Theater performances enhanced for blind patrons

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(Host) There is much more to a live theater performance than words spoken by actors. Visual elements like facial expressions, gestures, props and costumes are also important. Thanks to a technology called audio description, blind and sight-impaired people are able to fully enjoy an increasing number of Vermont theater productions.

VPR’s Steve Zind reports.

(Zind) The next time you’re at a theater performance close your eyes. The stage disappears, and, along with it, the sets, the costumes and how the performers look and behave. Imagine what you’d miss if you were blind or visually impaired.

(Richman) “If the dialogue didn’t tell me, I just didn’t get it. I wasn’t understanding the nuances of the costuming, I wasn’t understanding the nuances of the movements on the stage.”

(Zind) Mike Richman is with the Vermont Council of the Blind. The council and the Blind Artisans of Vermont have been introducing Vermont theaters to a technology called audio description. Blind and visually impaired theater patrons wear a small earphone that allows them to hear live descriptions of the key visual elements of a production, along with the dialogue from the stage.

(Actor) “You ain’t got no sense!”
(Actor) “It’s the truth! Like you’re ridin’ on Goodyears.”
(Describer) “An attractive middle aged woman steps out onto the porch.”

(Zind) At a rehearsal of the play “Fences” at Burlington’s Flynn Center, Rena Murman sits in the light booth, adding visual details to the play’s dialogue.

(Murman) “Bono prances toward the alley.”
(Actor) “Hell, I’m goin’ home with you!”
(Murman) “Troy rushes to follow.”

(Zind) Murman says it took her 40 hours to write the audio description for “Fences,” which is being performed by the Weston Playhouse Theater Company. She watched rehearsals and went over videos of the play, fitting her descriptions in between lines of dialogue, and searching for the right details to convey.

(Murman) “One of the characters here has these huge hands that are very demonstrative and so that’s a big part of who he is and an important characteristic to describe during the play.”

(Zind) Doing the audio description for a live performance is difficult – it requires concentration and timing. Generally it takes two people to audio-describe a play from beginning to end.

Mike Richman says of the estimated 30,000 blind and sight impaired people in Vermont, many never bothered going to a theater performance before audio description became available.

(Richman) “What it was like was, I missed a lot. And of course my poor wife or whomever I went with had to be very careful about whispering so we didn’t annoy the audience, and felt a responsibility to tell me what was happening, so they lost a lot of enjoyment. This is a boon for the sighted world as well as for the blind world.”

(Zind) The Weston Playhouse was the first Vermont theater to use audio description for performances. Richman says now a number of theaters borrow the equipment, which his group owns, to provide the service for blind patrons. The Council of the Blind also recruits and trains audio describers. The group hopes to convince more theaters to take advantage of the technology and include audio description in at least one performance of a play’s run.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Steve Zind.

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