Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thank you, Daniel Burnley

I've been meaning to write this post for awhile now, but every time I sit down to write, I get lost in the photos, my own memories and the Facebook posts from friends of Daniel's. It's been almost a month, and I still can't believe we've done our last show together, that I've seen Daniel's amazing talent onstage for the last time. This Thanksgiving, there's a lot to give thanks for. And through the tears that still well up for a man that, let's face it, I worked with once a year at most, I suppose it's fitting that it took me till Thanksgiving week to be able to say it. Thank you, Daniel. There aren't words enough, so just -- thanks.

On October 25, 2013, the world lost a wonderful actor and human being, Mr. Daniel Burnley. The Essential Theatre was blessed to have him on our stage and in our family for many years, and our world will not be the same without him. He was an unforgettable man to those who knew him, and the characters he created onstage were unparalleled in my experience. 

Here are some thoughts that our artistic director, Peter Hardy, shared with me around the time of Daniel's wake, which fittingly enough was held at Manuel's Tavern, a longtime haven for the Atlanta theatre community.
"Most people in the Atlanta theatre community knew Daniel Burnley -- over the past few decades he'd worked with most of the companies in town, at one time or another, along with a bunch of film work.  I got to know him in 2005, when I directed him in the Essential Theatre's production of Sam Shepard's THE LATE HENRY MOSS, which is a play I loved and really wanted to do, but don't think I would have had the courage to take on if Daniel hadn't been willing to do the title roll.  Which he was, and without really knowing me much at all, for which I'll always be grateful.  He was splendid, and that show is still one of my proudest memories with the Essential Theatre, and Daniel went on to do exemplary work for us in four more productions -- CHARM SCHOOL, JIM CROW AND THE RHYTHM DARLINGS, THE DARKER FACE OF THE EARTH and QUALITIES OF STARLIGHT.  In just about every case, Daniel was taking on a role for us that no one else (that was available to us) would have been willing or able to do -- or, at least, not nearly as well as he did them.  Daniel told me repeatedly how much he believed in the work Essential was doing, and how he'd give up the chance to get (much) better playing work in films to do one of our projects.  Which was an honor for us, but also just a testament to the generous and committed person that he was.  All that being said, he was also just a good guy, a good friend, and someone that all of us will miss a lot."
Thank you, Daniel, for your crass humor, your quick laughter, your generous spirit, your belief in the work we do at Essential, and for making that work better with your involvement. We love you, and we miss you!

Daniel Burnley (July 29, 1956-Oct 25, 2013)
photo courtesy of Valerie Weaver

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

"Connecting with Deaf Audiences" Final Report

In 2013 for the first time, sign language interpretation was offered as part of the Essential Theatre Festival. This was a pretty big undertaking for us - there's a lot of work and a lot of money that goes into making this happen smoothly and well - and we were very excited to be bringing this new aspect into our festival.
To help fund the project, we participated in our first ever power2give crowdfunding project. If you're not familiar with power2give, it's actually pretty awesome, and you can learn more about it here. We'd started out hoping to raise money, but through our power2give project, we gained so much more. The outpouring of community support and enthusiasm was touching, encouraging and absolutely inspiring to all of us. People we'd known for years contacted us thanking us for the work we do every year, for our years of support of Georgia artists, and for our commitment to sharing quality theatre with anyone and everyone we meet. People we'd never realized had an interest reached out to say thank you for bringing new theatre to Deaf audiences, and thank you for engaging us in conversation. And the support we received from members of Atlanta's own Deaf community was heartening and inspiring as well. The video you see if you go to our project page would never have been possible without two of our most committed Deaf collaborators, Amy Cohen Efron and AJ Wooddall. And the geographic extent of the response was impressive too: Terp Theatre in Detroit, MI, contacted us and said,  
"You are embarking on a wonderful project, which will greatly enhance your local theatre community's ability to better reflect the diversity of our world…Your community-centered approach is to be lauded...Our heartfelt congratulations to you, from your friends in 'The D'."
So this undertaking turned out to be much more than we'd originally thought it would be, and it's just the beginning of what we hope will be an ongoing conversation with Deaf audience and artists in the coming years.
All of our power2give supporters were promised a final report, so they could see the specific difference their support made. Because it's such an exciting story, we've decided to also share this report with you. Below is the report that our power2give supporters received. We are so thankful to all of them for supporting us as we continue to push the boundaries of accessability and inclusiveness in our work, and we hope you are excited by this experience as well.
If you're interested in finding out more about the Essentail Theatre, our Playwriting Competition for Georgia writers, our annual play festival or our outreach and accessibility initiatives, please check us out at, on Facebook or contact me directly via email at

