by Nitra Gutierrez, Middle School and High School Program Associate
Touring a performance with the Changing Lives Youth Theatre Ensemble is a unique experience. Each new stage means a new set of blocking adjustments for the cast. Every new space requires a different amount of vocal energy from each actor as we strive to be heard. The biggest variable is always the audience. Some school day performances have a frenetic energy, an excitement that lingers in the air and says, “It’s awesome that we don’t have to go to sixth period!” At the Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired, there is always one certainty – that our students will have one of the most engaged, energized audiences that we meet all year.
The Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired (TSBVI) is a public school that serves students ages 6-21 who are blind, visually impaired or have additional disabilities. Some students are from the Austin area, while others live in dorms on campus and visit family across the state on weekends and holidays. The school culture there is inclusive, empowering and welcoming to guest performers like our ensemble.
Theatre is a highly visual medium and every year people ask me if we make adaptations to our show for the TSBVI audience. While we may make tiny modifications to dialogue for clarity, adding subtle clues about the stage action, we find that TSBVI audiences are super-attentive and need very few modifications to stay invested in the story. From the stage we catch an occasional whisper from a blind student as they ask their sighted companion to describe a piece of action but without skipping a beat they jump right back into the story, ‘ohh-ing and aah-ing’ as the drama unfolds.
The attention these student audiences give to detail and the overall themes of the show becomes apparent as we engage in the post show talkback. This year, we are assisted by TSBVI student and Changing Lives Alum, Jory Freeman who helps us by calling on students by name as they raise their hands to respond to our play, Outside the Box. We ask, “Are stereotypes harmful?” Many students raise their hands to answer, “It can be hard to hear the judgments people make about you because over time, you can start to believe them.” Another student comments, “But they are just words – they only have power over you if you let them.” A third student raises his hand and asks, “Can I come up and meet y’all?”
After the talkback, TSBVI students rush the stage to meet our ensemble members. They ask questions about the characters, ask where the students go to school, ask if they like the same bands and TV shows, ask if they can become Facebook friends, some kids even ask for autographs. Our students leave this performance with renewed confidence and commitment to their work. Changing Lives’ visits to TSBVI always remind us that our work together resonates with the community and has an impact that can only be measured by our experiences together. Thank you, Texas School for the Blind & Visually Impaired for being such gracious hosts and exemplary audience.
P.S. My favorite hairstyle is Peg Bundy’s from Married with Children. See you at TAP’s Big Hair Country Fair on March 24th at the Salt Lick Pavilion! To buy tickets visit: TAP Big Hair. Proceeds benefit Theatre Action Project.