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Standing center stage minutes before DreamWrights Youth & Family Theatre's production of "The Mouse That Roared," Melissa Haas reached out and felt the soft, velvet fabric of the duchess' dress.

She ran her fingers through the duchess' silky brown hair, touched each bead of her royal crown and felt the fabric of her long, golden vest.

When the lights dimmed to start the Saturday afternoon show a few minutes later, she wanted to be able to remember exactly what the characters looked like because she knew she wouldn't be able to see them herself.

Haas, of West Manchester Township, was diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa (or RP), a disease that causes severe vision impairment, at age 9. Now, at age 46, she's left with limited straight-ahead vision and zero side- or night-vision.

Her condition makes watching a show at the theater nearly impossible. She's always nudging her husband and asking him what's going on, she said.

But having the opportunity to feel the costumes and props prior to the show makes it much easier to visualize the performance.

"For me, it's awesome," she said. "I like seeing the props and scenery and taking in the whole experience."

DreamWrights, at 100 Carlisle Ave., York, started offering these "touch tours" as well as audio-described performances about six years ago as a way to provide more accessible programming to the community, DreamWrights teaching artist and audio describer Shannon Hallisey said. DreamWrights is currently the only theater in York to offer this type of service.

Prior to select shows, vision-impaired guests and their families are invited to touch some of the important props, costumes and scenery, and then listen to an audio description of the play through headsets.

Previously, DreamWrights borrowed an audio description system from Fulton Opera House in Lancaster. But now, thanks to a more than $4,000 grant from ForSight Vision, DreamWrights has its own system, which means more convenience, less expense and greater scheduling flexibility, according to a news release.

Haas and her husband, William were two of five vision-impaired people to participate in Saturday's touch tour and audio description.

In a hallway backstage, they felt soldier's helmets, swords, a flag, a camera, binoculars and even a bomb before checking out the costumes and scenery on stage.

"That's so cool!" Haas' 7-year-old daughter Kaylee shrieked as she passed the bomb to her mother.

The bomb was made of a basketball-size ball, a painted applesauce cup and a mason jar lid.

"They're so creative with the props," William Haas said. "They have very vivid imaginations."

"That's why I love looking at them," Melissa Haas responded.

When the show began, Melissa and William Haas put on their headsets and listened to a quiet voice describe the performance into a microphone.

In between the dialogue, the trained narrator described things like which characters were on stage and what they were doing, what the scenery looked like and the actors' facial expressions.

"It's subtleties that you'd otherwise miss," William Haas said.

After act one, the Haas were in agreement. They loved the play and the audio description.

"It allows me to enjoy theater again," Melissa Haas said. "Describing the whole play is a help or I would miss what the audience is laughing at."

DreamWrights now offers audio-described performances on the second Saturday matinee of every main-stage show, Hallisey said. The next audio-described performance and touch tour will be at 2:30 p.m. Oct. 17 for "Seussical The Musical."

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