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July 25, 2017

More Than a Theater: IRIS Collaboration Makes Theater Accessible


Maryfrances Evans, executive director of Iowa Radio Reading Information Service for the Blind and Print Handicapped (IRIS), had a wild idea. IRIS volunteers known as the Sensation Team had been providing audio descriptions for guests at Des Moines Community Playhouse shows since 2012. The wild idea? To broadcast the audio description, out loud, at one performance for the entire audience to experience.

John Viars, the Playhouse’s executive director, thought it was a great idea.

Typically vision-impaired guests hear a show’s audio description on headsets worn during the performance. The Sensation Team describes the action in between the dialogue. Before the show, the team reads the playbill, describes the set and costumes, gives background on the characters, and provides a plot synopsis.

The Playhouse and IRIS decided to broadcast audio description at an added performance of The Miracle Worker in January 2014. The performance became truly accessible to all when Deaf Services Unlimited provided two American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters for the performance.

The Miracle Worker cast members and Sensation Team rehearsed together. The rehearsal let the team note in their scripts when an actor moved or picked up an object. Since the description would be out loud, the rehearsal also let the actors know when they would need to pause dialogue to allow the team to finish their description. Rehearsal was rocky at times, but everyone was optimistic.

The big day came. The Playhouse welcomed guests with a “touch tour” in the lobby. Guests were invited to feel a doll, water pitcher, and Willow, a live dog, all of which would be on stage later in the afternoon. The Iowa Department for the Blind provided braille copies of the show’s playbill. Any nerves felt by actors and Sensation Team members were quickly washed away in the excitement of this historic performance.

The Des Moines Register‘s Michael Morain shared this example of audio description, delivered in a hushed, golf-announcer voice: “Helen goes to the pump and she feels the spout… Annie leans down… Helen’s face is radiant. She frantically starts to pump. She feels the water coming out of the spout. She spells the word ‘water’. They’re nodding. They’re smiling…”

After the performance, guests were led on stage where they could feel the water pump for themselves. Several were fascinated by touching the bustles on the women’s late-1800s dresses. Hugs were exchanged between actors and guests.

Viars said, “The Playhouse has a long-standing commitment to making the arts accessible to the entire community. This was an opportunity for everyone to hear what typically only our vision impaired guests experience.”