When Sam Gould first joined Open Door Theater, an Acton-based theater program committed to fostering an inclusive and accessible theater environment, she wasn’t sure what she had walked into.
“I thought that I had joined a cult because the community was very inclusive, and the accommodations were abundant,” she said. “I first came to it in 1999, [and] I never left. It’s become a lifestyle choice for me.”
Now, over 20 years later, she is the president of the nonprofit and remains dedicated to providing an accessible theater experience for all — so much so that Andrew Cranin, a member of the theater, nominated Gould and Open Door Theater for the All Things Considered weekly segment, “The Joy Beat.”
“She’s devoted her life to making the performing arts an accessible experience for participants and for audiences alike, and she’s really achieved some wondrous things that I think your listeners would find interesting and inspirational,” he said in a voicemail.
Founded by two mothers in 1980, Open Door Theater has grown exponentially — in size and in accolades. In 2018, the Massachusetts Cultural Council recognized Open Door Theater as the most accessible cultural institution in the state.
“Most people think DEI [diversity, equity and inclusion]. We think DICE: so diversity, inclusion, cultural competency — because representation matters — and equity,” Gould said.
The organization produces one large-scale theatrical production each year. This year’s production of “SpongeBob SquarePants: The Musical” received multiple nominations from the Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theaters and featured cast and crew members of all backgrounds.
“We had 50 actors on stage, half of whom self-identified with disabilities, including a neurodiverse SpongeBob and a Deaf Patrick Star,” Gould said. “We had actors using wheelchairs and an actor dancing along on stage with his assistance dog, so it was a really diverse cast.”
And the inclusivity extends beyond the stage. All productions were equipped with audio descriptions, open captioning, American Sign Language interpreters and more.
“All of our show is sensory friendly,” Gould said. “One of the actors on the stage’s job [was] to sort of telegraph when the scene was about to get grumbly and loud so that people in the audience would know that they might want to cover their ears or take a break.”
The theater and its extension — Think Outside the Vox, which consults with performing arts organization to help expand the scope of accessible programming — is an “access revolution disguised as theater,” according to Gould. “It really is like a small community microcosm of a change we want to see in the world.”
Gould hopes to inspire other theaters to create accessible and culturally competent performance spaces.
“It does bring me joy when I see the production on stage or when I see other companies implementing the baby steps to bring in the inclusion — the open captioning, audio descriptions, when people are casting competently and making sure that if there’s an actor on stage, it’s inclusive casting,” said Gould. “That’s the kind of thing I love to celebrate in our theater, in other theaters, on television and everywhere.”
To nominate someone or something for “The Joy Beat,” leave GBH a voicemail at 617-380-BEAT (2328).