Friday, January 27, 2017

Library Live!

Hey friends! Eric here, and I'm excited to tell you all about a concert we have organized with Austin Public Library (APL). It is a special edition of Library Live, an APL program that brings free musical performances to the Austin community, and this one will specifically highlight acts that feature musicians with disabilities. The concert will be held tomorrow, Saturday, January 28th, from 2:00-4:00 PM at the Carver Branch (1161 Angelina St., Austin, TX 78702).

This concert idea organically grew from a number of inspirations, mainly from my own experiences as an aspiring musician living with a physical disability and frequently struggling in an industry that is largely inaccessible. Just take a ride through the city of Austin, the live music capital of the world, and count the number of wheelchair-accessible stages. You would be hard-pressed to find more than a handful, and those you would find would be stages designed primarily for other mediums (think school theaters), or they may not be stages at all (bookstores) – certainly not where average Austinites typically gather for live music.

Even if the venue is accessible, shows are often so late that those of us who require attendant care or a full night of sleep to physically function simply cannot attend or perform with the regularity needed to truly progress. And beyond the mere inaccessibility, the music industry is so frequently centered around a singular ideal body image and flashy displays of vocal range and instrument prowess (can you tell I listen to punk rock much?) that someone who plays with extreme physical limitations must work twice or three times as hard to compete.

For these reasons and others, I have long wanted to bring opportunities to musicians with disabilities, not just to benefit myself but others like me, because I have recognized through my work with VSA Texas in addition to my own experience that I'm not the only one who has this dream to share music with my community. So when Andrew Murphy from the APL attended our Lion and Pirate open mic at Malvern Books and mentioned that maybe I could play a song or two at the library, I jumped at the chance to share my own music and also include peers and friends I have gotten to know through our open mic and other VSA Texas programs.

All right, enough about me! Let me tell you about the musicians you can look forward to seeing tomorrow:

Michael Noriega will open the show, and he is a versatile artist who dabbles not only in music but also in film. He participated in our 2015 Side by Side Film Internship, and his recent '60s- and '70s- inspired concept album was featured in our 2016 Holiday Art and Gift Show. You can stream his album and check out some of his film work on Michael Noriega's YouTube channel here.
Michael Noriega playing at our Holiday Art and Gift Show (courtesy of VSA Texas)
Our second act will be Michael Tidmore and the Rollers, a country group with assorted covers from the likes of Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash as well as originals written by Michael Tidmore you'd be surprised you haven't heard on the radio, songs with classic titles like "I Want to be a Famous Country Singer" and "Torn Between Tennessee and Texas." His Rollers include Josh Tidmore, Matt Bushak, Rudy Sanchez, and Meredith Gaines. I first met Michael during one of our Side by Side Music Internships and have seen him deliver a number of heartfelt, energetic performances at the Lion and the Pirate.
 Meredith Gaines, Michael Tidmore, and I on the air at KOOP radio (courtesy of Austin Artists) 
Lion and Pirate regulars The Old Hats will play third and bring frontman John Meinkowsky's witty songwriting to life with acoustic guitar and ever-present harmonica provided by Southernmost Smoke. They all wear hats, and as their name suggests, they are all over the hill. Expect audience participation!

Then, last but hopefully not least, Dude Choir, my own group of rotating musical characters, will play, and I am extremely happy to once again be playing with the original choir members Ryan Simmons and Felipe Archer! They not only make my music possible; they are the reason I make music. We haven't had the opportunity to play together since April of 2014, so I look forward to this reunion and I hope you will too.

For more information about the show and/or to RSVP (if you're into that sort of thing), you can visit our Library Live Facebook event page here. Otherwise, we'll see you there!
Flyer for Library Live show, January 28th, 2017, 2 PM, at the Carver Branch (courtesy of Austin Public Library)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Calling All Creative Veterans!

Hi blog readers! April Sullivan here to tell you about all the exciting work we have been doing with our creative veterans and what we have coming up.

Our awesome writing instructors Cecily Sailer and Stephanie Whallon taught more writing classes at the end of 2016. Cecily was at our VSA Texas classroom and Stephanie went out into the community and taught her class at the Austin VA Outpatient Clinic. In the final class, the writers visited the Blanton Museum of Art to get inspiration from the visual art. I heard from the VA staff that “on the way back to the VA the Veterans couldn’t stop talking about how much they have loved the writing class and the trip to the Blanton.” It was a great partnership and we look forward to more opportunities at our local VA.
A photo of Stephanie and the VA Writing Class students at the Blanton Museum of Art
We have another writing class starting January 22nd and a few spots left if you are a veteran interested in giving it a try! This six-week class will take you on a tour of genres and give writers of all levels (beginners too) practice in poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. Contact me if you are interested. Here is a poem by one of the writers:

Guardians of Liberty

Until the last cadence is finally called
I am a soldier undaunted that is all
Until every lost Brother and Sister come home
With every beat of my heart their souls live on
Standing ready for the call at dangers gate
rest assured for that moment we all wait
Sleep sound my country and without fear
For our sacrifice please never shed one tear
For this path we march, our gift to you
The danger and cost we already knew
With vigilance we ensure the path ahead is clear
For freedom we stand United Far and Near
Countless Brothers and Sisters stand just like me
Protecting Freedom with Blood, Guardians of Liberty

Kris Shoults 
United States Air Force 1988-1992

Are you wondering what our plans are for all of these creative writing pieces? Well, we have big plans! These works of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction will be part of a large event this summer that will include visual artists and musicians as well as writers. We are currently looking for Texas veterans who are visual artists and also those who are songwriters or musicians to submit to our call for art and our call for songwriters. We are looking for artistic and musical veterans to create a work of art or write a song based on the writings. These writings, songs, and visual art pieces will come together in a publication, CD, and live event at the Art979 Gallery in Bryan, TX in June/July 2017.

