open Door Theater and Think Outside the Vox; they're hand-in-hand sister organizations.
Rath: Brilliant. Well, let me follow your lead: I am a 50-something Anglo-Indian American, about six foot one inch tall. That’s a description of me.
So, first off, Sam, let me ask what it was like to hear that bit of tape.
Gould: Well, I don’t know if you can hear it in my voice, but I’m definitely smiling. Andrew is a longtime friend. I’ve known Andrew through Open Door Theater for over 20 years now; he’s a fantastic actor and a volunteer for our organization and an advocate for accessible parts.
Rath: So tell us a bit about how you got involved with Open Door Theater about a little over 20 years ago and how it’s grown since then.
Gould: That’s a fun question. This is my favorite part: talking about accessible arts. When I first came to Open Door Theater, I thought that I had joined a cult because the community was very inclusive, and the accommodations were abundant. And I sort of ratcheted up the volume on that in my tenure there.
Originally, Open Door was started by two moms at a bus station who wanted a community that would have a theater that was inclusive to all people with disabilities and a diverse population, and we really embraced that.
So most people think DEI; we think DICE, so diversity, inclusion, cultural competency — because representation matters — and equity. So that’s the mission of Open Door. I first came to it in 1999, and I never left. It’s become a lifestyle choice for me.
Rath: It’s interesting hearing you say that. I realized, kind of sheepishly, how much people of different abilities are left out of the inclusivity discussion.
Gould: Yeah. that’s true. I mean, there’s the old adage, “Nothing about us without us,” right? It’s really important to include the voice of people with disabilities and the BIPOC community in really everything that you do.
And we listen to our patrons and our actors and our volunteers and our cast and crew. And by listen, I mean the American Sign Language version of “listen,” which is “pay attention.”
Rath: Tell us a bit about what access means in the theatrical context — specifically, how things have changed.
Gould: Yeah. So think of Open Door Theater as kind of a model; it’s a microcosm of what we would like to see in the world. So we use this art space to bring in audio description, ASL interpretation, sensory-friendly programming — we open caption all of the productions by projecting the captions right on the proscenium wall and illustrate that to match the scenery.
We do all of this, and then we’ve been so successful with that that we brought it into the mainstream community, and we consult now with other theater organizations, which is what Think Outside the Vox is all about: consulting, coaching for arts access with an anti-ableist and anti-racist lens, to encourage everybody to use the open door model and bring the access into their spaces.
Rath: I think maybe the most fun way to talk about this would be for you to tell us about this year’s Spongebob musical. I know it was very successful and won awards.
Gould: Yeah, it’s very exciting! The Eastern Mass Association of Community Theaters has given us five nominations, including Best Actor, Best Director and Best Musical for Spongebob.
To give you a snapshot: We had 50 actors on stage, half of whom self-identified with disabilities, including a neurodiverse SpongeBob and a deaf Patrick Star. We had actors using wheelchairs and an actor dancing along on stage with his assistance dog. So it was really a diverse cast. Our crew was also similarly diverse, and our audience, we find, is inclusive as well. And we audio-described that performance; in addition to having ASL actors, we had three ASL interpreters on stage for all the performances as well.
And all of our show is sensory friendly. One of the actors on the stage, it was his job to sort of telegraph when the scene was about to get grumbly and loud so that people in the audience would know that they might want to cover their ears or take a break.
We sort of introduced all of that before the show and then had a live stream of the show outside the theater for people if they needed to take a break while the show was going on. And then, of course, we open-captioned everything so you don't miss a beat because actors mumble and sound sometimes cut out things like that.
Rath: SpongeBob seems like a pretty good thing to take on for that because it’s funny and meta as well.
Gould: It’s really funny and really meta and family-friendly, but also a little bit hip and adult, thematically. So it was a fun show to do for all of us because Open Door is open to anybody age nine and up, so we have adults and kids together in our production. It really is like a small community microcosm of a change we want to see in the world.
Rath: You know, we talk about joy on this program and in this segment in particular. Could you talk about your sense of joy? It seems like you seem to get joy from bringing joy to others.
Gould: Yeah, I guess that's true, Arun. It's funny; I think of the theater that we've created and then the extension, the Think Outside the Vox that we've created, kind of as an access revolution disguised as theater. So it's sort of like I'm bursting at the seams to spread this — not in a COVID kind of way of spread, but sort of spread the message of culturally competent access and inclusion of all aspects of theater.
So yeah, it does bring me joy when I see the production on stage or when I see other companies implementing the baby steps to bring in the inclusion or the open captioning audio description when people are casting competently, making sure that if there's an actor on stage, that's inclusive casting and that's the kind of thing I love to celebrate in our theater, in other theaters and on television and everywhere.
Rath: Well, I know a lot of people believe the best theater is theater that accomplished something, and you’re really doing that in a tangible way. That’s wonderful.
Gould: We’re trying! We’re trying to spread the word.
Rath: Sam, it’s been a great pleasure speaking with you, and thank you for doing this work.
Gould: Thank you for shining a light on it. The more we can get the word out, the more that we can encourage people to do the work, to bring in access and culturally competent access to all kinds of spaces.