Robert tests out the live descriptive service provided by Vancouver-based Vocaleye, a non-profit society making it possible for the blind or sight-challenged to enjoy a night out at the theatre.
Hearing the subtleties of theatre
By Faye Bayko
Photo by Don Lee, Banff Centre
As a life-partner of someone who has low vision, attending live theatre in the past has meant I was unable to enjoy the performance. My role was to describe what was happening on stage to my husband, Robert, while not disturbing those seated around us. It meant I was never able to relax and enjoy the performance, and if I ever did get caught up in the play, I would be brought back to the necessity of filling his needs by his asking, ‘What’s happening now?’ More often than not I would leave the theatre angry while listening to his enthusiastic comments about the show.
Soon, I stopped mentioning performances advertised in the local papers, and that part of our social life shut down.
Depression eventually found me. As an artistic person I missed the exposure to this form of creative expression. I knew Robert would have had no problem with me attending the events alone, but I couldn’t do it. I was already feeling as if I lived in the 90 percent of life he didn’t see. If I started attending theatre events without him, I would be increasing the percentage of shadow between us.
In April of 2016 I read an article in The Richmond News about Vocaleye Descriptive Arts Society who partners with local theatre companies and event organizers to provide live descriptive services for blind or partially-sighted attendees. I discussed the option with Robert and we decided to try it, signing up as members, and then purchasing tickets for the July 24th matinee performance of Bard on the Beach’s The Merry Wives of Windsor.
The title of the play attracted us because Robert grew up in Windsor, Ontario. Unfortunately, the theatre’s tent seemed to trap the summer’s heat causing rivers of sweat to flow down our faces and drench our clothing. It became so unbearably hot Robert and I left at the intermission.
At the time, Robert said he had not been impressed with the descriptive service provided for that performance. He found the describer unsure of herself and the narrative filled with distractive throat clearings.
We remained on the society’s mailing list, however, and continued to receive email notifications of upcoming described performances. This month we decided to try the service again, purchasing special Vocaleye tickets for The Electric Company Theatre’s production of The Full Light of Day on January 12th at the Vancouver Playhouse. Like the previous attempt, it was the play that attracted us. From an artist’s perspective, I was intrigued by their idea of blending film and live theatre. As a partner of someone with low vision, I was interested to know how such a performance could be successfully described to the visually impaired.
The blind perspective
Overall Robert’s impression of the descriptive service offered for The Full Light of Day performance was favourable. “It started off well. The pre-show descriptions, as they were getting ready and they just had the picture of the tree up, (the describer) was giving some good descriptions of the characters, who they were, who they were related to, what they looked like, the clothing they wore, and even their attitude and mannerisms.”
As the play progressed, he said, the descriptions helped with what was a confusing mix with actors playing multiple characters. “The Vocaleye describer helped with that,” Robert said. “When he was describing who was on stage, he would say the character’s name. So, you had the setup of who was there, and you started to put the voices together a little bit.”
When film elements were introduced, such as when the characters were traveling in the car from one place to another and scenes of various sorts were projected on the backdrop, Robert said the descriptions became shorter. “(The describer) would just say ‘traveling past skyscrapers’ and ‘trains’, or ‘industrial park’, or ‘we’re looking out over the city’. So, in a few of the scenes I closed my eyes rather than watching what was on the screen and it was more like reading a story and using your imagination as to what was there.” The shutting of his eyes is a trick Robert often uses when his brain has trouble understanding what his limited (10 percent) vision is trying to tell it, such as when the filmed elements were panning too quickly or competing with the action on stage.
“What was really good with the description was the subtle things. Like when Mary and Jane were in the apartment and they held hands. Those were subtle things I wouldn’t have gotten (with limited sight). So, by him describing it, I was able to understand a bit more about what was happening in the interaction.”
There were moments though where the lack of description led to confusion. It took Robert a while to realize that scenes were being repeated and presented from different character’s points of view. This concept was not dealt with by the describer during the show. “He described the scene but didn’t describe the (point of view) connection.”
Robert felt that the describer had a very clear, calm and confident voice but during the party scene that voice didn’t cut through the noise. The problem, he said, was the earplugs for the FM receivers are open, not enclosed, and therefore let surrounding noise in. “It’s not pressed up like a headphone where it’s cupping you. So, the sound’s coming from outside and (the describer’s) voice was overwhelmed. I had to turn him up and when I turned it way up, because he wasn’t in an isolated booth, I would have a slight echo of what was on stage.”
“I understand that this production was a difficult one to describe and I appreciate that Vocaleye and the describer were willing to take on the challenge,” Robert said. “It was very enjoyable.”
The sighted perspective
As a fully-sighted member of the audience I appreciated what was being attempted with blending film and live theatre. I really liked the layering of the visuals. For example: the river scene. At the front of the stage, the closed stage curtains, which were see-through, had a film of rippling water projected on them. At mid-stage, the character Harold was going through the motions of stripping down to his swimming trunks and plunging into a river. When he pretended to plunge into the water and float, an image of him floating on the water was seen as part of the film projected on front-of-stage curtains. Meanwhile, at the back of the stage a section of the stage wall had been opened to create the idea of a picture window, with the audience able to see the character Mary in her bedroom.
For other scenes, filmed sequences of Toronto’s cityscapes were used successfully as transition pieces, as were scenes of fields or highways. But the live-action film sequences I found, while dramatic, were distracting. This was especially so when the camera and its tripod were moved around the stage. Maybe I’m more of an old-school theatre purist than I thought.
I also found the car being wheeled on and off the stage very distracting. I felt it could have been cut from the show. It screamed ‘gimmick’ to me every time it made its appearance and its headlights blinded at least part of the audience with each entry.
Theatre for the blind? Why?
Offering a descriptive service for a theatre market most managers didn’t believe existed was a hard sell but Steph Kirkland persevered.
“The response from the theatre community was ─ blind people don’t come to the theatre so why should we offer this service, especially if we have to pay for it?”
Kirkland, who has a professional theatre background, had recorded textbooks for blind students and considered describing theatre for blind theatre enthusiasts an opportunity to use her skills in another way. She trained as a describer through the Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture organization in 2009, went on to coordinate programs for them, and eventually created Vocaleye Descriptive Arts Society.
Proving there was a theatre audience amongst the blind/low-vision community was a struggle. Attendance was low at first but eventually grew, Kirkland said, thanks to the long-term commitment of high-profile partners like the Arts Club. Programming has expanded to include other cultural venues and events such as the annual Pride Parade and the Celebration of Light fireworks competition.
“These efforts have made Vocaleye a recognized leader in the field of arts accessibility, with an explosion of awareness in the last couple of years,” said Kirkland.
Great to be back
While our experience with the Vocaleye descriptive service wasn’t perfect, it did provide the opportunity for my husband and I to attend a theatre performance and each be focused on enjoying it. Best of all, we walked out of that theatre smiling and full of discussion points we could hardly wait to share with each other.