Audio Theater Tour describes plays for the visually impaired

May 27, 2011

Theaters talk about accessibility all the time. Sometimes it means affordability; sometimes it means clarity; and sometimes it means removing physical obstacles: providing ramps for wheelchair access and signed performances for people with hearing impairments.

Rarely, though, does a theater talk about providing access to people who are blind.  It may seem an overwhelming task to describe what the set looks like, what the actors look like, how the movements ebb and flow. But it is possible--in fact, Victory Gardens, Steppenwolf and Broadway in Chicago all provide audio description--and now a pair of Chicago actors has created a service that will offer audio description of a single performance at any Chicago theater for free.

Let me repeat that: if they can raise $35,000 by mid-July, for the next year they will provide an audio-described performance at any interested theater for free.

To accomplish this, DiAnne B. Shaw and Victor J. Cole have established a Kickstarter account.  Shaw explains, "Victor has been doing audio description for ten years at Victory Gardens, which is really at the forefront of this total access movement.  This really is the last stage–everyone understands that you need wheelchair access, everyone uses signers, but very few places do this." 

And yet the process is both unobtrusive and relatively inexpensive.  A describer works from a booth with a monitor showing the action onstage, and narrates into wireless headsets worn by the patrons.  Even before the show begins, "We have a mock-up of the set, it’s sort of Braille-like, and patrons are able to feel it and touch it.  They go onstage and touch all the materials, and actors come out and describe themselves.  Many times you can have the set designers talk about their thoughts, and it helps [patrons] settle in so they know what the stage looks like.  And then the description is exactly at the moment of things done on stage: 'He picks up the cup.'" 

Adds Shaw, "Our goal is not only to let theaters know how easy this is, but also to make this tour unnecessary. Every theater [should] already have this as a part of what it's doing.  [Audio description is] about $100 a show, so it's not cost-prohibitive. And for this season it'll cost nothing.

"Do you find," asks Shaw modestly, "that when you finally come up with something that’s such a good idea, you look around and wonder why no one else has done it?"