For blind theatergoers, audio descriptions are key pieces of the play

TAMPA — The words murmured on the headset are descriptive, yet short and to the point. • "All players on stage with trash can lids . . . They spin and hit lids . . . Green light on floor . . . A player comes to center stage, with plastic tube, drumsticks . . . He shimmies . . . Shimmies to the left . . . Player does a handstand.'' • Close your eyes and imagine for a moment that you are hearing this at a production of Stomp, the exuberant, swirling dance production. • "They enter wearing barrels as shoes.'' • If you were blind from birth, this is the part that might trip you up. • Barrels? What do they look like?

• • •

"That was a good show,'' Terri Grundy said to her daughter, Amanda Shevitski, as they walked out of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center in June after attending a Stomp matinee.

"Not just good. It was awesome,'' said Shevitski, 23, beaming with excitement. Stomp, with its rambunctious score for found objects ranging from Zippo lighters to paint cans to corrugated plastic tubes, was right down her alley. A musician and fan of Afro-pop and Bobby McFerrin, she loves percussion.

"I've got one word to say about the percussion, and that's 'Wow!' '' she said. "They used their bodies, tin cans, brooms, every single thing that you can think of to make noise with that you'd find around the house.''

Amanda, who lives in Pinellas Park, and I are friends and sing in a church choir together. I had enlisted her to help me learn about audio description of performances for the blind, which TBPAC is just starting to do. She has been blind since birth, and going to a show like Stomp was a rare experience for her.

Several years ago, Amanda went to The Lion King, and her mother told her what was happening onstage. "I've been describing stuff for Amanda all her life, and it will be nice to have someone else do it,'' said Terri, 51.

For Stomp, Amanda (and her mother and I) wore a headset that connected her with three women in a booth at the back of Morsani Hall who took turns describing the show into a microphone. Their description was broadcast via Sennheiser infrared technology, shared with the system that boosts the volume of a show for audience members who are hard of hearing.

"The description was really good,'' Amanda said. "It was easy for me to picture the actors moving the way they described.''

• • •

Stomp was basically the antithesis of everything I taught them,'' Deborah Lewis said a few days later. Lewis is the consultant hired by TBPAC to train the seven women and two men who will provide audio description for the blind for selected performances of Broadway shows.

In a kind of dry run, the audio describers made their debuts in four performances of Stomp, even though it is an unusual show with no dialogue. The eight characters don't have names, there is no story, and the action is largely improvised.

"In that way it wasn't that great of an example of something for them to start with,'' Lewis said. "In a regular play, the characters are talking and you have to fit your description in between the dialogue. In Stomp, you can talk almost nonstop if you choose.''

Still, Dawn Elliott kept her description minimalist, focusing on the movement of the performers, what they looked like, the colors of lighting effects and identifying sources of the sounds, no small task given the show's array of noisemakers.

At first, it was hard to take it all in, and occasionally the describer cut out when the signal was blocked by an audience member who got in the way. But with a little fiddling with the volume and flipping among the two channels available on the headset, a certain balance was achieved.

Elliott, 30, a Tampa resident who has worked as a radio reporter, said she tried to keep her descriptions "objective, brief,'' but mere words seemed inadequate for Stomp's more bizarre scenes, such as one in which performers march onstage in boots clamped atop oil barrels.

"They enter wearing barrels as shoes.'''

Later, Amanda said she had no clear conception of what an oil barrel might be. She likened it to the barrel in which she takes the trash out at home. Scaffolding was another term that she knew but whose precise appearance took a little talking about after the show to figure out.

"Stomp was tricky because you're not sure how much detail they want,'' said describer Courtenay O'Connell, 58, a high school teacher in Pasco County. "You don't know if the blind person has any experience with what you're describing.''

Even color is an abstraction to a congenitally blind person like Amanda. "I can get a mental picture of colors, but I don't know exactly what they are, because I've never seen them,'' she said.

And there lies the existential challenge of audio description, because, of course, no two blind people are the same. The visual concepts available to the congenitally blind are much different than for someone who lost sight later in life.

At Stomp, another blind audience member was Lisa Couture, who began losing her sight around age 3. Now 36, the Wesley Chapel mother of three uses a white cane and can only make out greatly enlarged text on her computer with a magnifying glass. But because she once had sight, she had no trouble imagining the play with the description.

