Let me explain.
Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theater moved to its new location at Biograph Theater in 2006 (yes, the landmark building where gangster John Dillinger was ambushed). The refurbished building boasts an elevator, ramps, wide hallways, widened doorways. A perfect location for Access Project, a nationally-recognized outreach effort to involve people with disabilities in all aspects of theater. Access Project designates certain performances as “Access Nights” by offering additional accessibility services to Victory Garden patrons. But wait…there’s more! Access Project also teams up with smaller theater companies (some who usually perform in small inaccessible spaces in basements, above taverns, down narrow hallways) from time to time to sponsor a one-night-fits-all production in Victory Gardens’ very accessible space.
Both productions I went to this week were produced by smaller Chicago theater companies hosted by Victory Gardens at the refurbished Biograph Theater:
- Once in a Lifetime, a 1930 play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, was performed by Strawdog Theatre company at Victory Gardens Thursday night. a review by Kerry Reid in the Chicago Tribune said the play is “seldom revived, and a lot of that has to do with the humongous cast of characters, featuring nearly 40 speaking parts.”
- Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go blind is a production by the Neo-Futurists that attempts to perform 30 skits in 60 minutes. They performed their “ever-changing menu” last Saturday night at Victory Gardens.
Dozens of characters. Actors playing multiple parts. Many, many scene changes. These particular two plays could have been recipes for blind disaster, but the thought put into the touch tours before each production — coupled with speedy Shayne Kennedy providing audio description in my headset for both plays — helped me take it all in.
Okay, maybe not all, but far more than I would have otherwise. Because, honestly, without this sort of special accommodation, I wouldn’t have considered attending these two complicated plays at all.
Audio touch tours are 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, hear the voices they’ll be using on stage, and learn about the characters they play
When the plays were about to start, I was offered an ear piece connected to a small device the size of an old-fashioned cell phone — the contraption had a volume control dial so I could rev it up to hear the audio describer alert me to scene changes, character entrances/exits and other movements during the play. I usually can follow the play just fine and opt to go without the ear piece. Not this time, though. With one show offering 30 skits in 60 minutes, and the other featuring 40 speaking parts, trust me, I cherished those headphones — almost as much as I cherished the opportunity to seetake in these two lively performances.
I suppose in a perfect world, every Chicago theater — big or small, well-funded or not — would be wheelchair accessible and offer ASL and audio description at their site, but hey — I got the memo. The world isn’t perfect. I’m a huge fan of “reasonable accommodation” and believe that the “reasonable” part should go both ways. Expecting every tiny theater company in Chicago to refurbish the space they rent or pay for an ASL interpreter or audio description for every play would not be reasonable, but it is reasonable on their parts to pair up with established theaters already set up for this —steppenwolf theater did exactly that when working with Gift Theater to produce Richard III. I have learned first-hand that efforts like those by Steppenwolf and Victory Gardens Theater’s Access Project can put a human face to people with disabilities and inspire their fellow arts organizations to keep us in mind when making plans.
The Neo-Futurists who put on the accessible performance of Too Much Light last Saturday are offering a class this summer to explore the process of creating a 2-minute play in the Too Much Light style, writing and crafting pieces based on true life experiences. In partnership with Victory Gardens’ Artist Development Workshop, Intro to TML at VG will meet at Victory Gardens Theater, thus offering an opportunity to study the fundamentals of Neo-Futurism in a physically accessible setting. Accommodations will be provided for students with other disabilities, too. Artists with disabilities are strongly encouraged to apply and will be given preference in acceptance into the workshop.
As for Strawdog, after the show was over Thursday night, the company’s general manager announced that the second-floor venue they usually perform in is going to be demolished soon and replaced with condos. “All of our productions next season will take place at The Factory Theater,,” he said, adding with glee that the new place is at street level. “It’s wheelchair accessible!” The crowd, well, we couldn’t all rise to our feet, but trust me, we showed our appreciation.