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A Theatre Experience Like No Other: Accessibility Play for the Blind and Low-Vision

Everyone should be able to enjoy the theatre. But for those who are low-vision or blind, going to the theatre isn't always as entertaining as it should be.

That's why researchers from Ryerson's Centre for Learning Technologies (CLT) in the Ted Rogers School of Information Technology Management and students from the Theatre School partnered with Clay & Paper Theatre to present Between Sea & Sky, a play that is accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. The partnership grew out of Creating Liberal and Integrated Media Experiences (CLIME), a research project led by CLT Director Dr. Deborah Fels and her team of associates. CLIME aims to advance the media industry by developing media technologies that better accommodate the needs of specific populations.

For five performances, Clay & Paper Theatre included a touch tour and integrated descriptive dialogue to make the play accessible. CLT acted as facilitators for the production, guiding the creative directors to include descriptive language in their dialogue, so that the blind or those with low vision would have a better idea of what to imagine on stage. The touch tour was multi-sensory. Actors talked to participants, introduced their characters and described what their characters look and sound like. Participants were also able to touch the props.

"There's no time during the play to give detailed descriptions of the scenes or characters, so touch tours are a great way for audience members to get a leg up on the production," said JP Udo, Research and Development, CLT and CLIME project manager. "The point of theatre is to be entertained, and you want to give people the whole picture so they can fully enjoy it."

Between Sea & Sky is a comedy with sombre elements about a journey on the high seas. The cast included three Ryerson Theatre School students, and previous performances also used American Sign Language. Assistant artistic director at Clay & Paper Theatre Krista Dalby co-wrote the play with its founder and director David Anderson. Dalby said performing in a park helps plant that seed in people's minds about accessibility.

"That's the really interesting thing about working in public spaces like Dufferin Grove Park, you are able to raise awareness with the public of what's possible, as well as trying to set some sort of example for other theatre companies," she said. "I didn't really know about audio description prior to meeting JP, so it was like a whole new world of possibilities opened up as a theatre producer and how we can make things more accessible to the community, especially those with disabilities."

John Rae, vice-president, Alliance for Equality of Blind Canadians, attended one of the show's performances. As a blind audience member, he found the touch tour the highlight of the production. "Theatre-goers rarely get exposed to props," he said. "I'm big about tactile access. You can describe things, you can read about them, but there is no substitute to tactile access whether in an art gallery, museum or theatre."

Reprinted from Ryerson University’s website,, August 26, 2009.

Photo: Clay & Paper Theatre founder and director David Anderson, left, lets a tour participant get a feel for the tuba. Ryerson’s Centre for Learning Technologies worked with the theatre group to make their play accessible to people who are blind or have low vision. Photo courtesy of Mike Pouris.

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