By Sean Margaret Wagner
I can’t speak for the original, genteel Southern Kellers, but it was a privilege to keep house for century Kellers and as much of their languid estate that would fit in our pint-sized theater. My Kellers opened their home to scores of Minnesota arts enthusiasts, but mostly the pack of 21st shied away from hob-nobbing with the locals. The captain, his wife, son, spinster sister and unruly little daughter would hurry for their fanciest attire backstage, leaving the staff and our theater founder Stacia (soon to transform into Annie Sullivan) and myself to greet patrons for that afternoon’s performance of ‘The Miracle Worker’. Not just any patrons, our favorites: van-loads of differently abled school groups. Our company, Torch Theater was the brainchild of Stacia Rice, and built to provide a theater experience for everyone, even those with blindness, deafness or virtually any impairment that may prevent them from enjoying a traditional theater production. The pre-teen who inspired the venture, was Rice’s own nephew, Taylor, legally blind, wheelchair bound from childhood meningitis and thus the perfect candidate for a tactile tour of the Keller estate.
We’d encourage the group to get hands on, and ushered them to a lobby filled with gowns, turn-of-the century toys, and fine china place settings. These were the very items they might soon hear clattering to the floor or feel breezing by in close proximity in our small playing space. The kids would traverse the Keller estate, as well, invited onstage to feel the chair backs and bedsides. They’d watch as we would snake our hands over the center stage wrought iron water pump, and produce a little trickle in the bucket below. They would tilt their heads, searching for the mechanism that makes it work, but none of the staff would breathe a word to ruin the stage magic.
Really, the tactile experience was a peek behind the curtain for anyone used to being ushered to a seat to partake in theater from afar. An enterprising youngster had the potential to discover all the secrets of our luxurious Southern estate: the halfway built walls, the lush-looking silk flower gardens, and the yards of colorful tape marking just where the buffet and tea cart should reside. They could venture into the Keller dining room and find out first hand why the staff discouraged anyone helping themselves to breakfast. That ham on the bone looked delicious from row E, but was frozen rock solid. The tray of biscuits were crumbly doorstops at least a week old, and the tureen piled high with “eggs” was just instant rice dyed bright yellow on closer inspection. No matter; most children had the faintest pop-culture understanding that much of this terrible buffet would be thrown to the floor in protest by Helen herself in a few short minutes. The yellow rice that fell victim to the gleeful battle was as pervasive as garden weeds, sticking on skirts, shoes, pant cuffs and chair legs.
The staff would offer the guests of honor seats at front row center and, at the behest of parents and chaperones, distributed a bevy of Braille indented programs and ear-phone listening devices set to play a recorded ‘Miracle Worker’ audio description. Two very modern looking stools perched in an out-of-the-way Keller vestibule now had occupants: a pair of black-clad American Sign Language interpreters looking out over a sea of theater patrons for any pairs of hands that were gesticulating more actively than others.
Torch Theater had only estimated the need for a stage hand; someone to sit patiently with a book until time came to collect rice-soiled costumes and emerge with a mop and bucket when the crowds dispersed. But, we discovered a great many functions going unfilled when crowds would file in each night. Ushers, box office staffers and tactile tour guides would turn up absent and I would take up the slack. I remember nothing about the promotion, but I like to imagine it as a ‘dramatized for television’ moment in which theater founder Stacia approached me, likely dressed in her Annie Sullivan spats and dark glasses, to say “Kid! You’re moving up the ladder- how does ‘Co-Managing Director’ sound? And as long as you’ve got time to chat, run to my car for some more Braille programs, eh?”
All I really remember is my resulting favorite task: welcoming the audience at the top of the show, asking them to turn off their cell phones and reminding them to stick around after the show for an audience talk-back. The cast would return to the stage after a good douse of water from the wrought iron pump, and answer audience questions. The once blustering Kellers would find themselves providing uncharacteristically silent support to Annie & Helen. Those nights were a flood of questions for our leading ladies: Can you really see and hear? Was it hard to pretend? Does it hurt when she throws you into that chair? Where did you learn how to fight like that? The ladies would look to each other with the faint understanding that in the span of two hours they’d created a room full of young advocates for the differently abled. If these patrons had had no curiosity about how the other half lives, or even the bravery to ask questions when they arrived, some of that misplaced anxiety had been worn away with every word spelled D-O-L-L style into Helen’s hand.
Sean Margaret is a Chicago playwright, musical bookwriter/lyricist and storyteller. You can find her on Twitter: @SMargaretWagner