By Tanner Kent
---- — During rehearsals for Bethany Lutheran College's production of "Voices of the Prairie," Meridith Tietz could be found somewhere in the theater, watching the proceedings, developing her timing and taking notes.
Tietz is not, however, the director.
Rather, she's preparing for a role that is making its own Mankato theater debut — that of audio describer.
"You want to be the extra sense the patron is missing," said Tietz, an instructor for the blind and visually impaired who works with students throughout the region for the South Central Service Cooperative. "You have to be very factual and precise. You're the eyeballs — but you're not in the head of the writer, producer or director."
With Bethany's production of "Voices of the Prairie" opening on Friday, the college is marking a first for the Mankato theater community. On April 11, Bethany is hosting an additional audio description for blind and visually-impaired theater-goers. Tietz is providing the description, which offers listeners additional stage details through a headphone system borrowed from the Guthrie Theater.
Tietz herself has worked in several educational roles as an instructor and consultant. She's also a trained audio describer who has made access a central mission of her career.
For the April 11 production, Tietz is bringing about a dozen students from her classes, many of whom have never experienced an audio-described play.
"It's time for Mankato to pony up here," she said. "A lot of things are happening at the colleges here and all students really should have a chance to participate."
The partnership emerged after director Benji Inniger sought additional perspective for the two actresses who play the role of Frankie, a blind girl whose fantastic journeys with the story's male protagonist fuel the play's narrative drive.
Inniger was eventually linked with Tietz, who was happy to counsel Anna Schroeder and Alyssa Gratz on what it's like to live without the aid of sight. She pointed out incongruities in the text and explained different methods used by the visually impaired to read braille, familiarize themselves with new spaces and navigate their environment.
"Her enthusiasm mixed with our production and just reminded us all why we're here in the first place," Gratz said. "If we can tell a great story, but also touch and affect people, then we're doing our jobs right."
Inniger and Tietz continued talking, however, and soon arrived at the notion of offering the city's first audio-described play.
To augment the descriptions, Tietz is planning on taking students on a sensory tour of the stage and the play's accompanying set pieces before the curtain opens. The intent, she said, is to give students an even more concrete image of the 17-foot revolve and train trestle that dominate the space.
Inniger said the project has "invigorated" himself and the cast.
"Anytime you can reach a new community," he said, "it's really thrilling."
As for the play itself, "Voice of the Prairie" concerns an old hobo named Poppy and Davey Quinn, his younger traveling companion who has rescued Frankie from a cruel home life. Many years later, after he has lost touch with Poppy and Frankie, Davey is discovered by a radio executive while telling stories about the pair. As Davey becomes a celebrity on the contraption that is sweeping the country in the 1920s, Frankie re-enters his life.
In a 1988 review of the John Olive play, a Los Angeles Times reviewer commented on the play's intertwining of storytelling and historical power: "In the mythological sense, this unsentimental but touching story of lives that collide more than they coalesce places the mystery and power of the spoken word in historical perspective. And at the same time that it extols the miracle of collective communication, it crucially juxtaposes the difficulty of the interpersonal one."
Inniger directed the play when he was still a Bethany student nearly a decade ago. Ever since, he said he's meant to return to the work.
"It's always been one of those pieces I wanted to give justice to," he said. "It's been floating around in my brain all this time."
If You Go What "Voice of the Prairie" Performances 7:30 p.m. on Friday and Saturday as well as April 11-12; also, 2 p.m. on April 6. All performances in Bethany's Ylvisaker Fine Arts Center Tickets $8 for adults, $5 for seniors and students. Note The audio-described performance will be held April 11