Sunday, December 13, 2009

Increasing Accessibility

At a Stagesource Town Meeting a few years back, a representative from the Blind and Deaf community took to the microphone and told the theatre community, very politely: "We don't need free tickets, (we can pay for our own,) we need accessibility!"

Wheelock Family Theater here in Boston has been a pioneer in this area.

In this morning, the Globe's Joan Anderman has a piece about Broadway Across America increasing its accessibility for the blind with describers:

Enter Ruth Kahn and Willis. As the pre-show describer for “Fiddler,’’ Kahn, the former access coordinator for the Museum of Fine Arts who now works at Wheelock Family Theatre, began her work 20 minutes before the curtain went up.

Seated at a microphone on a platform at the back of the theater, she painted a vivid portrait in words of the theater - scantily-clad nymphs frolicking in the ceiling mural, mirrored panels lining the walls - as well as the show’s characters, their costumes, and each scene’s setting and set pieces.

“For a lot of people this will be their very first theatrical experience,’’ says Kahn, “so I’ll describe the fiddle: what it does, what it looks like, how the fiddler holds the fiddle. Some theaters are able to have tactile elements of the show incorporated into the pre-show, where we hand around props.’’

A critical part of a describer’s job is to withhold judgment, to not tell the visually-impaired audience how to think about something - but rather choose language that allows them to form their own opinions.

“Instead of calling someone ugly, I’ll talk about his wrinkled, jagged face,’’ says Willis, who started five years ago at WGBH creating descriptive narration for such projects as “Masterpiece Theatre,’’ the “Harry Potter’’ home videos, and two presidential inaugurations.

In the theater, describers must also be able to finesse the timing of their interjections, responding to the shifting rhythms of dialogue and songs so as not to speak over the actors.

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