Wilde access

Katrina Doolen
Summary 
I love the theatre. But I have a vision impairment. It is frustrating that I cannot see everything on stage. I went with friends to see the play The Importance of Being Earnest. We organised to have a tour of the stage. We felt some of the costumes. We met two actors. During the play we wore an earpiece. A person known as an audio describer told us what was happening on stage. It helped us to better understand the story. Vision Australia organise audio descriptions for many shows.
Posted by: 
Katrina Doolen on 30/01/2012
A view of the theatre from the backstage. There are a few props on the stage, the theatre is gold and red.
theatre

I'm a big fan of the theatre.

I was excited when we got tickets for the play The Importance of Being Earnest. I couldn't wait to see actor Geoffrey Rush play Lady Bracknell. I went with friends. Three of us have low vision and two are blind.

The Oscar Wilde play is a comedic story about two men who get caught out leading double lives. This production was by the Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC).

Tactile tour

We met the stage manager an hour before the play. We walked onto the stage to see and touch the set, minimal props and costumes.

The stage manager explained the role of the large book on stage. Illustrations in the book explain the scene settings to the audience. We were able to touch a large handbag, another key prop. A main adult character is abandoned as a baby and left in a large handbag at Victoria Station in London.

We were happy to meet two of the actors. Bob Hornery played both the butlers and Patrick Brammell played one of the main characters, Algernon.

Patrick described some of his first scene actions. He sucks a cucumber out of a sandwich and then puts the bread in his pocket. This is a comic moment as he eats the cucumber meant for his aunt.

Audio

We collected our audio units and earplugs 30 minutes before the performance. The audio units work like a transistor radio. You only use one earplug so you can also hear the actors. A person known as a describer sits behind a glass panel either behind or above the audience. Before the play starts and during the interval this person describes the set, props and costumes.

History

The tactile tour and audio description aim to enhance the experience of a play by filling in the visual gaps.

The MTC and Vision Australia have been offering audio description for 20 years. There are 16 volunteers that provide the audio description. There are two describers for each performance, with each person describing half of the play.

The describers watch the play three times to familiarise themselves with the play. They are then ready to audio describe it. Interestingly they each write their own audio script. Some even choose not to use a script.

What was it like?

I love theatre, so the tactile tour and audio description filled in details I would have otherwise missed.

My friend Helen says seeing the props up close helped her better understand the play.

Seeing the costumes and handbag established when the play was set. It was important to see the handbag as its central to the story, she says.

It helped me understand how the book fitted into the play and its significance, explained Ross.

Something special?

Sometimes it was impossible to hear the describer over the audience. Other times I struggled to hear the actors over the describers as there were few pauses between lines. The describers do a fantastic job but should provide as much information as possible in fewer words. Unfortunately, after the interval two of our audio units kept cutting in and out.

Luckily the actor Patrick had told us about the cucumber sandwich as I didn't hear it described. I was also just able to hear a description of a muffin fight. I could laugh along with the audience. These two moments added to the performance by explaining this production of the classic play.

People who are blind or have low vision want to get the most out of their theatre experience. Audio description enhances the experience of a play.

Vision Australia organises tactile tours and audio description http://www.visionaustralia.org/info.aspx?page=590#program

Have you attended a show and experienced audio description or visual aids? What did you think?

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