CHICAGO — When the lights dim and a play starts, all eyes are on the stage. But what if you can’t see it?

How do people who are blind experience a live theater show? A museum exhibit?

“The biggest problem we face is that many people assume people who are blind can’t or don’t experience theater or other sources of entertainment,” said Chris Danielsen, spokesman for the National Federation of the Blind. “And that is not correct.”

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Yes, they can hear the actors, their motions — the pouring of a glass, the shot of a gun. And they’ve been going to live shows for a long time, Danielsen said.

But Chicago theater is making the experience better.

Two hours before showtime on a recent morning, pieces of Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s “The Little Mermaid” production were strewn about the theater’s lobby.

Ariel’s long red locks. Flounder the guppy’s turquoise and yellow “fin” mohawk. Even the tough snakeskin boots of Sebastian, the crab who conducts.

And 3-year-old Lincoln Rybak was running his fingers over all of it — tapping, squishing, squeezing. Lincoln is legally blind, and his parents were participating in the theater’s touch tour, an opportunity for patrons with low vision to feel the textured costumes, explore the set and meet the characters before the show.

Touch tours are not new to the city — Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater adopted a program in the 1990s, said Evan Hatfield, Steppenwolf Theatre’s director of audience experience. But in the past five years, the city’s cultural scene has blossomed with accessibility. He listed 21 local theaters that offer programs like touch tours, audio description, sign language interpretation and live captioning for productions. And that number is growing.

Lincoln’s favorite piece was a fantastic sea urchin headpiece; his little hands were grasping the flexible, floppy spines that poke out from its base. He was at a standstill as a group of about 20 children and adults who are blind weaved through the props with family.

“Whoaaaaaaaa,” he howled, tugging the thick spines as Jason Harrington, the theater’s education outreach manager who heads accessibility programs, explained each piece.

Growth in accessibility is not limited to theaters. Eleven other Chicago institutions including the Lincoln Park Zoo, the History Museum and the Shedd Aquarium pledged to make accessibility better in many ways after the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act in July, said Christena Gunther, founder of the Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium, a group that works as a network for cultural accessibility programs.

Ideas include offering more programs, hiring full-time accessibility managers and finding new ways to reach those with disabilities.

“Accessibility is not just about having a ramp,” Gunther said. “Everybody’s different, everybody has different needs. Accessibility never reaches an ending point, and that’s the challenge but also the fun part.”

Once in the theater, Lincoln and the group had full access to a few of the show’s set pieces.

On stage was Prince Eric’s ship, a piece of Ariel’s grotto, a giant sea anemone cushion and Chef Louis’ cooking table, covered with “pots and pans and really gross-feeling fish, which you’re welcome to touch,” Harrington said as he guided the tour.

“Don’t they feel awful?” said Sharon Howerton, of Chicago, who is blind and brought her son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren along.

Soon, a handful of the core cast members joined the group “so you get a sense of what they sound like,” Harrington said.

There was Ariel, in full attire, who explained the mermaid’s curiosity and many costume changes — from a tail to a dress to a wedding gown. King Triton and Eric also joined. And the man who played Sebastian previewed the crab’s Jamaican accent. “Ah-ree-el!” he yelled.

While a touch tour undoubtedly “enhances the experience,” said Danielsen of the federation for the blind, so does audio description, an explanation of scenes and set changes that are transmitted live to patrons who are blind, through headsets, while the show unfolds on stage. Chicago Shakespeare and about 20 other local theaters offer it already or plan to soon.

It’s an accommodation that requires training, finessing and time to perfect, but when done well it can make the play come alive in a new way.

Like the beginning of “The Little Mermaid,” when Ariel begins to sing the opening, “A World Above” — a beautiful song, but even better when you know a giant blue fabric like the surface of the ocean is rippling around her as she rises to hip level from beneath the stage, like she’s treading water.

Deborah Lewis, vice president of California-based Audio Description Solutions, trained audio describers in Chicago a few weeks ago and said “some people get it, some people don’t,” but here “everyone got it.”

“In Chicago, theaters seem to be helping each other out, giving each other a lot of ideas, and that doesn’t happen in a lot of places,” she said. “I was so overwhelmed and impressed.”

If Chicago theaters are budding, the city’s museums are still planting the seeds.

The Art Institute of Chicago offers a touch gallery — a free area where anyone can feel four small sculptures, said Lucas Livingston, the museum’s assistant director of senior programs. But those four pieces are only tiny slice of the artwork offered in the building.

The Art Institute also hosts tours where patrons can handle a limited number of 3-D-printed duplicates of objects on display, like plastic copies of ancient mugs, dolls and instruments. Those are helpful not only for the blind but for people with dementia, Livingston said, so they can feel and better engage with each piece. “Everybody loves to learn through touch.”

The museum also has five small 3-D-printed duplicates of paintings — helpful, tactile representations of the art on the wall from different genres, since handling can damage original paintings.

“For theater, you have the luxury of knowing who’s coming in advance and being able to plan for that, versus at a museum, people are usually just dropping in and you might not know what people are coming to see,” said Gunther of the cultural consortium. “The way you can make your institution accessible varies depending on what type of organization you are.”

The Art Institute is able to plan for its monthly sign-language tour, which garners about 60 patrons, Livingston said.

Other museums offer audio tours and guided tours — options that cover the bases but do not yet go above and beyond, Gunther said. But they all share an interest in improving.

“I think we’re better off than five, 10 years ago,” she said, but “this is an ongoing effort. There’s always something new and different you can offer at your institution.”

To the left of the Shakespeare stage, a pair of sign-language interpreters enthusiastically signed the characters’ dialogue — another layer of accessibility for patrons at the show.

Harrington remained in a handful of ears until curtain call, guiding them through live set changes as he watched from a room high above the audience.

He described Prince Eric’s castle, Ariel’s lavender dress. The way Ursula’s evil electric eels moved down aisles and about the theater. And ultimately, Prince Eric’s proposal. Their marriage.

“They kiss,” Harrington said, just before the couple climbed aboard the ship and sailed backstage. “Lights out, end of play.”

© 2015 Chicago Tribune
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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