Figures of Speech: Audio-Describers Deliver Theatre to Imagination of Visually Impaired

By Mary Frances Hill,
Vancouver SunNovember 3, 2009

Narrated performance of The Miracle Worker is the first of its kind in

Sitting in an audio booth above the stage, Teri Snelgrove describes
The Miracle Worker to blind audience members during a performance at
the Vancouver Playhouse.

VANCOUVER – On any other night, Tamara Tedesco would have had to
struggle to imagine what a fight between a wild Helen Keller and
teacher Annie Sullivan would look like. But Tuesday night, during the onstage tussle between the actors
playing Keller and Sullivan in the Vancouver Playhouse’s production of
The Miracle Worker, the images came to her quickly and with clarity.
Between the grunts and kicks, the pounding of feet and the screams that filled the five-minute tussle, she could hear brief descriptions of the melee through the headphones of an audio-descriptive headset.
“It all came to life for me,” said Tedesco, a visually impaired student who watched the show with her guide dog Paikea by her side.

“The timing of the description was spot on, and it’s fantastic to be
at a show where everything was so polished.”

That night, just a few metres from Tedesco’s seat, Teri Snelgrove sat
in a soundproofed booth. She sat, keenly focused, describing every piece of onstage action into a microphone, her words broadcast into the headphones of about a dozen people with sight impairments sitting
in the Playhouse balcony.

The Miracle Worker was the second audio-described performance she’s been to, and the first one to ever be held in Canada.

While hearing-impaired audiences in Canada have long had access to the arts through the work of sign-language interpreters, those with sight impairments have gone virtually untended to in the country’s
theatrical scene.

Tuesday night’s audio-described performance marked a first in Canada.

That evening’s show, a benefit for the Canadian National Institute for
the Blind, could help improve access to the arts for people with visual impairments, a practice that audiences see as long overdue.

Tedesco said that hearing Snelgrove’s calm voice narrate the action gave her a sense of belonging — of being able to keep up with the rest of the audience.

“Usually I laugh with the rest of the crowd, but this is the first
time I actually know what I was laughing at.”

– – –

On Tuesday night, Teri Snelgrove was on her game. Or at least it seemed that way to Tedesco and her fellow audience members.
But in fact, Snelgrove was amped for the night; she’d been mentally
preparing for months for one of the most unusual experiences of her

For Snelgrove, audio description demands that she embrace extremes. She’s got to stay sharply focused, but keep her voice relaxed and calm. She must choose her words on the fly, and ironically, leave her own
perceptions out of it.

“When I first tried it, I thought, ‘Oh My God, this is much harder than I thought it would be,'” said Snelgrove. “In the end it’s about timing, familiarity of the play, and, to a degree, confidence. It’s
almost like you have to get into a certain headspace.”

Frazzled nerves are part of the job, according to Deborah Lewis, a California woman who is one of the most experienced audio describers in the U.S., and who tours Canada and the U.S. to teach the skill to
groups like the one in Vancouver.

“The best describers are people with good voices, a great vocabulary — people who see this as an avocation rather than a full-time job,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and there
are still moments when I sit in a theatre and think, ‘Did I describe
enough? Did I describe too much?'”

Funding from the Canada Council via KickStart, a local organization devoted to widening access to cultural events for those with disabilities, helped Lewis visit Vancouver over four days last summer. She trained eight Vancouver describers, and found among them some surprising talents. “The Vancouver describers are a great bunch, but I met maybe two people there who were natural talents. That’s very rare.”

Lewis taught the group how to hone their sense of rhythm, and how to vividly describe a scene using a bare minimum of words that can fit in between lines of dialogue. Participants also learned the importance of
maintaining respect for the imagination of their audience, by keeping
their expressions simple and objective.

Snelgrove, who works as a production coordinator for the National Film Board and considers herself an artistic type of person. Describing typically attracts creative people such as actors who want to add to
their repertoire, and writers with strong vocabularies or roots in local theatre.
Describing takes a team. By the time an audio describer such as Snelgrove arrives at a theatre, a colleague has already made notes in various sections of the script. A describer needs to balance brevity and rhythm with sensuality, and vivid vocabulary. “It’s better to think ‘cranberry red’ rather than
just red,” says Lewis.

While wordless action-packed scenes in The Miracle Worker may have been difficult to define, it wasn’t the most daunting production a describer could encounter.

“Comedies are really hard, and musical comedies are very, very difficult,” says Lewis. “You need to try to describe a physical joke really quickly, so your patron can laugh with anybody else. Usually
there’s many things going on, and many people laugh at different times.

Often, physical comedy gets lost in translation.

“It’s like getting British humour, or getting a Frenchman to describe why he finds something funny.”

Since the early 1990s, when her part-time describing career got off the ground in the U.S., Lewis has narrated the Rose Parade, tours of the San Diego zoo galleries, movies, plays and television shows across
the country.

As a member of the California Audio Describers Alliance she’s one of the most sought-after instructors of the practice.

In L.A., she’s one of three members who dominate Audio Description Los Angeles. Statewide, she’s a member of the California Audio Describers Alliance. Nationwide, she’s active in the Audio Description Coalition.
Together, the groups create standards and guidelines. So far, about 30 states in the U.S. have active audio description services in theatres. But they’re still not offered regularly.
“We’re still trying to get more theatres to adopt this [in the U.S.].
It’s an ongoing battle to convince them they’re going to increase their audience, but also make theatre accessible for the blind.”

After paying for a trainer, a kit including an infrared transmitter and about a dozen headsets, with a fee for an audio describer’s time, the costs can run up to $10,000 in startup costs but can be recovered over time as more visually-impaired audiences take advantage of it.

The equipment used at last week’s Playhouse production was rented for the evening.

CNIB Western region spokeswoman Elaine McKay said the CNIB and KickStart will gauge demand for descriptive audio services in B.C.’s theatre community, and lobby for more funding to help purchase
equipment that can move from one cultural event to another.

The CNIB estimates there are about 110,000 visually impaired or blind residents across B.C.
The benefits of greater access to theatre for visually impaired are obvious, and the push to expand the project is a huge step forward for B.C., said Snelgrove.

“In a world where performances are available in sign language, it seems to make infinite sense to have audio-described performance available to the visually impaired and help blind people participate
in the cultural world.”

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