Greenwood-Coxwell theatre making live performances more accessible

The Green Line learned how the theatre's innovative technology helps people with hearing loss feel sound.

By Aneesa Bhanji, Amanda Seraphina, and Anita Li of The Green Line

For those with disabilities, attending a show at just any Toronto venue isn’t that simple. That’s why one local theatre in Greenwood-Coxwell is trying to change that.

The Redwood Theatre has been a staple in the neighbourhood for over 100 years and the building has seen many changes.

In 2017, condo developers were about to take it over until Greenwood-Coxwell resident and inventor Maria Karam bought the building to transform it into a performing arts hub, one that’s accessible to everyone who comes in.

“The theatre is barrier-free, so it has an accessible washroom and there are no stairs anywhere in the main theatre,” Karam said. “The stage, however, is on a different level, but it can be accessed from the back door on a very small step. And we have tactile acoustic devices, which are vibrotactile systems that can allow people with hearing loss to gain a better sense of the music.”

Karam invented these systems at Toronto Metropolitan University. Now, The Redwood Theatre is the world’s only space that gives audience members with hearing loss the chance to feel sound.

Local resident and musician Brian Blain has used this technology since it was introduced. He said it adds a whole other dimension to live music.

“As I get older. I’m 77 years old now, losing the hearing on one side, and next will be the other side. So yes, it does enhance the experience,” said Blain. “In music world, musicians would often say, people, your audience, doesn’t really remember the lyrics or the fancy solo you played, they remember how you made them feel, you know? And now that’s taken it to another level, how you felt from that performance, you know, because it was really in your body.”

Brian Blain, local resident and musician, uses The Redwood's tactile acoustic devices to feel sound.
Brian Blain, local resident and musician, uses The Redwood’s tactile acoustic devices to feel sound. (Amanda Seraphina/The Green Line)

Beyond physical accessibility, the theatre also aims to be an inclusive space.

Rainbow Circus is a program that teaches circus skills to local youth who are queer, trans and neurodivergent, so accessibility was top of mind for program director Jayeden Walker when she was deciding where to hold classes.

“Coming to Toronto as a young person — as a young queer person — and trying to find spaces where I could connect with people, [I found] that really hard. So you know, there’s Church Street and there are bars, but if you’re not going out and partying and drinking and dancing, it can be really hard to find community,” Walker explained.

“And I think that, for me, I’ve always found community through movement. And so, I wanted to be able to create spaces [for] youth particularly because it’s so much harder to access communities as youth.”

Jayeden Walker, program director of Rainbow Circus, teaches youth in The Redwood Theatre.
Jayeden Walker, program director of Rainbow Circus, teaches youth in The Redwood Theatre. (Amanda Seraphina/The Green Line)

Cameron Chapnick, a 17-year-old student at Rainbow Circus, found this sense of community through Rainbow Circus at The Redwood.

“The first time I ever came out and told someone my pronouns was my first day of Jayeden’s class because she introduced herself with her pronouns. And I felt like I could introduce myself with mine, too. And she just accepted me immediately into the class,” Chapnick says. “And so, it’s always felt like a place where I’ve been safe and cared for.”

Students practice their circus skills during Rainbow Circus classes at The Redwood.
Students practice their circus skills during Rainbow Circus classes at The Redwood. (Amanda Seraphina/The Green Line)

Although finances have been a barrier for the theatre, Karam is determined to keep it running for years to come.

“The term accessibility is really loaded. There is the physical access so that you can roll in and out on your wheelchair. There’s also, you know, accessibility in terms of it’s a safe space for anyone,” Karam explained.

“I think that having a space like this, in a community like this, is very rare now in Toronto. And I think it’s extremely warming and comforting to see that there is a place where people can go and just be treated like a neighbour and feel like this is their space.”

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