Wednesday, October 7, 2015

MSU Theatre offering special performance for the visually impaired community

Helen Keller is one of those people who stand out in history as having an absolutely indomitable spirit.

Her story – the early years of which are told so beautifully in the play “The Miracle Worker” – resonates with people to this day, especially through the medium of theater.

“The Miracle Worker” dramatizes the volatile relationship between lonely teacher Annie Sullivan and her violent, spoiled charge, Helen Keller, who was stricken blind and deaf at a young age. Annie realizes that there is a mind and spirit waiting to be rescued from the dark, tortured silence.

“I think that live theater is such an interesting medium by which we can explore significant moments of the past,” said Matthew Caron, who is directing the play that opens Oct. 15 in the Andreas Theatre, Minnesota State University, Mankato. “Similarly, live performance allows an audience to witness these recreated events in a much more immediate and personal way than, say, a documentary film. Film provides some distance for the viewer, whereas theater requires the audience to be involved in the process simply because they occupy the same space as the performers.”

Creating this immediate and personal experience with visually impaired audience members also is important to Caron. He has partnered with Meridith Tietz, a teacher of the blind and visually impaired through South Central Service Cooperative, to offer audio description services during the 2 p.m. matinee Oct. 18.

Tietz will be in a room at the Performing Arts Center during the matinee and will speak into equipment that will broadcast her voice over an FM transmitter while she follows along with the play via live video feed. Blind and visually impaired people in the audience will have an earbud and an FM transmitter and will be able to hear her describing the action on the stage. That way they not only hear the dialogue of the play, but they also get a feel for how the characters are interacting, what the costumes look like, and how the set is designed.

The nuanced process involves hours of preparation studying the play and the dialogue to ensure that Tietz’s descriptions do not conflict with the dialogue.

“It’s really precise timing,” she said. “I will talk about costuming, characters, what Annie looks like, what Helen looks like, and just start building the setting.”

Caron said he had learned about audio description from his friend, Benji Inniger, who held audio-described performances at Bethany Lutheran College’s theater in the past.

“Benji talked about what a valuable experience it was for the blind patrons in attendance, but also for the students involved with the show,” Caron said.

Tietz and her former student, Megan Bening, also worked with cast members during a recent workshop to help them better understand through simulation exercises what it feels like to navigate the world with a visual impairment. The experience helped the actors craft much more realistic portrayals of these famous historical characters.

Caron said the play has been done at Minnesota State Mankato before, but it will be brought back throughout the years for good reason.

“The Helen Keller story is one of those stories that just needs to be told again and again,” he said. “It is such an inspiring tale of overcoming insurmountable odds and about the power of unrelenting love.”

If you go 

“The Miracle Worker” will run 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15-7 and 21-24; and 2 p.m. Oct. 18, 24 and 25 in the Andreas Theatre, Earley Center for Performing Arts, Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Tickets are $16 regular; $14 for seniors ages 65 and older, children under 16 and groups of 15 or more; and $11 for MSU students. Discounted tickets for $14 will also be available to those with visual impairments who attend the 2 p.m. matinee Oct. 18.

Those with visual impairments who are interested in reserving audio description equipment should call the box office at 507-389-6661.

For more information, visit MSUTheatre.com.

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