Getting A Feel For The Show

Have you ever listened to a recording of a musical? A musical which you have never seen live, never seen any pictures of or seen any preview videos on YouTube? At some point we all have. And it you love the music then the first thing most people will do is search for a video to see how the whole production comes together. What if you didn’t have that luxury?

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Theatre is taking every opportunity to embrace diversity. Disney is pioneering autism-friendly performances with toned down music, lighting and movement to give their audiences the best experience possible. Captioning has been increasing accessibility for hearing-impaired audiences back since opera required the service for translation. But what about if you are visually-impaired?

Musicals are intensely protective of their experience. That is why the industry finds the increasing popularity of movie musicals is so terrifying . . . because it gives away the whole hand releasing the music, costumes, dance routines, sets and more. Yet, sending the cast recording far and wide is okay because it only reveals one element of the production. But if you are a visually-impaired audience member, attending a live show is rather similar to listening to a cast album.

Go back to my example at the beginning of this post. No matter how much you want to see how all the theatrical elements come together, you only get exposure to the music. So how can theatre become more inviting for this select segment of the audience?

This was an issue which I had never really confronted until today. Everyone is exposed to the autism-friendly Disney performances on the news. Ticket buyers often see options for hearing-impaired audience members when booking their performances. But rarely is there any information for visually-impaired members of the audience. Until I was checking out some Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) performances today!

For each show in their 2015 season, MTC has joined in partnership with Vision Australia to enhance the experience of these patrons with two options. The first one is similar to the audio descriptions that occasionally appear in sub-titled films. Trained audio describers will narrate actions, expressions and gestures in a performance via a small receiver available to visually-impaired audience members. This is certainly helpful to add extra meaning to the words and music featured in their plays and musicals, but it still leaves out the visual spectacle that encourages most audience members to fork out enormous amounts of money for tickets. Enter tactile tours.

During specially nominated performances, guests are given a tour of the stage an hour before the show. They will be joined by the Stage Manager and Cast Members while they get to touch the props, feel the costumes and experience the sets in person while these production representatives explain these unique elements of the show.

What a wonderful idea! Not only will these audience members be able to have a more realistic understanding of the visual spectacle onstage, but they also get an experience that is awarded to no other audience members.

MTC have incorporated these opportunities into every mainstage production this season and hopefully these tactile tours will become an integral part of every professional production that tours Australia. The easy argument would be that there are so many costumes and sets in our professional shows – but even a few select costumes, props and sets would dramatically enhance the experience of visually-impaired audiences and increase the accessibility of theatre for everyone!