I’ve always wondered can you experience a play in a different way? I’m not talking about the immersive theatre experience (done that!). I’m looking for experimentation- using, abusing, embarrassing or dissecting myself for your reading pleasure. So here it goes…
Have you ever seen a blind man watch a play? I have! It is one of the most awe-inspiring things to witness. It was like discovering the holy ground of sound. Peeking at his animated facial expressions, I wondered how he experienced theatre. That’s when my lightbulb moment happened and the research began.
Personally, sight is pretty important. In 2013, I was robbed of it when a nurse injected me with an anti-sickness drug, Cyclizine. This rare allergic reaction trashed the dream of a speedy recovery from an emergency appendix operation. My sight and breathing muted whilst my hearing on full blast. This was my near death experience. Listening to my mum’s screams and doctors’ shouts, my initials “E.R” literally meant “Emergency Room”. After many therapy sessions, I no longer became scared to close my eyes and temporary lose my sight to dreamland.
Being a theatre blogger, I take my sight for granted so what would happen if it was gone? Would theatre still be able to provide? That’s when I stumbled across VocalEyes and Stagetext’s See a Voice project…
“Audio Description in theatre is a live verbal commentary providing information on the visual elements of a production as it unfolds. From sets, props and costumes, to actors’ facial expressions, actions, visual jokes and production qualities. The description is delivered during the quieter moments of a performance and is received by the audience member via a personal headset…”
See a Voice website
Desperately wanting to try out this audio descriptive experience, I looked at the lack of audio description performances within our London theatres. Very few theatres catered a “sensible” performance time (I have a full time job!) or were willing to help me trial their service (scaredy cats!). Luckily, the Young Vic rescued me and off I went…
“A razor-sharp play that walks the fine line between office politics and playground bullying. Bull offers ringside seats as three employees fight to keep their jobs…”
Mike Bartlett, Bull
Meeting Will (Front of House Manager), Eleanor and Kirstin (the audio describers), they talked me through the Young Vic’s thirty minute touch tour. Walking around the studio, I stood in the middle of the stage. Peering up, I swallowed that lump called stage fright. The set was quite simplistic so not much touchy feely action, but I understood the importance of the touch tour. The touch tour enabled you to freely move around the set and identify props (such as the plastic folders, plumbed in water cooler and a bottle of whiskey) with your hands. Letting my fingers graze and caress the plastic a little longer, I imagined touch was my only hope to picture the stage. Eleanor introduced me to the bare minimum on set to ensure she wasn’t giving the game play away.
Letting my Stethoset receiver (aka headphones) dangle, I began to feel slightly self-conscious. The fact I could see – I suddenly became aware I was the minority by simply wearing this receiver. My fellow audience members eyed up my gadget as I told myself to look cool and fiddled around with the volume button. As I write this, I type with shame, guilt and pure vanity so please forgive me. This paragraph defeats the whole purpose, but I expected the receiver to be more discreet. Knowing how fast technology can evolve, I hope this receiver will become a lot smaller for the wearer so they can’t be identified by their disability.
Glancing at the stage once again, pairs of eyes stared at the device in my hand. I was just about to explain my research, but the voice of a theatre god invaded my ears. The audio describers began their six minute pre-show introduction, describing what was on the stage, how the stage was set up, where the audience were standing and sitting, how many actors formed the cast, descriptions on the characters’ appearances and mannerisms. Ignoring the bellows of music and audience buzz, I closed my eyes and concentrated on the commentary. Like Sherlock and his “mind palace”, I imagined the set and the ghosts of the characters. You can listen to their introductory notes below.
I was concerned the commentary would be like an annoying fly, buzzing in your ear and constantly squaring the air. Resisting temptation to stare at the stage, I focused on my knees to rely upon sound. Listening to what could be called a “radio play”, the audio description enabled me to picture the characters’ reactions with a smooth flow. At times, Bull was extremely fast paced so it was really interesting to see what facial expressions and body language was noted and scratched.
Not all of the actions were described though, which I guess could be seen as “controversial”. I was mentally nudging the audio describers to “say something, I’m giving up on you”, especially in terms of Thomas’ facial expressions and arm gestures. But then I thought was it really necessary to describe every action? Does it add real value? But then shouldn’t the audience member decide?
The commentary was timed to silence – there was the danger of interrupting the script. Eleanor and Kirstin had clearly done their homework, ensuring the audio description was in sync. At times, it felt like a narrator comically timing several actions in a space of a minute. The scene described perfectly was when Tony (Max Bennett) and Isobel (Susannah Fielding) force Thomas (played by Marc Wootton) to put his face on Tony’s naked chest. Imagine this piece of great dark comedy lost to sight. Without audio description, a visually impaired audience member would be abandoned in the waves of laughs. Like a verbal ping pong match between audio describer and cast, Bull became enjoyable to watch listen to.
Young Vic is clearly “committed to making your visit as enjoyable as possible. [They] aim to cater for every audience member’s needs and to be accessible to all”. I hope more theatres equal Young Vic’s fantastic customer experience and friendly service. Although I am not partially sighted myself, I now understand how important it is to preach the “Access for All” message. I hope this blog post helps to spread the message… EVERYONE should experience theatre – no matter what is wrong right with you.
Visit Young Vic’s “Access For All” and their future audio description performances here. Big thanks to the Young Vic and special thanks to: Charlotte Bayley, Will Bowden, Eleanor Margolies and Kirstin Smith