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The true story of extraordinary Helen Keller comes to the Cramphorn Studio

The Miracle Worker

The incredible story of Helen Keller comes to Chelmsford City Theatres this week with a new production of ‘The Miracle Worker’. The play by William Gibson is set in 1880s America during the pivotal weeks that Helen, who became deaf and blind following a childhood illness, first learns to communicate. The breakthrough comes thanks to Helen’s relationship with her young governess, another exceptional woman called Annie Sullivan.

The play is a co-production for the theatres

The co-production between Chelmsford Theatres and ‘One From The Heart’ brings this phenomenal true story to the Cramphorn Studio this October. Producer Daryl Back, who played the role of Helen Keller in the 1988 West End production of ‘The Miracle Worker’ says it’s the stuff of real drama.

At the time in Helen’s life when this play is set, her family just didn’t know what to do with an energetic deaf-blind child. Helen was exceptionally bright, but she had no means of communication, leading to tantrums and rages of frustration. The family tried governess after governess, to no avail. Eventually they found a young Irish woman called Annie Sullivan, who was partially blind herself and had been educated at a school for the blind. This partnership led to an incredible leap forward for Helen and a relationship that lasted throughout both of their lives.

Annie’s one intention on meeting Helen was to teach her language and Annie herself said ‘first, last and in between, language…. she has to learn that everything has its name! That words can be her eyes, to everything in the world outside her, and inside too, what is she without words?’ It is the climax of an emotional roller coaster when, finally, Helen understands that the letters being spelled onto her hand have a meaning. It’s a heart-stopping moment."

Daryl Back, producer and artistic director of One From The Heart

A chance to rediscover an inspirational story

Although the play is performed regularly in the United States, it’s less well known here, giving Chelmsford audiences the perfect opportunity to rediscover an inspiring story that many first hear in childhood. ‘The Miracle Worker’ takes place at a time when the obstacles faced by a someone who was both deaf and blind were even greater than today.

Annie’s first challenge was to set boundaries for Helen and there are times when this control becomes physical. Even though this aspect of their relationship can be a tough watch for modern audiences, Daryl Back says this part of 19th century life is crucial in understanding Helen Keller’s incredible transformation.

“We have to set the play in the 1880s, true to the time and place of Helen’s early life, but we have been very mindful of how we tell this story to a modern audience. The conquest of physical disability can often swamp an audience with pathos, but for the play to work and for it to be true to the period in which it is set, we have portrayed that violence without sentimentality or theatrical tricks. We have on-set guidance available on issues of disability and child behaviour for this production, whilst retaining the play’s heart as a profoundly moving piece of theatre.”

Daryl Back, producer and artistic director of One From The Heart

The Miracle Worker runs until 16 October

The play, which has been funded by Arts Council England, runs from Tuesday 5 to Saturday 16 October, with two signed performances during its run. Tickets are £12.50 for standard seats and £14.50 for premium seats. 

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Julie Weight
Julie Weight

Julie writes stories and creates videos for Chelmsford City Council. Contact her at julie.weight@chelmsford.gov.uk or on 01245 606984.