It started like any other performance: Parents and friends taking their seats, the crowd hushed and excited, waiting expectantly for the show to start.
But then Perkins School for the Blind Secondary Program teacher Jennie O’Brien took the mic and asked everyone to turn and face the back of the auditorium.
This was the crowd’s first inkling that this wasn’t going to be a typical play. Instead, it was a unique theatrical experience for the audience – and a life-changing experience for the 17 students in the Winter Vacation Theater Program who had worked so hard to reach this moment.
“Theater is a chance to work together as a team, meet new social peers and develop really strong friendships,” O’Brien said later. “You get to learn your own strengths and weaknesses, their strengths and weaknesses, and how to bring out the best in everyone.”
The play was the highlight of Perkins’ annual Theater Week, which runs during February winter vacation. Offered by Perkins Short Courses, it brings together teens who are blind or visually impaired from public schools and Perkins.
The program is a chance for students to experience theater from the inside out, as they practice and perform a play. In doing so, students get an opportunity to flex their creative muscles, learn to collaborate as a group and experience the thrill of performing live when they step on stage.
“I love it!” said public school student David, 14. “I love singing and doing impressions. It’s something that’s good for my personality.”
Theater Week starts on Sunday night when students arrive. Over the next five days, O’Brien assigns them roles based on their skills and interests and they rehearse the play. They live on campus, so they also practice independent living skills, and attend a performance at the Wheelock Family Theatre.
As the students rehearsed for up to eight hours a day, their differences fell aside and friendships formed. It didn’t matter whether they used a wheelchair or walker, or read a large print or braille script.
“I honestly have no interest in acting,” said Secondary Program student Amalia. “I thought it would be a wonderful way to meet new people, especially ones who don’t go (to Perkins).”
On Friday afternoon, the big moment arrived.
O’Brien asked the audience to turn away from the stage because the play was being performed in “theater in the perimeter” style. Students emerged in different parts of the auditorium – on stage, in the rear and to the left and right of the audience.
“For students with visual impairments, what I like to try to do is give some challenges in terms of mobility,” said O’Brien, who has run Theater Week since 2008. “I want the audience to understand that just because you have a visual impairment does not preclude you from being able to do different things.”
The play, entitled “The Test,” consisted of seven skits related to academic testing. They ranged from a spoof of a game show to a satirical take on standardized testing. There was also a touching scene about parents finding out their daughter has autism.
The students used various tactile cues to hit their marks. Perkins Secondary Program student Omar, playing a caveman with a shock of white curly hair, confidently walked forward about 15 feet and stopped at a raised mark during a skit. Since he’s blind, he usually uses a white cane, but he navigated without it.
Public school student Jillian entered from a side door for her skit, running her hand along a wooden beam on the wall to navigate to her spot. She played a little girl diagnosed with autism and performed a heartfelt, memorized monologue about what she wanted to say to comfort her mother.
At the end of the show, the students took their bows to lively applause from the audience. Public school student Anthony grabbed the microphone to thank O’Brien for everything she’d taught them during the week. O’Brien said the appreciation was mutual. “These students are fantastic,” she said. “For me, this is a gift to be able to have this much time to work with a group of students who are really enthusiastic to be here.”