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'Touch tours' bring Stratford Festival stage to life for people with visual impairments

The Stratford Festival is helping to make live theatre more accessible for people who are blind or have visual impairments. Touch tours give people a behind-the-scenes experience where they can feel the intricate costumes from 'Merry Wives of Windsor.'

Tours offer tactile experience of costumes and props used during Stratford Festival productions

Touch tours give people with visual impairments the chance to feel props and costumes, like wigs, before taking in a live theatre performance. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

The last time Terry Stortz was at the Stratford Festival, he was in high school and he could see.

These days Stortz only has about five per cent of his vision, but that's not stopping him from enjoying live theatre.

"It's a neat day out," Stortz said, on his way to a performance of the Merry Wives of Windsor.

The Stratford Festival is helping to bring the stage to life for patrons like Stortz, who are blind or have visual impairments, by offering "touch tours."

The tours feature costumes and props similar to those used during productions so that patrons can feel the different textures and shapes of the objects on stage, before they take in a performance that includes live audio description.

Terry Stortz participated in a touch tour before a performance of the Merry Wives of Windsor at the Stratford Festival. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

The touch tours have now been offered for three seasons, said Krystal Holmes, who manages accessibility programming at the festival. It's part of a larger effort to open up the theatre to everyone.

"It allows anyone who is blind or low vision to get a tactile feel of what a show is and what it's made out of, and it just helps to bridge the gaps between what they're hearing in description and what's being worn by the actors on the stage," Holmes said.

Krystal Holmes is the human resources manager for the Stratford Festival. She also manages the festival's accessibility programming. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

The Stratford Festival also offers relaxed or sensory-friendly shows as well as shows with American Sign Language or open captions, for patrons of all abilities.

The most recent touch tour featured dress forms, hats, fabric swatches, set pieces, wigs and even a fat suit for the Merry Wives of Windsor, which has been set in 1950s Stratford.

Each item was selected by design co-ordinator Mary-Jo Carter Dodd, who begins planning for the tours months in advance.

These dress forms were used as part of the touch tour for the Merry Wives of Windsor, which has been set in the 1950s. They are used to convey the style and shape of the costumes the actors will wear on stage during the performance. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

"We figure out early on, this time of year for next year, which shows may have the best in creative things to touch," said Carter Dodd.

"It's all about shape. So for the 50s I tried to do Mrs. Page, who has the crinoline dress."

Textures and fabric also help add to the tactile experience, Carter Dodd said.

Fabric swatches help convey the textures and patterns of the costumes used in the performance. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

All of the objects help patrons with visual impairments connect with the information they are given during the show by audio describer Rebecca Singh, whose job is to narrate what's happening on stage.

Singh also leads the touch tours prior to the shows.

"It really hits home for people when they hear my description of something that they've actually touched and felt. It illuminates the experience like words would not be able to," she said.

Audio describer Rebecca Singh narrates performances for people with visual impairments from an audio booth overlooking the stage. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

For Stortz, the tour adds to the overall experience of live theatre.

"This will just give me a sense of what's up there, what things look like. Because I can remember what things look like," he said. "It won't give me everything but it will give me a fuller view, so to speak, of the play."  

"I'm excited too that they have the facilities to help with the hearing impairment, the visual impairment. It's great that they do this."

Wigs and bald caps are often used in Stratford Festival performances so that actors don't have to drastically change their appearances. For the touch tours, the costume department provides the wigs used by the understudies. (Robin De Angelis/CBC)

About the Author

Robin De Angelis is a multimedia journalist based in southwestern Ontario. She has previously worked as a reporter covering local news in Sudbury. Get in touch on Twitter @RobinElizabethD or by email robin.deangelis@cbc.ca

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