Touch tours

In my last blog post, I waxed lyrical about the benefits which the audio-description of television programmes, cinema films and theatrical performances has brought to those with visual impairments. I also mentioned that there have been other exciting developments which provide improved access to the world of live theatre.

Let me tell you this week about my favourite of these: the touch tour.

Many theatres run touch tours and invite visually-impaired show-goers to arrive a couple of hours before curtain-up and actually walk around on the stage. It’s wonderful! You’re allowed to handle props and costumes and even, sometimes, to meet cast members, who kindly give up their time to participate.

The audio-describer will also be there to introduce themselves and tell you a little bit about the show so you can understand the context before the performance starts.

I have experienced some great touch tours. Wearing the crown on the set of David Greig’s Dunsinane was amazing! Walking up and down the street scene in Richard Bean’s One Man, Two Guvnors, opening all the doors of the houses, was like playing Wendy houses for grown-ups. You should have seen the grin on my face!

Sometimes the information I gain from a touch tour proves indispensable for understanding the nature of the performance I will later experience. That was certainly the case with War Horse. I would never have been able to visualise the puppets from a verbal description. It was also a great privilege to touch the horse puppets and have their operators explain how they worked.

Whenever there are stairs on the set, I always have a strong urge to climb them. I think there is a Jack-and-the-Beanstalk impulse in me that makes me want to find out what is at the top. On the set of Brian Friel’s Translations at the New Theatre, Oxford, there was a rustic stairway going up to a hayloft. The organisers of the touch tour refused me permission to climb this on health and safety grounds. Spoil-sports!

(Another great part of that set was the floor. It was made to look like rough ground in the countryside and it felt rough too, creating a good impression of the atmosphere they were aiming for.)

I did a little better when I went to see Twelfth Night at the National Theatre last year. In addition to the thrill of chatting to actor Tamsin Greig, I also got to explore the production’s fantastic set. It was in the form of a revolving stage, divided up into a series of different “rooms”, including a chapel, and one with a long table. The best part, though, was the garden, complete with topiary and a fountain.

Later on, various actors would jump into the fountain at different points during the play. Thanks to the touch tour, though, unlike most of the audience, I was in on the secret: despite the actors’ cries of shock, the water in the fountain was actually kept pleasantly warm.

But I was talking about flights of steps… The set for Twelfth Night included a magnificent staircase which I found completely irresistible. The helper nearest to me kindly “turned a blind eye” (if you’ll excuse the expression) and I duly went up a little way. The stairs were very steep so I didn’t venture too far. It did help me appreciate how hard the actors were working, though, as they ran up and down them during the performance.

I was also fortunate enough to have a touch tour of The Mousetrap at my local theatre, the Wyvern. This came about because I am a “theatrical landlady”, providing accommodation for actors and stage crew who come to put on shows here in Swindon. One of the team involved in this production was lodging with me and, when they heard that I was going to see a performance, they arranged for me to have my own personal tour of the set.

This turned out to be a wonderfully detailed recreation of a 1950s living-room. The wall-panelling was skilfully reproduced and the period sofa was actually very comfortable. (I know, because I got to sit on it!) They even made sure that the Christmas presents were wrapped in the right sort of brown paper and string.

Possibly the most fun part of the tour was experiencing the snow machine. The stage crew turned it on for me and let me feel what is was like to be in a fake snow story. The flakes were feathery light and melted very quickly.

Family and friends who have accompanied me on these tours have loved them too. If you ever get a chance to go on one, do take it!