Inspired by his first playwriting experience, Mike Ervin began the Victory Gardens Access Project 18 years ago with the goal of making theater accessible to the disabled community in Chicago. Photo by Joe Gallo.

On a Saturday afternoon in January, 10 people sat around a square of plastic tables in the rehearsal room of a Lincoln Park theater discussing the realism of a script. It featured a pair of female vampires working at a Las Vegas salon. Goodnatured teasing punctuated serious critiques, and it was obvious many of the attendees had known each other for years. It was a typical writers’ workshop–”except that this one has two blind members.

The person who brought these people together was Mike Ervin, a 53-year-old freelance journalist and playwright with a gray beard and a deep, raspy voice. During the workshop, he was just another writer and audience member offering his opinions. Once it ended, though, he returned to his role as codirector of the Victory Gardens Access Project, an outreach program that aims to make theater more accessible to people with disabilities.

Ervin says the Project has two main goals: reaching out to the disability community and providing a venue for what he calls “disability culture” in Chicago’s arts scene. “It’s almost like an ethnic identity, and when people explore and embrace ethnic identity, it gives them a sense of community and pride,” he says. “That’s what we mean by disability culture, and it’s why we’d like people to explore it.”

Ervin, who has used a wheelchair since childhood because of a form of muscular dystrophy, began his own theatrical exploration in 1990, when a friend, actress Susan Nussbaum, asked him to co-write a sketch comedy about disability. “The Plucky and Spunky Show” was produced at the now-defunct Remains Theater later that year, and Ervin has been involved in theater ever since.

Since its inception in 1992, the Project has grown to encompass many services, including closed-captioning, audio description, sign-language interpretation and Braille programs for productions. It also hosts the weekly workshops, provides development opportunities for plays about disability issues or by playwrights with disabilities, and presents a half-dozen shows every season. The most recent show, “Not Shaped for Sportive Tricks,” examined disability in William Shakespeare’s plays. It was part of the Crip Slam, a Project offshoot started in 2006 that produces plays dealing with the theme of disability.

The Chicago Reporter sat down with Ervin to discuss his work.

What are the goals of the Project?

Broadly, to make the theater experience accessible to folks with disabilities. It’s something that should be accessible, especially in a city like this. There’s a lot of theater in this town, and to be able to enjoy it definitely adds richness to a life. Personally, it’s something I enjoy, and I’m just offering it out there for those who might take to it in the same way that I did.

The artistic [aspect] is very important. People want to tell their stories on stage, and we want the voices to be authentic. Showing the genuine disability experience has larger political benefits in how people view you, because how people view you plays a big role in how they treat you, and how you view yourself plays a big role in how you treat yourself.

What aspects of the Project have brought the most positive response?

One major component is audience service–”we did this from the very beginning. We could’ve been passive [about making] the shows accessible–”just make sure you have a describer and Braille programs and the place is accessible–”but we always wanted it to be on- and offstage.

And there’s this mentality of, –˜OK, [disabled people] can watch, but why would they want to be in the show? What do they have to say?’ We’re trying to challenge that mentality. So we added the writing workshop, and we produce plays and do the Crip Slam. That endeavor has been surprisingly well-received, and I think it’s because we work hard to have good quality and diversity. We don’t always get rave reviews, but I think people like what we do.

And then the effort that we make in terms of how we treat people–”it’s a part of what we do rather than just an add-on. I think people have been impressed by that. The first part is getting somebody to come. That’s what marketing does. The next part of it is getting them to come back, and that’s the job of the house staff and the artistic staff, to make sure they feel welcome and treated well and respected and that they enjoyed the play and that they’ll come back. It really is a part of what everyone does.

How did the Crip Slam develop?

We stole the name Crip Slam from someone else, with their permission. We used to call it –˜Disability Culture Sundays,’ and we decided we should call it something different to create a buzz. Some people have complained, but some people have also said they love it, so that’s the way it’s going to be.

With the Crip Slam, we try to find every possible way to use the stage to explore disability culture. We haven’t just stuck with acting. We’ve done movies, music–”anything that can be presented to a room of people.

One thing we’ve used it for is to explore classic literature. We did something years ago called –˜The Medieval Cripples’ with two plays from medieval times. Both had a blind character, and a character who would’ve been in a wheelchair if they’d had wheelchairs at the time. It was fascinating because they were so old–”it showed us how far back characters with disabilities go, how long people have been writing about them.

We did something with Samuel Beckett, and a small segment of a [Harold] Pinter play. We hadn’t done Shakespeare yet, and there’s all kinds of references in Shakespeare. What did he know about disability? What did he have to say about it to shape his times and the times beyond? What does it tell people, and how does it inform how they treated others?

How often do you actually incorporate actors with disabilities into shows?

That’s one reason we started the Crip Slam–”wanting to give people opportunities that might not present themselves in our regular shows. The main stage is one area where, unless the show is disability-related, we haven’t had the opportunity to employ people as much as we’d like. Part of it is a vicious cycle. There are some really good actors with disabilities, but there aren’t that many. It’s fitting the roles that are available, not just having talent, that matters. There isn’t the pool to draw from that there is among nondisabled actors.

We do try to do creative casting. Just because someone has a disability doesn’t mean those are the only roles they can play. We try not to get caught up in that trap.

Is there a national effort to make theater more accessible?

More and more, it is. But I’m dismayed in some ways that we’re newsworthy. I’m glad we are, because we get attention, but I’m dismayed that it’s not commonplace.

When we first got the grant, in 1993, we went to a conference of all the people that received these grants, and people were doing all kinds of outreach, but nobody was doing disability. We were the only ones that had thought to apply for a grant about disability. Four years ago, I went to a different conference, and there were about 50 theaters from around the country doing a variety of different things [with disability]. So it’s growing, but [it’s still limited], especially beyond the wheelchair access. The deaf stuff is almost nonexistent–”hardly anybody does captioning. I have deaf friends, and I don’t go to theater with them much, but if I did, it would be very discouraging.

I think if theaters were legally challenged on audio description and captioning–”things that don’t cost much–”they would lose. But they haven’t been challenged.

What about here in Chicago? Have you worked with any local theaters?

Not a lot, but I think it’s starting to gain momentum. A local group called Open Doors just concluded a series of workshops about making theater accessible. Chicago Shakespeare Theater does audio description, and so does Steppenwolf. There are places that do sign language, but in terms of the whole package, there isn’t really anybody else. That’s been the part that’s disappointed me most, because it’s still as unique as it is.

How do you get community feedback and find out what needs aren’t being met?

We have an informal advisory group. If I have a question about if the Web site’s accessible [to the blind] or the new house manager treat[s] you well, I would ask them. In terms of making sure the users are getting what they want, it’s very simple: ask the users. And yet it doesn’t get done that often. I think that’s a mistake a lot of places make. They don’t know where to ask, so they just guess, and that can turn people off. I think the key is just finding the community, talking to the experts and listening to what they say.