Toronto theatre venues are making strides for accessibility, featuring more productions with American Sign Language-interpreted performances for the Deaf community and introducing “relaxed performances” for people who are comfortable in a more casual environment (including those with an Autism Spectrum condition or learning disabilities). Both types of performances were regular features at the recent Fringe Festival.

But Mirvish, the biggest entity on the theatre scene, seems to be rolling back on accessibility. Members of Toronto’s Deaf community are complaining that the theatre company is no longer offering ASL-interpreted performances, directing audiences to select performances with open captioning instead.

“I’ve had a number of different Deaf people contact me,” says Sage Lovell, a Deaf performer and activist. “They’ve contacted Mirvish looking for an interpreter, but there’s either no response or they’ll just say ‘we provide open captions’ and that’s it.”

Open captioning means having an LED monitor near the stage, subtitling dialogue and lyrics, much like when you turn on the captions on your television. This is what the Deaf community has to settle for at the movies. Lovell, speaking to NOW through ASL interpreter Rogue Benjamin, argues that open-captioning is a poor substitute for ASL-interpreted performances, which relays what’s on stage in the Deaf community’s native language.

“Words are only 30 per cent of the meaning,” says Ryan Kraft, an ASL interpreter and avid theatre fan. “Most people don’t say what they actually mean.”

Kraft gives me an example, reciting the word “happy” with different inflections, to the point where he sounds quite angry. A Deaf person reading “h-a-p-p-y” won’t pick up the inflection that an ASL interpreter can add in to their performance.

Lovell also reached out to Mirvish last month. Through her company Deaf Spectrum, she wants to coordinate accessibility plans in advance for next year’s Harry Potter And The Cursed Child run, but has yet to hear back.

Mirvish has provided ASL-interpreted performances in the past for Wicked, The Lion King, The Wizard Of Oz and The Sound Of Music. Such designated performances would feature an ASL interpreter to the far right or far left of the stage. Deaf audiences would be seated so they can see both the interpreter and the performers. But the last time Mirvish provided the service seemed to be in December 2015 for Kinky Boots. That performance was added due to popular demand.

A list of questions NOW sent to Mirvish about ASL-interpreted performances was not answered. Instead, the company’s director of sales and marketing, John Karastamatis, directed us to designated open-caption performances, a format the company’s website describes as enjoyable for both hearing and Deaf audiences.

“We attempt to have them as often as possible,” writes Karastamatis, referring to open-captioning performances. “However, sometimes the runs are short and there isn’t time to create and rehearse an open-caption performance for every title. When we can, we also provide lower-priced tickets to these performances.”

Karastamatis also points out Mirvish recently hosted a “relaxed performance” for Come From Away, which is where audience members sensitive to light or sound don’t have to worry about sudden effects, and can move around comfortably and make noise if they need to.

Ryan Kraft has been inquiring with Mirvish about ASL-interpreted performances for Come From Away since May 2017. Kraft is a “superfan” of the 9/11 tale about Canadians in Newfoundland who assisted stranded airline travellers. He’s seen various productions of the show 23 times and even visited Gander to meet the people who inspired the characters.