Inside Out Theatre aims to change the way Calgary approaches the arts by working with the disabled community, for those with disabilities. The company is working to change the attitudes and the approach for making theatre more accommodating and accessible for everyone.

Riki Entz, the theatre’s accessibility associate, works with various venues around the city to make sure that more productions in Calgary are accessible to those with physical and mental disabilities.

“My job here is me as a disabled person, being integral to my work with people with disabilities,” said Entz, who uses a wheelchair and has autism.

She added that before Inside Out Theatre began its work, “There wasn’t room for people with disabilities to work with disabled people.”

One of the company’s main focuses is the Good Host Program, which includes American Sign Language-interpreted shows for people who are hard of hearing, and audio description and “touch tours” which involves going on stage and feeling the set and props for those who have vision impairments.

The program also facilitates “relaxed shows” for anyone who might need the freedom to move in and out of their seats, or who might otherwise worry about being disruptive due to making involuntary noises or being connected to loud medical machines such as ventilators.

The theatre partners with Theatre Calgary, Alberta Theatre Projects, Vertigo Theatre, Storybook Theatre and many more companies around the city to produce the relaxed performances, ASL-translated and described-audio shows.

The Good Host Program, Entz said, is “something different” for the theatre world, because it’s all about: “We need to be more accommodating to you. How can we help? How can we make things better?”

The program’s offerings can range greatly, depending on the intended audience and the performance involved.Inside out Riki2Riki Entz sits in front of a sign in Inside Out Theatre’s office that says “I like my theatre relaxed!” referencing the “relaxed performances” Inside Out puts on with the Good Host Program. Photo: Mackenzie Mason

In October, for instance, Inside Out worked with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra to have a relaxed concert, which attracted about 500 people. Other days, a smaller relaxed performance could have only five people in the audience.

“A lot of this was started for autistic people but as an autistic person myself, I think it’s really important for us to think about all the different kinds of people who might not be able to enjoy theatre under the constraints of traditional theatre,” Entz said.

“It’s very amazing to be a part of something where we encourage these people to come, instead of discouraging people.”

Inside Out Theatre is focused on changing the attitude of theatre, into a more accommodating and understanding scene for those with disabilities. 

“We now have people coming to these shows, and they’re feeling accepted because the society, the theatre group, is now saying ‘You’re welcome here. Please come. We would like to have you,’” Entz said.

“We are changing how we think of disability, that it’s not your fault. Because disability is not about fault.”

Inside Out’s artistic director, Col Cseke, encourages those with disabilities not just to attend the occasional arts event, but to become a part of Calgary’s theatre scene.

“I’m very proud that now our staff at Inside Out reflect the communities that we’re hoping to engage with. We have people who (have) lived experience(s) of blindness and autism, and we have a deaf leader on staff,” Cseke said.

Half of the six staff members at Inside Out Theatre identify as having a cognitive disability, physical disability, or both. The other three members do not have a disability.

“That’s my proudest point right now, that the people from Inside Out reaching out to these communities, are of these communities,” Cseke said.

Alongside partnering with Calgary’s theatres, Inside Out Theatre also produces its own shows, put together through its community classes.  In May, the Point of View Ensemble produced the play “Most Imaginary Worlds,” a show following the stories of many characters in a world with no limits.

“This year we’re also co-producing our professional work with The High Performance Rodeo, Lunchbox Theatre, and Quest Theatre,” Cseke said, regarding the future of their original work.

Cseke has many aspirations for the theatre company in the future, such as taking the original work created in Calgary outside the city and launching different programs across Canada.

However, that’s not to take away from the work being done right at home, and the people the programs affected. .

One of Inside Out Theatre’s regular attendees, Ian Heerensperger, is a 32-year-old man with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy, which has left him, as he says, “confined to a power wheelchair.”

“When I was in junior high, I had quite a bit of interest in the theatre and in acting, stage direction, play production, (all) that kind of stuff. Over the years, with the changing of my mobility and dexterity, I kind of shied away from that environment and it became less and less of a priority for me,” Heerensperger said.

“As soon as I found out that there was something for me, where my ability or disability didn’t have any bearing on my enjoyment of the concept or the things that were being created around me, I really started to embrace it.”

Inside Out Theatre has opened his eyes to an industry he’d forgotten, he added.

“I remember when I was much younger I would go to the theatre for an escape,” he explained.

Not only has he reconnected with the theatre, but he gets to share the involvement with his fiancé, Entz.

“Inside Out pioneers the way for creating those spaces, where people can just be themselves and have wonderful experiences, where being yourself can be a lot of fun,” he said.

Heerensperger looks forward to going to the theatre now, since before it was a hassle for those in the disabled community.

Thanks to Inside Out, “worrying about accessibility is no longer an issue,” he said.

“For me, theatre now just means the creativity in action – it’s inclusivity at every step of the process. It’s basically a world through expression where everyone can contribute on an even platform.”

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