Remember the post I wrote early last year about going to Steppenwolf Theatre for a special touch tour of the set of “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” I learned so much from that experience that I signed up for the touch tour of “Good People” at Steppenwolf last Sunday. My friend Nancy Beskin came along, and she generously offered to write this guest post to give you a sighted-eye view.
Good People at Steppenwolf
by Nancy Beskin
I’ve always been interested in the production aspects of theater (sets, staging, casting, etc.), so when Beth invited me to join her for a touch tour preceding Steppenwolf Theatre’s performance of Good People last week, I immediately accepted.
A touch tour offers visually impaired theater-goers an opportunity to go onto the stage and literally “touch” the sets. Evan Hatfield, the Director of Audience Experience at Steppenwolf, started the afternoon with a discussion with one cast member and the Audio Describer. Jack, the Audio Describer, has a pretty unique job. Audio Describers are right there at the performance to narrate what is physically happening on the stage: scene changes, character entrances or exits, any other movements audience members who can’t see might not detect on their own. The listener hears the Audio Describer through headphones connected to a device they hold in their hands to control the volume. Beth thinks the narration is a distraction, but I imagine it would be very helpful for plays in which there is not as much dialogue as the one we were about to see.
The actor talked with Evan about the play and the characters and described some key elements, including a discussion about the South Boston accents most of the actors use during the play. Then Jack explained the layout of the stage and described each of the numerous stage sets in detail. At first it was disorienting for me to walk into the theater and see all the sets up on stage at one time, but it was fascinating, too. When we all moved onto the stage to walk amidst the different sets, I really understood the value of the touch tour. I helped Beth narrowly maneuver around the church basement/bingo hall, the main character’s kitchen, the doctor’s office and the alley outside the Dollar Store, all the while keeping tight reign on her so that she and her dog Whitney wouldn’t fall off the stage!
Steppenwolf staff members were on hand to describe the mechanics of all the sets. Some sets came in from either side of the stage and one even came down from the ceiling. As we walked through, I did my best to explain to Beth what I thought would be interesting to her, including that all the books in the doctor’s bookcase were in actuality books related to his specialty.
When we returned to our theater seats, the rest of the actors came out to introduce themselves. Each one described and defined their characters, including what they looked like, and what kind of clothes they would wear. The actors who’d be using accents gave us a taste of what they would sound like during the play. One actor, playing the doctor’s wife, explained that since her character was from Washington, D.C., she would be speaking in her regular voice, rather than the “Southie” accent of South Boston.
It was a very eye-opening (ahem, as Beth would say) experience for me. Many theaters offer Touch Tours as well as other services for the visually impaired. Steppenwolf, for one, provides playbills in Braille, large print and audio format to listen to before the performance.
The Steppenwolf staff that we met (including Stage Manager Libet, who told us she follows this Safe & Sound blog) couldn’t have been more helpful. Thank you, Steppenwolf, for all you do to make the theater-going experience more accessible and enjoyable for everyone. You are Good People.