"I could visualize everything they were telling me in my mind and picture what was going on on the stage,'' Couture said.

"You want to hit the middle,'' Lewis said when I asked how she described for a range of blindness. "You describe what you see as a sighted person and trust that they will grasp the meaning.''

• • •

In theater and other media, the blind lag behind the deaf when it comes to services for the disabled in the United States.

Performances with American Sign Language interpreters for the deaf, or open captioning on a text display near the stage, are provided by many theaters, but audio description for the blind is not widespread. This summer's performances of Annie and Stomp were the first to be described at TBPAC. In Sarasota, the Asolo Repertory Theatre has offered audio description for 20 years. At Universal Studios in Orlando, Blue Man Group has taped audio description.

"There is audio description at theaters in 30 states or so, but it's haphazard, it's hit and miss, it's off and on,'' said Joel Snyder, an audio describer (his credits include Sesame Street) in Maryland and director of the Audio Description Project of the American Council of the Blind.

On television and home video, closed captioning for the deaf is standard; it's required by law on broadcast TV. Audio description is not, though PBS and TCM have a fair amount of it. Few DVDs have audio description tracks.

"There are only about 60 DVDs in the United States with audio description,'' Snyder said. "It's just wrong.'' (A notable exception: The 30th anniversary edition of The Miracle Worker, the 1979 TV remake starring Melissa Gilbert as Helen Keller and Patty Duke as her tutor, has been released on DVD and includes audio description by Snyder.)

Snyder, 55, thinks access to audio description for the blind would be improved through a bill introduced by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass. The 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act of 2009 would mandate audio description on TV and videos, and likely lead to more in theaters. An estimated 10 million Americans are blind or have significantly impaired vision.

• • •

The week before Stomp, Lewis herself did the audio description for Annie, and Shevitski and I were in the audience. Lewis, 53, has been an audio describer since the 1980s, when she helped to establish programs at the Academy and Alliance theaters in Atlanta. Now she lives in Los Angeles and does audio description for the Mark Taper Forum and Ahmanson Theatre.

Lewis had seen Annie the day before, and taken notes, so she could prepare her audience with a 15-minute preshow presentation that was remarkably extensive, describing all the sets, props, costumes and physical features of each character.

"Chins are hard,'' Lewis later told me. "Some describers find a prominent feature — maybe it's a long nose or full lips or a broad forehead — and focus on that. And that's good because there's usually a piece of someone's face that you look at first. I like to do the overall face. Oval-shaped face, triangular, square.''

I found it exhausting to try to absorb all the information through the headset, but Amanda, who has a sharp memory for details, listened raptly. She remembered the description almost word for word when I asked her about it afterward.

Once the show got going, Lewis kept her unscripted remarks succinct and never stepped on a line of dialogue, the cardinal rule of audio description. Amanda was completely involved, clapping right on the final note of It's the Hard-Knock Life, ahhhing when Sandy made his entrance, laughing at a funny bit of business by Miss Hannigan.

Lewis encourages blind theatergoers to meet with describers in the lobby at intermission and after the show, to ask questions and give feedback. She and Amanda became fast friends, hugging and trading phone numbers and e-mail addresses.

It was that personal touch that Couture appreciated the most, too. She is a devoted theatergoer, and in the past relied on her husband, Ron, to do whispered description for her. But she felt self-conscious about disturbing others in the audience, and usually had no idea of what was happening onstage.

"I love musicals because you can get more of the gist of what's going on. I like the daydreaming aspect of it,'' said Couture, who has an MBA in finance but works as a bill collector over the phone. ("There's not exactly a huge market for blind financial analysts,'' she said with a laugh.)

She had thought the audio description of Stomp would be on tape, and was delighted to discover it was live.

"That was so cool,'' Couture said. "Unless someone noticed the headphones, they would have had no idea I was listening to people describe the show. It really did give me an independence that I missed when I went to shows before. I walked out of there knowing that they used matchboxes, knowing that they used inner tubes, things that never in a million years would I have been able to figure out. I actually felt that when I walked out that I had seen a show.''

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8716. He blogs at Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.

if you go

Audio described theater

The first Saturday matinee of each Broadway production at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center will be audio described for the blind in 2009-10. The first will be In the Heights Oct. 31. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045; tbpac.org.

For blind theatergoers, audio descriptions are key pieces of the play 07/11/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 14, 2009 6:04pm]

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