The word for theater comes from the Greek theatron, meaning “seeing place.” But for students at Perkins School for the Blind, a lack of vision never dimmed their appreciation for or mastery of the stage.
Perkins’ second director Michael Anagnos was an outspoken advocate of the “distinct educational value in these attempts of our pupils in amateur theatricals.”
Anagnos argued that students with blindness could not truly appreciate theater as audience members, since the “enjoyment of drama depends largely upon the visual sense.” However, by participating in a play as actors, Perkins students could experience the “fine art of the actor through his own efforts” while performing such classic plays as A Midsummer Night's Dream, Twelfth Night and Alice in Wonderland among others.
The plays were performed with great skill, especially given students’ lack of vision. In recounting an 1882 performance, Anagnos declared, “No blind person unexpectedly entering the audience on that occasion would have supposed the actors before him were sightless.”
During the late 19th and early 20th century, ticket sales from public performances supported the Kindergarten for the Blind and the Howe Memorial Club, which loaned sums of money to individuals who were blind. In 1916 students raised $328.25 from two performances of The Taming of the Shrew, with tickets selling for 35 and 50 cents. Since students were also tasked with promoting and selling tickets to their plays, the performances had the added benefit of teaching managerial and business skills.
Staging theatrical productions at a school for the blind did present some unique challenges. Oftentimes the plays students and staff wanted to perform were not available in braille, so in 1932 Perkins began producing a series of play scripts through the Howe Memorial Press. Though primarily meant for productions at the school, the “Perkins Plays” could be purchased by the public for 50 cents per copy.
During the 1970s and ’80s Perkins students would often attend the final dress rehearsal of the Sudbury Players’ annual production and meet with the cast and crew. Opportunities like these gave students the chance to ask actors questions about their preparation and learn what it was like to perform on stage. More recently, Perkins students got the chance to perform with the Roxbury Repertory Theatre during their Boston run of The Miracle Worker, which features the story of two former Perkins students – Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan.
Today theater continues to thrive at Perkins. Each year public school students who are visually impaired spend a week on campus as part of the Winter Vacation Theater Program. Students participate in classes and rehearsals, and even attend a local theater production, before concluding the week with a performance that is open to family and friends. And while Zombeo and Juliet may have replaced Hamlet, the play’s still the thing at Perkins.
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