A special way to experience live theater when you’re blind like me

Last month I got to see Michael Cera of Arrested Development and Juno fame in a live production at Steppenwolf Theatre here in Chicago. Scratch that. I got to hear, smell and touch the production, I guess!

Tickets for This Is Our Youth were pretty much sold out, but I got to go because Steppenwolf set aside a number of tickets for a special audio touch tour of the set for people with visual impairments.That’s my previous Seeing Eye dog Harper and me with our Steppenwolf hosts a few years ago during the on-stage touch tour of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

In the photo to the right, that’s me and my previous Seeing Eye dog Harper with our gracious Steppenwolf hosts on stage a few years ago during the touch tour for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? One of the staff members from Steppenwolf is holding one of the breakable prop bottles and a bouquet of the plastic snapdragons which figure prominently into the play.

Steppenwolf’s audio touch tours are much more than just the tactile experience the name implies — a Touch Tour is a pre-performance program that gives those of us who are blind or have low vision an opportunity to:

  • participate in an artistic conversation about a production
  • experience a detailed description of the set, props and costumes
  • handle key props, set and costume pieces
  • tour the set with a sighted guide
  • meet the actors and learn about the characters they play

Stage manager Cambra Overend explained that the play was being performed in an alley theater (the stage is surrounded by audience members on two sides) so they had to block the scenes to allow both sides to follow the action. She described different scenes and lines from the play that had given the three young actors particular trouble. Pretty cool for a bunch of blind people to get an inside look, ahem, of a production that’s heading to New York City now. (This is Our Youth opens on Broadway the 11th of September, and Cambra will be the stage manager for that production, too).

Next came Jack Miggins, the Audio Describer. In addition to describing the play via headphones during the performance, Jack comes on stage before the play starts, too, so he can “show” us what the set looks like while we’re there in our seats. He talks while he darts around the stage –- that way we can track his voice and get a sense how close (or far) objects are from one another.

“Here’s the door to the hallway,” he’ll call out from stage left, knocking on the door so we’ll know exactly where it is. Closer to the front of the stage, he’ll pat the arm of a couch. “It’s brown,” he says. “The décor in this apartment is just different shades of brown, really.”

The play is set in the 1980s, back when I had just graduated from college and could still see. As Jack continued around the stage describing the small kitchen, the door to the bathroom, the phone, photos hanging on the wall, well, I could picture it all so well that I didn’t bother going on stage for the touch tour.

The final act of the audio/touch tour, when the actors are called up on stage to introduce themselves, is always my favorite. Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson all seemed happy to answer any questions we had, and it was a thrill to have this private audience with them.

The play was about to start then, and we were offered headphones connected to a small device to use for volume control to hear Jack describe scene changes, character entrances/exits and other movements during the play. Everyone had done such a tremendous job introducing us to the play during the pre-production program that I opted to go without the headphones, and I followed the play just fine.

The timing of this particular audio touch tour was perfect: it will be fresh on my mind when I sit on a panel at the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conference tomorrow. The conference is in Chicago this year, and it’s put together by the Kennedy Center.

Cultural arts administrators from all over the world (most of them responsible for accessibility at their respective cultural arts organizations) are in town to attend seminars and workshops on everything from “Determining Who is Eligible to Purchase Accessible Seats” to “Reaching Out to Museum Visitors with Memory Loss and Dementia.” The panel I’m sitting on is called “Finding and Nurturing an Audience for Audio Description” and encourages conference attendees to hear from experts who use Audio Description services — the audience members of Steppenwolf Theatre Company!

The conference website explains that we’ll “provide an informative journey on the best way to market the arts as well as the challenges and successes in accessing arts programs.” Evan Hatfield from Steppenwolf will moderate the panel along with Deborah Lewis, CEO of California’s Arts Access Now. George Abbott, who was born blind, and Sally Cooper, who has a visual impairment but still has some sight, will be sitting on the panel with me, and it meets on Tuesday, August 5, 2014, from 11:30 am to 12:45 pm at the Sheraton Hotel at 301 North Water Street in Chicago.

LEAD conference attendees will be invited to join us at an audio touch tour of The Qualms at Steppenwolf that same night, too, so if you’re at the LEAD conference and happen to have found this blog post, I hope you’ll join us.


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