Legally Blind Student Plays Helen Keller in UT’s The Miracle Worker

Rachel Finney, left, as Helen Keller, and Angela Church (right), star in the 2014 production of The Miracle Worker at Clarence Brown Theatre.Clarence Brown Theatre’s production of The Miracle Worker, which begins today and runs through October 19, stars an actress who is drawing on her own life experiences to play Helen Keller.

The production and some special related events coincide with UT’s third annual Disability Week, observed this week.

Rachel Finney, a UT senior who is legally blind, portrays Keller. Finney is not completely blind, but she has trouble distinguishing objects from backgrounds.

The role has been challenging, Finney said. In character, she is blind and deaf, but as an actress she must see and hear theatrical cues.

Being legally blind has helped Finney understand that aspect of the role. Playing a deaf person is especially difficult, though, because Finney—due to her vision impairment—relies keenly on her hearing.

Also, because Keller is so well-known, audiences have expectations of how she should be portrayed. Finney said she wants to show that there is more to Keller than her physical disabilities.

“I wanted to incorporate Helen’s heart and determination, but also make her a real person that anyone could relate to, even if they have never been deaf or blind,” she said. “She’s a strong, compassionate young girl wanting to understand the world and wanting to be loved.”

Finney said she’s enjoyed playing Keller and is grateful for the opportunity. She considers this the most challenging role she has ever attempted in terms of physical and sensory demands, but she said it’s made her more observant and in tune with her other senses, especially touch.

“I think the best kind of roles are the roles that take you out of your comfort zone; they help you grow the most not only as an actor but as a person as well,” she said.

Finney, from Memphis, is majoring in English literature with minors in drama and education. She is in the five-year program to get her teaching certificate. She appeared in Clarence Brown Theatre’s production of Wrens last semester.

On Sunday, following the matinee of The Miracle Worker, there will be a free panel discussion titled “Sociocultural and Technological Advances for Deaf and Deaf-Blind Individuals.” The event, which is scheduled to begin around 4:30 p.m. in the theater, will include panelists Janie Neal, who is deaf-blind and has been appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam to serve on the Tennessee Council for the Deaf, Deaf-Blind and Hard of Hearing; David Smith, director of the UT Center on Deafness; and Terry Osborne, CEO of the Knoxville Center of the Deaf.

Also, in an effort to make its performances accessible to the entire community, the Clarence Brown Theatre will hold three Deaf Night at the Theatre performances during the 2014–2015 season. The first will take place on Tuesday, October 14, for The Miracle Worker. The other Deaf Nights are planned for A Christmas Carol and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The CBT has partnered with UT’s Center on Deafness to make the performances fully accessible to members of the deaf community. There will more than a dozen interpreters stationed throughout the theatre and two teams interpreting the production.

In addition to Deaf Night at the Theatre events, the CBT will have open captioned performances on the first Sunday 2:00 p.m. matinee for each of the 2014–2015 season productions. The Miracle Worker will have an open-captioned performance on Sunday, October 5.

Open captioning is a text display of all words and sounds heard during a production—very similar to closed captioning on television.

C O N T A C T:

Robin Conklin (865-974-2497, rconkli1@utk.edu)