Working Towards an Ethos of Institutional Care at CO/LAB Theater Group

Hello again! My name is Alison Mahoney. I’m starting my second year at Pitt as a PhD student in Theatre and Performance Studies, and my research centers on intersections of performance and disability/neurodiversity. When we’re not in the midst of a pandemic, I am also a theatre-maker – I collaborate with disabled and neurodiverse ensembles to create accessible, multisensory productions. Before starting at Pitt, I had done some of this work as a teaching artist for CO/LAB Theater Group, an organization in New York whose mission is to “provide individuals with developmental disabilities a creative and social outlet through theater arts.” This past summer, I reconnected with CO/LAB as a Humanities Engage summer immersive fellow

I worked on three administrative projects for CO/LAB this summer:

  1. Updating the organization’s “actor log,” a record of actors’ in-class participation, access needs, and learning styles available as a resource for teaching artists and volunteers in order to establish safe and supportive classroom and rehearsal environments.
  2. A reevaluation of CO/LAB’s methods of collecting program feedback from participants. Actors at CO/LAB have a wide range of communication styles, and written surveys cannot adequately capture responses from those who do not or cannot communicate verbally or in writing, so we spent time thinking about alternate methods of gathering feedback.
  3. Auditing CO/LAB’s classroom accessibility practices to ensure that teaching artists have the necessary tools to establish supportive, creative environments for ensembles with a range of disabilities, sensitivities, and communication styles.

I anticipated these three projects being three discrete tasks that I undertook at different times throughout my immersive, but I was surprised to find that the work I did for the actor log informed the work I did on feedback and accessibility, and vice versa. One of the big changes we made to the actor log involved creating a protocol for how often each actor’s log file would be updated, to ensure that the information remains up to date. Teaching artists suggest updates to the log based on their observation of actors during class, dress rehearsals, and performances. In thinking about methods of collecting feedback beyond surveying participants, I reached out to educators and administrators from other theatre organizations working with disabled performers, and participant observations, particularly of non-verbal physical responses to activities, were a widely used method. I considered how observation might be incorporated into CO/LAB classrooms as a tool for gathering feedback and realized that teaching artists were already using this tool in their actor log reporting. Rather than create an entirely new format for collecting observed data, we decided to update the actor log more regularly and allow the log to serve a dual purpose of communication amongst teaching artists and providing feedback for programming staff about actors’ skill development and enjoyment of programs over time. Further, these observations fed into my thinking about CO/LAB’s accessibility tools. Teaching artists were already reporting in their weekly class reflections about specific actors’ use of access tools in their classrooms, so we decided to emphasize these observations as a first step in a responsive and participant-centered approach to accessibility.

I was excited to see how intertwined these projects could be, and even more excited to find that this extended to the other research I was conducting this summer. Thinking with CO/LAB staff about responsiveness as a way of approaching accessibility informed my ongoing thinking about how theatre companies engaged in care practices for neurodivergent children and adults during the pandemic. I was lucky to present an early version of this research at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) conference this summer and publish a short article about considerations for caregivers in remote theatre performed by UK-based Oily Cart Theatre Company. Both my presentation and article focused on how care aesthetics impacted a single performance, but as I continue to think more deeply about this research, my work with CO/LAB has pushed me to ask questions about how a company’s organizational structure and priorities can contribute to an ethos and aesthetics of care that aligns with Disability Justice politics.

I am still early in my PhD program, so I can’t say definitively how my immersive with CO/LAB will impact my dissertation research and future career goals, but I wrapped up my work with this incredible organization feeling reenergized and recommitted to centering the perspectives of the disabled performers and audience members about whom I write scholarship. Disability studies is a relatively young field that has historically overlooked cognitive and developmental disability, and I think the field can look to arts organizations like CO/LAB for cues about developing the infrastructure to look beyond language in order to more meaningfully involve these perspectives. As a result of this time with CO/LAB, I am considering community engaged scholarship and other non-traditional dissertation formats as I move towards developing my dissertation prospectus in order to hopefully overcome some of the barriers to cognitive access that exist within academia. I am grateful to the Humanities Engage program for providing the funding to enable this kind of work and look forward to seeing how it continues to impact my research as I progress through my PhD program.

Alison Mahoney
Theatre Arts
September 2021

Learn about all the Pitch Your Own Summer Immersive Fellows and Curated Immersive Summer Fellows and their experiences with their host organizations.