Aided by touch tour, blind patrons take in theater experience

Probing ahead of him with his cane, Roger Williamson crossed the Everyman Theatre stage, picked upa human skull that doubled as a candy dish and poked his fingers through the eye sockets. Moments later, he ran his hands over a papier-mache mask described as resembling Eleanor Roosevelt or, alternately, Helen of Troy.

At the same time, another blind theater lover was pounding out "Chopsticks" on a xylophone on the stage's second level, while a third was operating the lever of an antique printing press, circa 1937.

The group was attending a touch tour of "You Can't Take It With You" organized by the troupe and by Blind Industries and Services of Maryland. By the time they left the stage, tour members had created a mental blueprint of the set that enhanced their understanding of performances they attended later in the run.

Williamson, 63, attended the show on Thursday night. If he hadn't participated in the touch tour first, he said, "I might have known that there was a candy dish on stage, but not that it was shaped like a skull and contains jelly beans. I wouldn't have known that the audience is laughing because the mask of Eleanor Roosevelt doesn't look anything like her."

Contrary to popular assumption, blind people do attend the theater – and they catch on to plot twists and character development as readily as do their sighted seatmates. It's just that their insights might be slightly different, because they were provided by the theatergoers' ears and hands, instead of their eyes.

According to a 2008 report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1.3 million Americans are legally blind.

Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, theaters of all types must provide equal access to their services to potential patrons who are blind, deaf or in a wheelchair. Theaters are required to "furnish auxiliary aids when necessary to ensure effective communication," the Act reads.

Chris Danielsen, a spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind, and himself an Everyman season ticket-holder, said it's a fallacy that blind people can't enjoy a stage show just because they can't see the actors, costumes and set.

"I go to the theater for the same reasons you go to the theater," he said.

"I could get a talking book, but it's not the same as a play. There's something about the dynamic that develops between a bunch of live actors on stage and the audience. When actors are serious and good, you get the energy of what they're doing even if you don't know all the specific details."

Most theaters make available large-print or Braille programs. Many, including Center Stage, the Hippodrome and Everyman, provide an audio description system, in which blind customers wearing headsets listen to a narrator.

Touch tours can be found occasionally in cities including Chicago, Detroit and Toronto, but they're not common. Props and costumes are fragile, and some are costly. There could be potential liability issues, according to theater operators. And, for major commercial enterprises such as the national tour of a Broadway show, a set's design may be proprietary information.

In Baltimore, Everyman is the only professional troupe to regularly offer on-stage touch tours, and staff have been doing it annually since at least 2006.

"The mission of our theater is that we're the theater for everyone," said Marcus Kyd, Everyman's education director. "We try hard to make that a reality."

Thursday's tour turned up half a dozen patrons who hold season tickets to either the Hippodrome, Center Stage or Everyman.

Williamson and his wife, who also is blind, subscribe to both community theaters in Cumberland, where they live.

As he put it: "The ushers know us so well that as soon as they see us, they say, 'Aren't you the couple that likes to sit in the first row?"

It's difficult to calculate how many theater lovers can't see because not all blind patrons request electronic assistance. Some say that the voice coming over the headsets can yank them out of the magic world the play is creating.

"I think these programs are a good idea for people who want them," Danielsen said. "But a lot of blind people like to go without the special services, because they can get a pretty strong sense of what's going on without them. It's not that sounds and touch compensate for lack of vision. The sounds that we hear are the same sounds that you hear. But, we attach more significance to them."

That's why blind patrons sometimes pick up on subtle details that might elude their friends with 20/20 vision.

During the first weekend of June, Williamson took in a new work set during the U.S. Civil War. One character was a madam.

"When the show was over, I said, 'I think the actor playing that role was a man," Williamson said.

"My friend said, 'No, that was a woman.'

"I later found out I was right. I could tell by the timbre of his voice."

Kyd has been struck more than once by the acuity of Everyman's blind patrons, who can discern from the sound of footsteps how fast the person is moving, how much he weighs, and what mood he's in.

For instance, Maurice Peret, a staff member for Blind Industries, took part in the touch tour two days after attending the madcap comedy at Everyman.

He said there's a misperception that blind people don't pick up on facial expressions and body language, even in the case of an actor standing on a stage 50 feet from the audience.

"The only way I can explain it is that I see differently than you do," said Peret, 47, of Baltimore. "I process information through a different system.

"If someone points in a particular direction, he'll usually turn his head, and the volume of his voice will be different. A disapproving look is very easy to read. I can hear a smile or a frown because the shape of the person's mouth changes. I can hear a slight tilt of the head, or if a person slumps and looks down toward the ground.

"It gives me what I believe to be a full experience of the play."

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