If you are a veteran visual artist or musician interested in being a part of this event, please contact me about the call for art or the call for songs, or see the Veterans Page on our website.

And if you want some inspiration, come hear the Veteran Writers read their works at our Lion and Pirate Open Mic on Saturday, January 21st from 7-8:30 PM at Malvern Books.
Perry Jefferies, US Army Veteran, reading at our Open Mic

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Theater Accessibility

Originally posted December 7, 2016 at Reposted with permission.

Nicole Cortichiato, VSA Texas
Renee Lopez, VSA Texas
Laura Perna, CTD

Last month, a group of us went to see Priscilla, Queen of the Desert: The Musical at ZACH Theater. We had a great time and appreciated that the theater was fully accessible. It got us thinking- what makes for a good experience at a movie, show, or concert as a person with a disability? Here are some of the things that came up:

Laura (LP): How was accessibility at ZACH Theater? Was there anything that needed improvement?

Nicole (NC): I am not a person that uses a wheelchair. However, my boyfriend does, and that makes me super aware of space when going to theaters or restaurants. I felt ZACH did a good job of keeping the lobby clear for wheelchair users. There were tables and chairs set up for patrons to sit and have drinks and there was room on each side of the tables for a wheelchair user to roll past.

Renee (RL): As a person in a wheelchair, I find the Zach Scott theater to be very accessible. However, there are only 4 wheelchair spaces available, 2 on the east and 2 in the west areas. Ordinarily, this works fine, however, if a group of people with disabilities were to attend with more than 4 people in wheelchairs, this could be a problem for the theater to accommodate.

The restroom is a disabled person’s dream. It is very accessible, as are the faucets and hand towel dispensers. I found the lowered water fountain for wheelchair access has very little water coming out of it; I had to stand up to drink from the higher water fountain, which has a good flow.

I also found accessible parking to be a problem. Within the circular parking lot, there are 2, maybe 3 spots. When those spaces are taken, the theater accommodates by allowing patrons to park along the sidewalk or on the side. The problem with this is when you have a van with a deployable ramp, you risk getting hit by a car. I also noticed the valet parked a car in front of a ramp. I informed the valet who then said they were told it was ok because there’s another ramp than can be used.

LP: Have you had negative experiences at other theaters? What do you wish theater managers or other theater patrons knew about access?

NC: I personally have not, but I have witnessed my boyfriend’s discomfort, which of course makes me uncomfortable. There have been inaccessible theaters where they have placed him in front of all the seating and essentially on stage. Other times the space for wheelchair seating has been so tight that a second wheelchair user wouldn’t have fit.

RL: I do find that in smaller theaters, such as one of the smaller theaters at Zach Scott, a person in a wheelchair has no choice but sit up front, practically onstage. This makes for an uncomfortable experience, for me, because I’m often worried the actors will back into me or trip over me.

Recently, I was at the Emma Barrientos Mexican American Cultural Center for a play, and the theater managers had trouble finding a ‘good spot’ to put me. If they put me here, I would block the actors' entrance; if they put me there, I would block something else. Eventually, I was placed near a prop, which had me worried, again, that an actor would trip over me. The manager then said he would just let the actors know to be careful in the area where I was. They did and there was no incident but when I go to see a play, I go for just that, to see a play – not be part of the play. I would recommend theaters have a ‘cut-out section’ that a wheelchair user could back into.

LP: Priscilla had a ton of extravagant costumes (above, with Jennifer, Nicole, Laura, and Renee) and dance numbers! Is there a way a blind person could enjoy this show?

NC: There is. It’s called audio description and you can get trained to do audio description or have audio description provided by VSA Texas. You can learn more about that by speaking with Lynn Johnson at VSA Texas.

RL: VSA has an incredible audio description service.

LP: And what about deaf patrons – even if there were captions, could they still get the full experience without hearing the music?

RL: I believe so. Although this particular show did not have it, I’ve been to other shows, such as operas, that provide captions. Although I am not deaf (sometimes hard of hearing when my allergies are bad) I myself often appreciate the captions.

LP: The show we went to wasn't specifically "sensory friendly," but I've seen ones that are. What does that mean?

NC: If by sensory you mean no flashing lights for people with epilepsy or allowing talking for people like autism then I’ll have to say I’ve never been to a show like that but I’m sure it can be done.

LP: So it's the end of an amazing show (like Priscilla), time for the standing ovation. Is it rude to stand if you're sitting next to a wheelchair user?

NC: I would say yes. I hadn’t thought about it before but if you are sitting in front of a wheelchair user and know it or if you are sitting beside someone in a wheelchair you are blocking their view. Maybe there is even a different way to show a standing ovation so that everyone could be involved. Like handing out those small blow horns or some other musical instrument. That is something to think about for sure.

RL: No, I don’t think it’s rude at all. I have been with people/companions, who feel obligated to remain seated with me, however, I encourage them to stand up and enjoy the ovation, plus they can see and tell me what’s going on. I can usually tell when the main players come on stage by the loudness of the cheers. There have been a few times that patrons in front of a ‘wheelchair section’ realize they are blocking our view and will remain seated but then they can’t see. There have been many times that I just move over to the top of the stairs just to see but this could be dangerous. Plus, many patrons start exiting during the ovation and you have to move anyway to let them by. The solution I think, is to have the wheelchair accessible section on a small platform that would raise them a little higher than the row in front of them.

What are your thoughts about theater accessibility? What makes the theater accessible to you as a person with or without a disability? Tell us in the comments below!