by Graham Shelby
This story looks at one of the reasons people go to see live theatre – especially at the holidays. A lot of theatres try to make a sizable portion of their annual budgets from holiday ticket sales. So they mount big eye-catching productions of old favorites. Like A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker and A Christmas Story.
Actors Theatre’s recent production of A Christmas Story featured a colorful, multi-tiered set. There was a cast of twenty actors. About half of the actors were dressed as elves. They danced and carried setpieces and threw snow and it was a spectacle.
But not every patron has the same capacity to appreciate a spectacle. Leonard Stamper is a day away from his twenty-first birthday. He’s been blind since birth and he’s never been to a play before. What can he do? Or more to the point, what can theatres do to help him enjoy a play?
That’s where Martha Newman comes in. She coordinates the Kentucky Center’s audio description program. She says, “The idea of audio description is to bring patrons with visual disabilities the same experience, or as close to the same experience, as people who don’t have visual disabilities, right down to the timing and the feel and the look and everything about it.”
The Kentucky Center trains sighted volunteers to serve as audio describers. They watch the performance from the sound booth and describe the action into a headset, not unlike a radio play-by-play announcer. Charles Mayer has been an audio describer for 16 years. He says, “Before I describe, I have to preview the play and make some notes on some special actions, especially any sight gags that the patron might not know were in there.”
If you just listen to a scene from A Christmas Story the way it sounded in the theatre, it’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on just from the sound. But when Leonard Stamper came to the theatre, he asked for the free earpiece and radio receiver from the audio description program. Stamper heard Charles Meyer describe the action, which allowed him to see the play unfold in his mind’s eye.
Stamper said he could envision, “Elves dancing. The boy, Flick, getting his tongue stuck on the flagpole. The father always being chased by the dogs. It works wonderfully.”
Martha Newman would like to see more people like Leonard Stamper take advantage of audio description. Last year, the Kentucky Center provided audio description at sixty-five performances. In total, fifty people took advantage of the service. “I think that a lot of people don’t know what audio description is and the they don’t know that we do it. It’s my hope that it continues to grow.”
Newman says that she thinks older patrons who’ve recently lost their eyesight are probably the group that she’d like to reach out to most. She wants them to know that the theatre is still open to them and that she and the audio describers will do everything they can to provide some spectacle.
The Audio Description Project, an initiative of the American Council of the Blind
List of audio-described DVDs
Upcoming audio described performances in Louisville (PDF)