'Touch tours' bring Stratford Festival stage to life for people with visual impairments
Tours offer tactile experience of costumes and props used during Stratford Festival productions
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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
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."