Audio Description

Ever see headsets at the theater and wonder what they're for? Instead of a low- or no-sighted patron having to rely on their companion to tell them what's going on onstage, trained describers watch the show live from a special booth and briefly state what they see. It's an art called Audio Description (that I've previously written about), and it's a way for people with low or no vision to enjoy theatrical events.

About six months ago the Straz Center for the Performing Arts (formerly Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center) received a grant to bring in a seasoned trainer to teach a handful of locals all about Audio Description. Though AD does not yet have an official certification
process, many people are working towards one and professional standards have been in place for years - such as not talking over the actor's lines, using six words or less, etc.

I was among the first class to be schooled, trained on Fiddler on the Roof and Stomp. Although Stomp had no lines to step on, it presented another challenge: which actions do you describe when there are so many?

Luckily, I was well prepared. For my audition, my husband had recommended that I practice the "Make 'Em Laugh" scene from Singing in the Rain. Overwhelmed at first, I think I did pretty well.

Describing is more than showing up the day of the performance to do the play-by-play. We watch the show at least once to take notes on anything seen on stage, from the lights and sets and costumes to the eye color of the actors. These "preshow notes" are then read 30 minutes before curtain time and again during intermission, so it's important for those who come to a show for AD to be in their seats early.

Below is the description I gave for the Queen of Hearts in the current production of "Wonderland."
Karen Mason plays Mrs. Everheart and the Queen of Hearts. Both characters are the same age, 40 years old, 5’2 tall, with brassy red hair. The Queen of Hearts wears her hair in a braid that loops above her head in the shape of a heart. In the middle of her head is a small platinum heart-shaped crown. She has bangs on her forehead, pale, snowy skin and thin lips painted bright red. She wears oversized light gray pointy glasses with round lenses. Her asymetrical V-neck knee length dress is black and white and styled after a Queen of Hearts playing card, with a large letter “Q” on each thigh and various sized hearts and other symbols all over the bodice. On the left side of her chest she wears a hand-shaped brooch that’s holding a fake black and white flower that extends from her dress. The shoulders have full frilly white ruffles the size of extra large bouquets, lined with black trim. A smaller, similar bouquet is on her navel like a belt. Below it, on the right side, the dress fans out like a spiral staircase and spills down the back of her legs to her ankles into a stiff train. She wears elbow-length gloves on each hand, one white, one black, and a thick black and white striped choker around her neck. On her legs she wears transparent black hosiery and tall black platform heels on her feet, with red hearts on the toe.

Though all the senses can be aroused at the theater, thanks to Audio Description nothing has to be left out for anyone who can't actually see the show.

The next AD show at the Straz is South Pacific on January 16th.

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