For anyone who has ever seen a staging of The Miracle Worker — or the 1962 film based on the play — Helen Keller has made an indelible mark on our consciousness. The powerful story centers on the trials of a young girl who lacks the ability to see, hear, or speak.
Trapped in her own world, inside her own head, it took the patient but determined efforts of her teacher Annie Sullivan to help unlock her from those burdens and allow her to find a way to communicate with others and live in the world.
But Keller’s story continued into adulthood, when Keller made her own way in a new and now more accessible world.
Bringing the years to life
Gregory Stieber, who has been writing the plays for Fort Wayne Youtheatre’s Young Heroes of Conscience series for five years, now brings to life After the Miracle: Helen Keller.
“I was drawn to the story of Helen Keller because we only really know her in these two contexts,” Stieber said. “We know her from the miracle, her breakthrough with Annie Sullivan. Then we also know her from her adult years when she really became the face of people with disabilities. She met every living president and traveled all over for speaking engagements.
“But what happened right after the miracle to make her decide to live her life that way? She could have just stayed in Alabama and lived a fashionable life. Why did she decide to live her life the way she did? What happened in those years with Annie after that breakthrough?”
The previous five productions of the series have featured Mary Ingalls, Ryan White, Ruby Bridges, Anne Frank, and Harriet Tubman. Asked what he does first when he decides on his next subject (and he already knows who will be featured in 2020), Stieber was firm in his response.
“I go to the library,” he said. “I start with the biographies and any books I can find on the subject, and there are many books about Helen Keller. But then I also visit the children’s department and see what they have to offer there. Often the stories for children are more simplified, but since we do school shows, I like to provide teachers with some links to other content.
“Plus, even though the children’s books don’t have the same content as the adult books, I am trying to tell a story in about an hour and 15 minutes. So those provide a great guidepost for what I need to include.”
Vaudeville on stage
Staging for the Young Heroes Series is also a great forum for Stieber’s creativity since he not only writes the Heroes scripts, but also directs the production.
With the ArtsLab in the Auer Center home for the series, Stieber has a very versatile space to not only present the material but connect with the audience. He’s doing something especially interesting with the Keller piece.
“In my research, I discovered that Helen and Annie performed in vaudeville shows to make money,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine these women who had such dignity being, essentially, in a freak show. But they were a huge hit, and I liked the idea of staging it in that vaudeville context and contrasting the spectacle, vibrancy, and fun of a vaudeville show with Helen who can’t see or hear most of those things that drew people to vaudeville.
“We’ll also be including some pieces from well-known performers like George Burns and Gracie Allen. It really offers a great comparison and contrast to Helen’s world.”
While there are many Youtheatre students who won roles through the recent audition, Stieber pre-cast the key roles of Keller and Sullivan. Given that the actors would have to communicate largely through sign language, Stieber wanted to give Katarena Burke (who plays Helen Keller) and Sloan Amburgey-Thomas (Annie Sullivan) ample time to tackle their roles.
Stieber has also cast a narrator, a “spirit,” to speak on behalf of Helen Keller, one which will capture Keller’s thoughts as she ages (which her character on stage will not do). Fitting all of this material into a play performed for audiences of all ages is challenging, but it’s clearly a challenge that Stieber embraces.
“It’s such a gift that I get to do this,” he said. “It’s my favorite thing I do.”
Initially intended to be a trilogy, the Young Heroes on Conscience Series is now a solid part of the Youtheatre season each year, and Stieber likes to represent so many different young people both through our collective history and within the local theatre community.
“There’s really a great ‘full circle’ thing happening with this,” Stieber said. “Anthony Hayes, who played Ryan White in our second of this series, was 13 when he played Ryan, and is now preparing to go to Ball State to study directing. So I’m having him direct a part of the show so he has something to show for his work.”
Stieber hopes audiences will not only marvel at the accomplishments of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan but will also think about the many people who struggle with disabilities but also thrive and create and inspire. With a nod to everyone from Oscar winner Marlee Matlin to Patty Duke, who shared her struggles with mental illness well before many were courageous enough to do so, Stieber reminds us that we all know people who struggle everyday and that kindness and understanding go a long way.
“We use the word ‘dummy’ a lot in this show because that was the language that was being used against people like Helen,” he said. “It’s the way now that the word ‘retarded’ is used as an adjective, and we know how foul that is. ‘Dummy’ was used in that same way, and you can hear Helen finds a sound in her throat and is able to say ‘I am no longer dumb.’
“We are all one degree or less removed from someone with a disability. It’s your family member. It’s a loved one. It’s important that we push for equality. That’s the biggest message that I want to impart.”