Tricia Gilleece sat spellbound as she watched and listened to a live production of "The Shoemaker and the Elves."
For 11-year-old Tricia and about 150 other hearing-impaired youngsters, the experience at the Fairfax High School auditorium last week was a first -- the first time they have been able to attend a play and actually hear a part of what was being said and sung.
The world of sound was made possible by the use of the Phonic Ear system, an electronic amplification device, according to the Federal Local Action Group, which sponsored the program. Member of FLAG, a division of the Alexander Graham Bell Association, said Sunday's performance was the first time Phonic Ear had been used in a dramatic production.
"I don't know why no one has ever used the equipment for the theater before," said Terry Bliss, a FLAG member. "We use the Phonic Ear all the time in the classroom.
The Phonic Ear, which costs about $500 a unit, has been used in Fairfax schools for more than 10 years. Each unit resembles a transistor radio with an earphone. Sounds are transmitted and amplified over FM airwaves.
To stage the production Sunday, Theatre IV, based in Richmond and billed as Virginia's largest traveling dramatic troupe, connected a Phonic Ear transmitter to its sound system. Each hearing-impaired member of the audience was fitted with a Phonic Ear receiver.
The production, which was a lively rendition of a time-worn tale, was filled with exciting visual effects and bright simple tunes.
Bruce Miller, director of the company and author of the play, said the secret to a good children's production for handicapped and non-handicapped alike, is to treat the kids like adults.Judging from the reaction of many of the parents and children, "The Shoemaker and the Elves" was a success.
"It was a terrific show," said Tricia's mother, Mary Ann Gilleece. "I'd like to see them do more with these Phonic Ears."
Miller said the company made several modifications to adapt the production for the hearing-impaired audience.
"We slowed the pace down a bit," he said. "We also lowered the volume on the music and singing. All in all, I think it went very well. We'd like to do it again sometime."
Connie Rayhill, of FLAG, said that although most of the children at the performance had severe hearing problems, the Phonic Ear probably enabled most of them to hear the play.
Throughout the performance, parents could be seen sneaking sideways glances at their children, trying to gauge whether their reactions were in response to the play or to the audience.
As the house lights came up, parents were anxiously questioning their children: "Could you really hear it? How much could you hear? Did you hear the music?" Most of the youngsters were seen nodding vigorously.
Like many opening performances, the show had its critics. Several members of the audience said they thought the production techniques needed some work before they could be of value to the deaf.
Sigrid Cerf, the mother of two children with normal hearing, but suffering a 90 percent hearing loss herself, had some sharp criticism of the show which she had listened to through the Phonic Ear.
"All deaf people read lips," she said. "With the actors way back there most of us missed about 50 percent."
"Also, they were speaking too fast. You can speak very slowly and still be dramatic."
"One other criticism I have is that the music interfered with the singing and speaking -- there was too much going on. I think the actors just needed some priming."
Cerf suggested that the troupe might improve the production by having a deaf person attend a rehearsal to give tips on how to be more effective.
FLAG member Rayhill said, however, that the purpose of the show was to keep the production as "normal" as possible.
"The point of it was to give the kids a normal setting with the advantage of amplification." Rayhill said. "This was not an instructional program and that's a big difference.
"We really hope to sponsor more productions like this one. So many of the parents were ecstatic," Rayhill said.