My brush with Michael Cera

August 1, 2014 • Posted in blindness, public speaking, Uncategorized by

One of the many, many things Mike and I did to celebrate our wedding anniversary last week was attend the play This Is Our Youth at Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre. The play starred Michael Cera (of Arrested Development and Juno fame) and nearly all the performances were sold out. The only reason we were able to score tickets last Saturday is because that happened to be the day Steppenwolf set aside a number of tickets for a special audio touch tour of the set for people with visual impairments and their guests.

I’ve written a post about Steppenwolf’s audio touch tours before.

That’s my previous Seeing Eye dog Harper and me with our Steppenwolf hosts a few years ago during the on-stage touch tour of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

That’s me and my previous Seeing Eye dog Harper with our gracious Steppenwolf hosts on stage a few years ago during the touch tour for Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? One of the staff members from Steppenwolf is holding one of the breakable prop bottles and a bouquet of the plastic snapdragons which figure prominently into the play.

Much more than just the tactile experience the name implies, a Touch Tour is a pre-performance program that gives those of us who are blind or have low vision an opportunity to:

  • participate in an artistic conversation about a production
  • experience a detailed description of the set, props and costumes
  • handle key props, set and costume pieces
  • tour the set with a sighted guide
  • meet the actors and learn about the characters they play

Our This is Our Youth audio touch tour opened with stage manager Cambra Overend explaining what an alley theatre is (the stage is surrounded by audience members on two sides) and how they blocked the scenes to allow everyone in the audience to follow the action. She described different scenes and lines from the play that had given the three young actors particular trouble. Pretty cool for a bunch of blind people to get an inside look, ahem, of a production that’s heading to New York City now. ( This is Our Youth opens on Broadway the 11th of September, and Cambra will be the stage manager for that production, too).

Next came Jack Miggins, the Audio Describer. In addition to describing the play via headphones during the performance, Jack gets on stage before the play while we’re still in our seats to “show” us what the set looks like. He talks while he darts around the stage — that way we can track his voice and get a sense of how close (or far) objects are from one another.

“Here’s the door to the hallway,” Jack called out from stage left last Saturday, knocking on the door so we’d know exactly where it was. The door squeaked as he opened it, too. “You can see into the hallway, but all that’s out here is a ten-speed bike missing a front wheel.” Closer to the front of the stage, he patted the arm of a couch. “It’s brown,” he said. “The décor in this apartment is just different shades of brown, really.” He picked up a plastic milk crate near the couch and told us it had a few record albums in it, including one by Frank Zappa. “Lots of cassettes, too,” he said, giving it a shake so we could here them flopping around. “Oh, yeah, and a squishy Nerf football.”

The play is set in the 1980s, back when I had just graduated from college and could still see. As Jack continued around the stage describing the small kitchen, the door to the bathroom, the phone, photos hanging on the wall, well, I could picture it all so well that I didn’t bother going on stage for the touch tour.

The final act of the audio/touch tour, when the actors are called up on stage to introduce themselves, is always my favorite. Michael Cera, Kieran Culkin and Tavi Gevinson all seemed happy to answer any questions we had, and it was a thrill to have this private audience with them.

The play was about to start then, so we were offered headphones connected to a small device to use for volume control to hear Jack describe scene changes, character entrances/exits and other movements during the performance. Everyone had done such a tremendous job introducing us to the play ahead of time that I opted to go without the headphones. As the play progressed, I understood why Jack had pointed out certain things during his on-stage romp during the pre-production presentation. Two examples:

  • Kieran Culkin’s character told his parents he was working as a bike messenger, but the missing bike wheel told us he was a liar.
  • When Michael Cera’s character wanted to “play catch” in the apartment, we knew he was holding a Nerf football.

The timing of this particular audio touch tour was perfect: it will be fresh on my mind when I sit on a panel at the Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conference this Tuesday. The conference is in Chicago this year, and it’s put together by the Kennedy Center.

Cultural arts administrators from all over the world (most of them responsible for accessibility at their respective cultural arts organizations) are in town to attend seminars and workshops on everything from” Determining Who is Eligible to Purchase Accessible Seats” to “Reaching out to Museum Visitors with Memory Loss and Dementia.” The panel I’m sitting on is called “Finding and Nurturing an Audience for Audio Description” and encourages conference atendees to hear from experts who use Audio Description services-the audience members of Steppenwolf Theatre Company!

