Enjoying An Accessible Performance of “A Christmas Carol”

By guest blogger Brett Shishkoff

The holidays bring us ample opportunities to enjoy great performances and movies. Last weekend, my colleague at CRIS Radio, Brett Shishkoff, who is blind, enjoyed a touch tour and audio described performance of “A Christmas Carol” at the Goodman Theatre. During a touch tour, people who are blind or visually impaired get to literally feel the different costumes and props that will be used in the performance. They will also hear a description of the stage layout, and in some cases, from some of the main actors themselves. Audio description is a narration of the different visual elements and scenes, which allows those who are blind or visually impaired to follow along. Now, let’s hear from Brett!

The Goodman has been one of my favorite theatres here in Chicago. Each year, they put on the popular holiday classic, “A Christmas Carol.” I have been able to compare this from last year’s performance, and it continues to get better. The Casting of Scrooge is one of the best you’ll find in any version. They also try to throw in some surprises each year, and this time it is no different. Since last year, Fred Scrooge’s niece, Freda, has appears in the place of Scrooge’s nephew. This substitution continues to fit nicely in the show. Freda believes that anyone can change, even her uncle Scrooge who she will never give up on. The show is definitely worth checking out if you’re looking for some Christmas Cheer!

As for the Touch Tour, the Goodman has one of the best in Chicago. They start off by showing us the costumes, props, and wigs in the lobby as we wait for the other patrons to arrive. We then move right into the theater, where we hear about the set and stage layout and some artistic feedback from the director. We even get to walk on the stage to get a better sense of its size. For me, the highlight of each Touch Tour is meeting the cast ahead of the show. They describe what they look like and what they are wearing, and perform a line from their characters.

The Audio Description was excellent. A great audio description of any play is easy to listen and understand – not to quiet or loud. One thing that I believe needs improvement are the headsets used to transmit the narration. Way too often, static or other noise is heard through the headsets used for these performances, which can be a bit distracting. This is hopefully something that can be easily fixed as new technology is developed for these devices. All in all, my experience at A Christmas Carol was a great one, and I am trying to turn this into a family tradition for many years to come. I left with warmth in my heart and a smile on my face. I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday season filled with lots of joy!

The Goodman is holding an additional audio described performance of “A Christmas Carol” on Wednesday evening, December 13 at 7:30 pm. For more information or to purchase tickets, you can visit this page or call 312-443-3800.

This is Sandy again. In next week’s post, I will share my experience at the movies using Actiview, a new mobile app that provides audio description and closed captions for people with visual or hearing impairments. Thanks for reading and stay tuned!

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XANADU: A Fun and Accessible Performance!

Sandy at Xanadu

Last Saturday, I, along with several colleagues from The Lighthouse, was treated to a performance of Xanadu at the American Theater Company on Chicago’s north side. We had all heard that the 1980 film starring Olivia Newton-John was not successful, and honestly did not know what to expect from the musical. Truth be told, I was only interested in going after learning that we would take a touch tour of the stage before the performance. Not only did we get to be on stage to see and feel the different costumes and props beforehand, but we also heard from some of the cast members themselves!

Evan Hatfield is the Director of Audience Experience at Steppenwolf Theater Company, and works with many theaters across Chicago to make sure performances are accessible to people with disabilities. This was the American Theater’s first time putting on a touch tour for patrons with vision loss, so they consulted with Evan to learn how to make this possible. We were all pleased to find out that Evan and the staff at the American Theater Company had thought about every single detail, from providing assistance getting into the theater to anyone who requested it to describing in full detail the various costumes and props.

We arrived to the theater about 90 minutes before the performance got started. This allowed us to learn more about the musical from Evan and the theater director. They briefly discussed things like the time setting of the story, stage layout and some of the visual and sound effects that would be used in the play. Next came the part I was waiting for: feeling the different costumes and props! Theater staff members described each item and told us which character would be using it. Finally, some of the cast members introduced themselves and described the characters they would play.

Although I had attended performances with audio description, this was my very first touch tour in a theater. Not that I didn’t know there was such a thing – working at The Lighthouse has allowed me to learn of the many things Chicago theaters are doing to become accessible to people with vision loss.

This was also the first time taking a touch tour for a few of my colleagues. Brett Shishkoff is an intern at CRIS Radio, and he felt the touch tour and discussion with the director and cast members was invaluable. He – like me and many of our colleagues who attended – is completely blind. Hearing from the actors themselves and feeling the different objects helped us get a better sense of what was going on during the play, even though it did not include audio description.

“Having the touch tour bridged the gap enough for me to be able to still chuckle at some of the things that they were referencing and know why it was funny,” Brett says.

Although having audio description during the performance would have helped during the times when actors used gestures or other expressions we couldn’t see, my coworkers and I were still able to follow and understand the story.

“I was probably smiling and laughing for at least the first hour of the play,” Brett tells me.

Kudos to the American Theater Company for striving to make Xanadu an accessible performance for those of us who are blind or visually impaired. Keep up the great work, I hope this is the first of many accessible performances! As a fellow attendee put it, “Although they do not require the touch tour service, we can now say the American Theater Company is inclusive for all, disability or otherwise.”

I hope to continue attending more audio described and touch tour performances in the future, and so do my other colleagues.

“I always enjoyed the theater quite a bit before I lost my sight … We know now we can actually go to [performances] and enjoy them with our family and friends,” Brett said.

I can’t praise Evan and the American Theater Company enough for their outstanding service! Had I not known this was their first time putting on a touch tour, I would have never realized it – the tour and accommodations were extremely thorough and well thought out. Special thanks to Lighthouse board member Larry Broutman for generously donating the tickets for us to attend and enjoy the show. This sure was a fun and great opportunity for everyone!

Many theaters and museums throughout Chicago offer audio described performances and touch tours. The Chicago Cultural Accessibility Consortium (CCAC) has a calendar of accessible cultural events, and the League of Chicago Theaters also has a calendar of accessible performances. You can find a link to subscribe to their monthly email that lists upcoming accessible performances.

Have you gone to performances with touch tours or audio description? Please share your experiences with us – we’d love to hear from you!