Tuesday, August 26, 2008

British program describes theatre performances for blind audience members

From Evening News 24 in Norwich, UK:

Radio plays pre-date the advent of television, and still remain popular with listeners who find the lack of visuals don't hamper the drama. But what if the storyline is meant to be seen as well as heard? Blind and partially sighted people are confronted with this dilemma every time they go to the theatre or cinema. Following the dialogue will only get them so far.

Anne Hornsby was working at the Octagon Theatre in Bolton in the 1980s when a blind theatregoer approached her with a grand idea.

“Described theatre was new from the States. There was only one company in the UK doing it, and a blind customer, Sheila Birkett, proposed we try it. Sheila hadn't always been blind but had always loved theatre, so she knew what she was missing.”

Hornsby is now the director of Mind's Eye, a professional service that allows visually impaired people to experience the immediacy of theatre even though they might not be able to see the action on stage.The organisation regularly does audio-described performances at Norwich Theatre Royal. Theatregoers wear headsets and Hornby explains what is happening during the gaps in the dialogue.

“Sheila found she wanted to know what the actors were wearing - what the fabrics looked like. She could sense the audience's reaction, but not know what it was to,” says Hornsby. “A blind person can't just turn to their companion and ask what's going on because it disrupts those around them. You can imagine the sense of isolation.”

The Disability Discrimination Act, which gives disabled people rights in accessing employment, services, goods and facilities, means arts venues are now expected to budget to reach all members of the community.

“I think there is a lot of room for it to grow,” says Hornsby. “It began with smaller theatres with Arts Council funding going for it, then the more commercial theatres joined in because legislation said they had to - but this can just mean one described performance a year, or every few months. It would be great to give people more choice.”

The Theatre Royal is more committed than many to bringing a complete experience to disabled customers, and Hornsby, whose specialised job involves travelling the country to supply audio commentary to shows, film festivals and museums, recently delivered a specially tailored script of South Pacific to select Saturday matinee customers.

“Matinees are popular for described performances because often older people don't like going out too late at night,” she explains. “Or maybe they work during the week, or have to rely on public transport.”

A group of about 10 people who would be using the Mind's Eye facility met Hornsby before the show so she could take them on a 'touch tour' around the set. Performers in leg warmers, doing stretches and last minute run-throughs were still littering the stage when she began the mini-excursion.

“Here is the make-shift shower in which Nellie will wash that man right out of her hair,” says Hornsby. She passes around some grass skirts and extravagant papier-mâché head gear. Later, she explains, “The touching of a grass skirt is a novelty. Some people are partially sighted and need to get up close to make things out. The touch tour gives that chance.”

When the touch tour is finished, those who will be listening to the described performance collect headsets from the box office and join the streams of theatregoers buying ice-cream and programmes. Before the lights go down, Hornsby describes the visual characteristics - “full figured, dark-eyes, heavy jaw” - of the characters, so when they first appear, listeners are already acquainted with their visual quirks.

“In Norwich, there was one thing that threw me,” says Hornsby. “The Polynesian children, Ngana and Jerome, are found locally, and I'd described them as being dark-skinned. But Norwich being less multi-cultural than areas like, say, Bradford, they were much lighter-skinned than I'd imagined. One just wants to describe the details accurately.”

It might seem unlikely to fully-sighted people, used to enjoying the dramatic shapes and movements of live performance, that a described version can still be visceral and exciting. Talking to Hornsby it becomes apparent those tuning in are getting just as unique an experience, equally reliant on things 'being alright on the night'.

“I'm often asked why the descriptions aren't recorded, but of course, they couldn't be, because the gaps in the dialogue are never going to be exactly the same. It's different every time. You need to be prepared and confident. I often watch at least three run-throughs, plus videos over and over. I write the script myself, so know it well. You are complimenting what the actors are doing and it should all blend together. 'I didn't even notice you' is the best compliment I could get.”

Does she ever feel like an actress?

“I have done a film festival where I had to read the speech subtitles as well as describe, and it was a bit of a one woman show, but generally you just match delivery with piece. It must be pleasant and not jarring. If it's a romantic scene your tone should reflect that, but not so much that you're weeping if someone is dying on stage.”

It sounds like both an arduous and rewarding job.

“When someone says, 'I loved it when you told me so-and-so had pinched someone's bottom - I could just imagine it' or 'you made me cry', you know you've brought something to life for them. The other day a woman said to me, 'you made me feel like I was back in the land of the living.'

“These kinds of initiatives allow everyone to have an equal footing. Blind people have just as much right to access facilities - they pay taxes too and contribute to society. When you've lost your sight, something has been taken away from you and this is a way of enjoying the things one perhaps used to love.”