Connecting with Deaf Audiences
Final Report

Some Numbers:
·      44 individual donors supported “Connecting with Deaf Audiences” through power2give. We had 59 individual donors for all of 2013. That means a whopping 74% of our donors were inspired by CDA!
·      3 of the festival’s 27 performances were interpreted. That’s one performance of each of the plays we produced.
·      Approximately 40 people attended the talkback series, or around a dozen per talkback. Of these, over half were Deaf.  Without our interpreters staying through the talkbacks, over half of our talkback participants would not have had this opportunity!
·      Though our Deaf patrons weren’t singled out in any way, on average between 3 and 16 audience members utilized the interpretation services at each interpreted performance. Several hearing audience members also stated that they had come on the interpreted nights because they enjoy the interpretation, which was unanticipated but not surprising!
·      As of today, 10 videos on our YouTube channel – our entire 2013 Festival collection – have now been closed captioned. By the 2014 festival, we will have all our archive videos captioned and will caption all new videos released on our channel to provide greater accessibility.

Focus Group Findings:
As part of our outreach, Essential offered free theatre tickets to any Deaf audience member who agreed to participate in a post-festival focus group. The goals of this focus group were to discuss:
·      participants’ experiences with Essential this summer
·      the experience participants would like to have with Essential
            >as an audience member
            >as an artist
·      the experience participants would like to have in Atlanta theatre as a whole.

Due to insufficient response to scheduling requests, the focus group was cancelled. However, Deaf participants offered abundant feedback during the festival and specifically in the talkbacks. Here are some of the things we learned:
·      We were warned before the shows not to expect a huge turnout of Deaf audience members, due to the fact that we had not previously offered interpreted performances and were doing new plays by emerging artists that didn’t contain Deaf themes, characters or performers.
·      However, we did have several new festival attendees as a result of adding this service, and everyone who came enjoyed the shows very much.
·      Participants particularly enjoyed the opportunity to interact directly with the playwrights after seeing the shows.
·      There is a great interest in seeing work by Deaf artists.

What Folks Had To Say About CDA:
Dan McDougall, of Terp Theatre in Detriot, contacted us to express enthusiasm for our “Connecting with Deaf Audiences” initiative. He had this to say:
It's great to read about your approach to inclusion of the Deaf community in your future work - especially today! I co-founded TerpTheatre in Detroit, and we have just announced our two year research and book project focusing on interpreted theatre.
[ ]… You are embarking on a wonderful project, which will greatly enhance your local theatre community's ability to better reflect the diversity of our world… Your community-centered approach is to be lauded, and would be a great discussion for our book. Our heartfelt congratulations to you, from your friends in "The D".
Amie Kroessig, a long-time Essential company member, sent us this message after our first interpreted performance:
Thank you for Essential Theatre for bringing sign language interpreters In for the deaf patrons last night for Stray Dogs. It was very interesting and fun seeing the emotions being portrayed by the interpreters. (Remembered some from when i had to sign when i was younger) I believe all theaters should have at least one night of bringing in the interpreters.
One unanticipated response that we received was that several hearing audience members said they specifically came to the interpreted performances because they enjoyed watching the interpreters.

How Our Programming Will Develop in 2014:
·      We are actively seeking a corporate sponsor to support the interpreted performances for the 2014 festival. We don’t have one yet, but it’s our goal to leverage the support you have shown and the positive feedback we received to entice a corporate sponsor.
·      We’ll involve our interpreters earlier and more actively in determining where they will be placed on the stage for the next festival.
·      In response to the interest that was expressed in the possibility of our doing a show by a Deaf writer or involving a Deaf character or actor, we will advertise the playwriting contest deadline in every Deaf forum we can reasonably access in addition to the literary and theatre community posts we have traditionally made as the contest deadline approaches.
·      By the 2014 festival, we will have all our archive YouTube videos captioned. We will caption all new videos released on our channel as well, to provide greater accessibility.
·      Because none of Essential Theatre’s staff is Deaf, we will also seek to engage a Deaf community consultant to advise in matters of marketing, outreach and program development.