Seeing Richard III in a whole new way

Michael Thornton in rehearsal for Richard III. Photo: Steppenwolf

Michael Thornton in rehearsal for Richard III. Photo: Steppenwolf

You might recall a post I wrote last year about Michael Patric Thornton, an actor who returned to Chicago after playing a doctor in the TV drama Private Practice. Michael suffered a spinal stroke when he was 23 years old that left him paralyzed from the neck down. He started a theater company in Chicago after that, and now has the lead in a new production of Gift Theater’s production of Richard III at Steppenwolf’s Garage Theater in Chicago. I attended a special tour for people who have visual impairments before seeing, ahem, the play. It was one of the most well-thought-out audio touch tours I’ve been on – and I’ve been on a lot of them! Here’s how it went:

  1. The play’s director spoke to us about why she was drawn to the play, her decision to cast Michael Patrick Thornton in the lead, her decision to go minimalist with costumes and set design.
  2. Mike Thornton joined in and started his part of the pre-game show talking about his high school English teacher, the man responsible for turning Mike on to Shakespeare. That teacher went on to get a Ph.D., and he’s the Shakespeare scholar who adapted Richard III for the production we’d be seeing later that afternoon.
  3. The man who’d be sitting in the balcony describing scene changes, character entrances/exits and other movements into my headset during the performance took two or three minutes to describe the simple set design. Preparing to audio describe the play took much longer – he’d already been at two live performances and had been given permission by the cast to videotape one as well to practice at home.
  4. A friend had met me at Steppenwolf ahead of time to see (she can!) how these special tours work. My friend knows my Seeing Eye dog Whitney, so I took the dog’s harness off and handed her the leash to have both hands free to touch the few things on stage.
  5. Evan Hatfield, the Director of Audience Experience at Steppenwolf, led me onto the stage, but with so few things up there, he added a bonus….
  6. I got to feel some of the stuff on the prop table! The prop table is exactly what the name implies: props are carefully placed on this table offstage so actors can grab them efficiently on their way onstage. Aha! Something actors have in common with those of us who are blind: We like to keep important items in a particular spot so we can find them easily.
  7. Actors (I counted — I think there were 14!) lined up on stage, and one by one they were asked the same set of questions by Evan. Height? Skin tone? Hair color? Any facial hair? Make any physical decisions to convey character, help tell your character’s story? Answers to that last question were intriguing. One had decided his character would have a slight limp, and the woman playing one of the princes had the same answer that the woman playing Lady Anne had –both were playing characters who were unsure of themselves, so they shifted their weight from one foot to the other to signify feeling off-balance. Actors weren’t asked to describe their costumes — we’d been told earlier they’d all be in simple outfits in shades of black and grey, and each would wear pearl earrings and a ruffled collar.
  8. Each actor recited a line from the play so we’d recognize the voice later.
  9. Actors involved in the final fight scene stayed on stage then to review the choreography. Touch tour participants are usually ushered out of the theatre for this, but staff members who were concerned about Whitney’s reaction to the violence during the actual show wanted us to stay and check it out. She passed the audition.
  10. Cast members who love dogs came down to meet Whitney then, and I took her harness off so they could play with her. Pet therapy, both for Whit and for the actors!

I was not as lucky as Mike Thornton was in high school. My English teachers were not charismatic. None of them turned me on to Shakespeare. This performance of Richard III marked the first time I’d ever attended a live performance of a Shakespeare play.

I did a fair bit of research ahead of time. I read A Rose for the Crown, historical fiction set during the War of the Roses that led to Richard III’s coronation. I read the Richard III sections of A Theatergoers Guide to Shakespeare and Tales from Shakespeare, and even downloaded the play itself –although all I read there were the “explanatory notes.”

I read some reviews, too. The Chicago Tribune review of the Gift Theater production at Steppenwolf was helpful in explaining how Thornton, who uses a wheelchair, would also be using a walker and an exoskeleton device to portray King Richard. The exoskeleton is a state-of-the-art device called Rewalk. It was provided by the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, a sponsor of the production. When Mike was talking to us before the play, he was surprised he hadn’t heard much controversy over Gift’s decision to have him use a walker to stand up in order to seduce Lady Anne. Isn’t that blatant ablism?” he wondered. He credited the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for providing the robotic exoskeleton he uses in the coronation scene and did his best to explain how he makes the exoskeleton work.

“Do you look scary when you cross the stage in it?” I asked. “Or powerful?” When he didn’t answer, I turned around to ask Martin (the guy who’d be talking into our headsets). He didn’t hesitate to give his answer: “Powerful.”

The audio/touch tour had started two hours before the play. It was so stimulating that I wasn’t sure the play could live up to It.

It did.

The whole experience was so exhilarating, the dialogue so intense and dynamic, the stage so full of characters speaking in that unfamiliar, well, Shakespearian way, I guess, that by the time Act One was over, I was exhausted.

I left at intermission.

Let me be clear here. My leaving early had everything to do with my limitations, not the production. I routinely seek out plays with few characters and one act. That’s because, otherwise, it’s hard for me to keep up as well as I want to. And my previous experience with Shakespeare was nil — even in my sighted days, I’d struggled to understand the plays we were required to read in high school and college. All to say, given my history with a Shakespeare play? This Richard III production was a rousing success. It was my first, but not my last.

Gift Theatre’s production of Richard III runs through May 1 in Steppenwolf’s Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted St. in Chicago.Tickets available at 312.335.1650 and


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