Whitney and Beth, live at Biograph Theatre

August 19, 2015 • Posted in blindness, public speaking, Uncategorized, Whitney by

For eighty years now, Chicago’s Biograph Theatre has been known as the movie house where FBI agents gunned down bank robber John Dillinger. After our performance this past Monday night, though, maybe the Biograph will start being better known as the theatre where Beth Finke and her cute Seeing Eye dog Whitney got their stage debut.

The Biograph in an earlier era.

The Biograph in an earlier era.

Let me explain. The Biograph was a movie Theatre for 70 years after Dillinger was killed, but in 2004, a regional theatre here in Chicago called Victory Gardens refurbished it to put on live productions there. Arts organizations all over Chicago are sponsoring special events, lectures and workshops this year to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, and when Victory Gardens Access Project opted to sponsor a workshop for “front of house” (FOH) staff from theaters all over the city, I was asked to sit on a panel there with three other disability advocates to give tips on some of the special needs people with disabilities might have when we attend live performances.

Front of House encompasses all the things happening with the audience in the lobby and at the concession areas before, during, and immediately after a show — anything from selling tickets to handing out concessions to ushering. People who work front of house tend to do so because they enjoy working with people, they love live theatre and they’d like more people to come out to support and enjoy performances. From what I witnessed at the workshop Monday night, they are keen to include more people with disabilities in their audiences, too — I was pleasantly surprised by the large turnout. Nearly 100 FOH staff members were there, representing everything from storefront theatres to art museums to established art programs.

Whitney and I arrived an hour before our panel, and when we walked into the Biograph’s refurbished and stunning lobby I discovered two sign language interpreters giving a workshop about the things theatres should look for when hiring sign language interpreters for their productions. The presenters used their voices as they signed, which made it possible for a woman like me to eavesdrop. I did, and learned that the best theatre interpreters are ones who:

  • avoid signing every word — it’s more important to convey the overall story and allow the action on stage to tell the rest
  • prepare in advance — a presenter said she studies the written script and listens to recordings of the play for weeks ahead of her sign language performances and attends rehearsals and productions ahead of time to get a sense for the timing and determine which signs to use on the day of her sign language interpretation
  • agree to work in teams if the play has many people on stage at once who are talking over each other
  • use subtle movements, like widening their eyes or raising their eyebrows to add meaning to the words they’re spelling out
  • wear extra dark lipstick so audience members capable of reading their lips can see them better
  • wear dark clothes if they’re very light skinned so readers can see their hands
  • wear light-colored clothing if their skin is dark so readers can see their hands
  • take rings and bracelets off before they start signing

So many things I hadn’t ever thought of! Our panel afterwards went well, and it was a thrill to be on the Richard Christiansen stage at the Biograph Theatre with playwright Mike Irvin (founder of Jerry’s Orphans, which organizes annual protests against the Jerry Lewis telethon), Rachel Arfa, J.D.,(a staff attorney at Equip for Equality, a legal advocacy organization that advocates for the rights of people with disabilities) and Evan Hatfield (Steppenwolf Theatre’s director of audience experience).

Mike Irvin uses a wheelchair, Rachel Arfa uses bilateral cochlear implants, I use a Seeing Eye dog, and Evan Hatfield introduced himself by telling the audience he “Doesn’t identify as having a disability.” We took off from there.

The evening ended with answers to questions Front of House staff members in the audience had about touch tours before shows, wheelchair-accessible stages, captioning technology, and person-first language like “Mike uses a wheelchair” rather than “wheelchair-bound Mike.” Audience members shared the challenges and successes of accessing arts programs, the night flew by, and I think (hope!) we made a small difference.

Guess I can find that out the next time I attend a performance in Chicago — and I hope that’s very soon.

Emily Clott On August 19, 2015 at 12:08 pm

This is very interesting. It’s good to know that efforts to make theater more accessible are taking place! Thanks, Beth

bethfinke On August 19, 2015 at 7:47 pm

Yes, and at the event Monday night they said they are conjuring up a web site where people can go to see different things venues and museums all over the city are offering to accomodate people with (and without!) disabilties. Stay tuned, I may just write a blog post when they unveil the site.


Kim On August 19, 2015 at 12:37 pm

That is very, very cool. I work with adults who have developmental disabilities several of them also have low vision and/or are deaf and/or use wheelchairs. We take field trips out into our community all the time but have never been to a play. They’d LOVE this theater! Too bad Chicago is so far from Nashville…

bethfinke On August 19, 2015 at 11:11 pm

Yeah, I guess a field trip to Chicago might be too long a bus ride, huh?! Good to hear from you again, Kim. Mike, Whitney and I still hope to get to Nashville sometime, we hear more and more all the time about how wonderful the city is, not to mention the people there. If you are any indication, the part about the people is absolutely spot on.


Kim Holly On August 21, 2015 at 11:22 pm

If you ever do come to nashvegas, would you consider doing a presentation for the developmentally disabled adults that I work with? Their mental ages are between 4 and 12. They!d love seeing Whitney do her thing. I’ll do all the driving and arranging. Then maybe you could write the trip off on your taxes? I’d love to meet you and Mike. Kim

bethfinke On August 22, 2015 at 9:46 am

YES! I Often do this sort of thing, and yes, it would allow me to write the trip off on my Beth Finke, Inc. taxes. I’ll email you separately — thanks for the offer!


Annelore On August 19, 2015 at 4:25 pm

Thanks Beth, I had no idea that the whole process of signing is that detailed. Of course it makes sense – the work of an interpreter between spoken languages is quite similar. Interesting!

bethfinke On August 19, 2015 at 11:14 pm

You know, a friend of mine who is a flight attendant told me once that sign language counts as knowing a foreign language when it comes to seniority among flight attendants, so yes, you’re on to something here —


bethfinke On August 21, 2015 at 3:57 pm

Thanks, Charlie. You were one of the first mentors I had when it came to advocating for people with disabilities –remember when you & I went door to door at University of Illinois’ campustown businesses with my first Seeing Eye dog Pandora insisting they shovel their walks so PWDs could get in?!


Deborah Darsie On September 13, 2015 at 1:31 pm

What a wonderful chance to both teach and learn about accommodations and the likely impacts of language on perception of capability.

I wonder how long it will be before some of the changes will be implemented or announced.

bethfinke On September 18, 2015 at 10:08 pm

I think some of them are being implemented already — tomorrow I’m taking a commuter train out to suburban Oak Park for a hands-on tour of Frank Lloyd Wright’s home and studio there. It’s a specail tour organized for people like me, who can’t see, and this is the first year they are doig it.


Leave a Response