MANLEY – A recent song on the radio talks about creating simple moments that can change the world.
Lofte Community Theatre members made that phrase come true Sunday afternoon for dozens of blind residents in Nebraska.
Thirty-nine people with the Outlook Nebraska and Omaha Association of the Blind groups traveled to Manley to experience a presentation of “The Miracle Worker” at the Lofte. The play tells the story of how Annie Sullivan was able to teach Helen Keller how to read, write and communicate. A fever caused Keller to lose both her sight and hearing when she was a young child in Tuscumbia, Ala., in 1882.
Lofte Office Manager and Board of Directors Co-Chair Nancy Bose said everyone associated with the play was looking forward to performing for the blind residents. She said the fact that the group was performing a story about Helen Keller made it even more special.
“It’s been a pretty powerful weekend here knowing that this is happening today,” Bose said. “This is such an incredible experience. To be able to have this happen here is something that’s a wonderful human interest story.”
Lofte Board of Directors Co-Chair Sheri Berger said she was thrilled to give the visitors a positive experience in the auditorium. She said Lofte representatives had been working for many months with local groups to make all of the arrangements for the day. They came up with solutions for scheduling, transportation, food and audio-visual descriptions. Programs were also printed in Braille to allow visitors to learn more about the actors and actresses on stage.
“It’s a really emotional play to begin with, and to have them able to experience it here with us today makes it even more rewarding,” Berger said. “Everyone here wanted them to come down for a play at some point, and then when we learned we’d be performing “The Miracle Worker” this year it was even more of an emphasis to have them come. I can’t tell you how excited I am for this to happen.”
Ward and Kathy Kinney of Fontenelle Tours began working with blind residents ten years ago when they took a hayrack ride at Fort Robinson in northwest Nebraska. They were thrilled with the knowledge and descriptions the guide gave them during the tour, and they learned afterwards that she was blind. They soon began working with the Omaha Association of the Blind to provide more opportunities for residents with visual impairments.
The couple made arrangements to provide discounted prices for tickets and a large tour bus for the group. They also helped line up a catered meal at the Weeping Water Community Building for residents. They traveled from Manley to Weeping Water to enjoy the food after Sunday afternoon’s production had finished.
“This is something that we love doing,” Ward Kinney said. “It’s very personally rewarding. To help them have a chance to enjoy a play and be in an environment like this is something is that just priceless.”
Bekah Jerde with Radio Talking Book Service helped the blind visitors understand all of the movements and visual cues that happened on stage during the play. Jerde, who serves as assistant director of the Nebraska audio company, said she felt privileged to play a role in the production during the day.
“My goal is to give them a fuller picture of what’s happening on stage,” Jerde said. “It’s an amazing chance to help people enjoy themselves at a play or event, and hopefully I can do that for them here today.
“When you have people on stage in a play, there’s so much that happens visually. Someone might give a funny face or their actions might convey a certain emotion. If everyone around you is laughing and you can’t see what’s going on, that can be pretty isolating.
“That’s why it’s important to give people a description of what’s happening on stage. It helps break down that isolation and includes them in the experience just as much as everyone else.”
Jerde provided each member of the group with a portable headset to wear during the play. The blind residents could use one ear to listen to the dialogue on stage, and they wore an earpiece in the other ear to listen to Jerde’s audio-visual cues.
Jerde went to a balcony porch in the back of the theater and opened a laptop that contained research and descriptions about “The Miracle Worker” that she had compiled. She then spoke into a transmitter to portray what was happening on stage for the residents. The gray device she worked with looked similar to breathing masks people use to inhale oxygen quickly. It covered Jerde’s entire mouth as she spoke so only people wearing the earpieces would hear her words.
Jerde said one of her goals Sunday was to paint a picture of Helen Keller’s actions to her audience. Omaha Marian student Emma Johnson portrayed Keller on stage and delivered much of her early performance without talking. Johnson showed how difficult it was for Keller to communicate before meeting Sullivan.
“There are a lot of scenes in this play where Helen and Annie are using their hands and faces to tell the story, so I’ve tried to do the best I can to be prepared for those moments,” Jerde said. “You never want to step on the dialogue and interrupt that, but you also want to make sure you give people the full experience of what’s happening on stage. It’s challenging but it’s also very rewarding.”
The blind residents spent several hours in the theater absorbing the play alongside hundreds of other area citizens. Berger said everyone associated with the Lofte felt proud of being able to create a simple moment that changed the world for a small time.
“Our theater has a goal of giving people a chance to relax and escape everything when they’re here, so it’s special when you realize that this is what’s happening here today for them too,” Berger said. “This is really an awesome day.”