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  • Angela Allyn

Steppenwolf makes Theatre Accessible

Not all theater goers can hear or see what's going on at a performance, and several theaters around town have been making concerted efforts with add-on services to include disabled visitors in the experience of live theater. I recently was able to attend the audio described presentation of the acclaimed production of Describe the Night at Steppenwolf now on view through this weekend on Chicago’s north side, and I cannot recommend this enough if you have friends or family that are sight or hearing impaired.

It is important to select a performance that offers these enhanced services if you need them. When choosing ticket dates, call the box office or research which performances offer the service you need. In our case, we needed audio description for sight impairment. For a live theater performance this means you receive a device with one headphone and a trained audio describer tells you what is happening visually on stage through the headphone as you watch. Unlike audio description in film and tv, in general, theatrical audio describers do not add an interpretation of the meaning of the action, they simply describe it.

Steppenwolf Theatre goes above and beyond with the audio described shows by allowing sight impaired patrons to come 90 minutes before the show to a Touch Tour where they describe the set and props and have a specially made miniature set for audience members to touch. They bring important costumes out to touch and in this case brought out an essential prop. The plot features soup made of leeches and we all were able to feel the bowl of prop leeches (see photo above-- they weren't as gross up close as they sound in the play). Finally the cast comes out and describes themselves and their characters,the costumes they wear, and they state a line they will say. This helps later to identify which character is speaking as the drama unfolds.

The all gender bathrooms at Steppenwolf are also a boon for handicapped patrons since aides can accompany people in and assist if needed. The theater also features several concession stands that are conducive to active socializing.

Describe the Night by Rajiv Joseph is a magnificent play for this experience. It is tightly written, exquisitely acted, masterfully directed by Austin Pendleton and fast paced. The plot covers generations of Russian-Polish conflict, authoritarianism, and is about the nature of truth, friendship and the absolute destructive power of lies. The dialogue is complex and carries the meaning, though the visuals add resonances and sensory elements so that the audio description deeply enhances the experience.

An unanticipated bonus of the experience for us, who are relatively new to life with a visual impairment, was the community connections that formed almost immediately with the group who came to the touch tour before the show. We were able to learn about the process of getting a guide dog, exchange email addresses, and find out the other audience member stories.

All theaters do their best to be accessible: The League of Chicago Theatres keeps a calendar of accessible performances here:

For more information on accessibility at Steppenwolf and which shows have which services go here:

For more reviews go to

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