The conference web site explains that we’ll “provide an informative journey on the best way to market the arts as well as the challenges and successes in accessing arts programs.” Evan Hatfield from Steppenwolf will moderate the panel along with Deborah Lewis, CEO of California’s Arts Access Now. George Abbott, who was born blind, and Sally Cooper, who has a visual impairment but still has some sight, will be sitting on the panel with me, and it meets on Tuesday, August 5 from 11:30 am to 12:45 pm at the Sheraton Hotel at 301 North Water Street in Chicago.

LEAD conference attendees will be invited to join us at an audio touch tour of The Qualms at Steppenwolf that same night, too, so if you’re at the LEAD conference and happen to have found this blog post, I hope you’ll join us.

Robert Ringwald On August 2, 2014 at 1:38 am

Dear Beth,

I found your description of the special audio touch tour of the play, This Is Our Youth, at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago to be very interesting. I hope your involvement in the upcoming Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability (LEAD) conference helps to encourage more theaters to offer similar Audio Touch Tours in their theaters.

Some years ago when my daughter Molly Ringwald was appearing on Broadway, she heard about an organization that offers audio description of various shows in New York theaters. She arranged to have her show be described a night when I was to be at the play.

There were approximately 40 blind and visually impaired people in the audience that night taking advantage of the service. As with the Steppenwolf production, head phones connected to a small receiver about the size of a pack of cigarettes were provided free of charge. Sets and costumes were described before the show via the head sets. Then during the show the actual description of the action onstage took place.

The two features you had that we didn’t have was an actual, physical tour of the set and a Q&A session by the actors. However, because of Molly, I personally got to tour the set. After the show I was introduced to all of the actors.

As you may know, due to copyright laws and Actors Equity, the actors theater union, it is prohibited to take pictures or record a show. Some of the actors did not know that there was going to be an audio description done that night. One actress saw some blinking lights in the audience and heard a faint voice coming out of the various ear phones. When she went off-stage, she went to the stage manager and complained that the show was being illegally recorded. Once she was told about the audio description taking place, everything was OK.

-Bob Ringwald

bethfinke On August 2, 2014 at 7:37 am

Oh, Bob, I’m so glad you wrote such a long detailed comment, it gives me even more information I might be able to share with the audience when I’m up there sitting on that panel Tuesday. I’ll be attending the conference, too, and when I just went over the list of presenters I found representatives from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Whitney were listed, but no word of anyone from live theatre in NYC. I do hope some will show up, I’d love to hear more about what goes on in NYC when it comes to live theatre for people who are blind or have visual impairments. Oh, and thanks for mentioning copyright laws, that’s why I don’t have a photo of Michael, Kieran and Tavi on stage talking with us before the show. Guess you had to be there to witness it all –I’m a lucky woman!


Marilee On August 2, 2014 at 2:16 pm

What a wonderful opportunity for you two-fold. You had an amazing theater event AND you are a part of the LEAD conference. I am very impressed with the way the stage manager and the audio describer worked together to make the story and the theater experience something that people with visual impairments could truly enjoy. Congrats to Steppenwolf. I hope more theaters learn from them at the conference and offer you more opportunities to enjoy live theater. Marilee

bethfinke On August 3, 2014 at 9:05 am

Thanks, Marilee — you are so right, the folks at Steppenwolf deserve a TON of credit for putting this all together at the theatre, and as if that’s not enough, they are one of the sponsors of the LEAD conference here in Chicago, too. It’s thanks in large part to them, and especially Evan Hatfield at Steppenwolf, that I’ll have a chance to meet a lot of people from all over the world this week who are interested in making the arts more accessible to those of us who live with disabilities. I’m a lucky woman!


Deborah Darsie On August 7, 2014 at 2:35 am

What a fantastic and thorough experience to have before the play! I love learning about how different activities, objects and experiences are presented with the intent to be adaptive.

I remember how you described the art museum’s exhibit several editions back. Makes me wonder about the differences in education or personal experience the designers of these activities have in the arenas of various ability differences.

I look forward to your blog(s) after the LEAD conference.

bethfinke On August 7, 2014 at 9:00 am

Deborah, Thanks for the enthusiastic comment! Our panel at the LEAD conference went very well, but must say, going to some of the other sessions there and attending some of the “extra-curricular” activities” for LEAD attendees at night has put me a little behind in my other endeavors. Like writing a blog post about it all, for instance… Hope to put *something* together about LEAD soon, and your thoughtful comment here motivates me to write a blog post sooner rather than later. Thanks, and stay tuned.


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