We are delighted to welcome guest blogger Emma Beattie. Emma is a member of the theatre’s Access Forum. Here she writes honestly about her and her guide dog Rupert’s first experience of an Audio Described performance and Touch Tour.
I haven’t been to the theatre since I suffered sight loss 6 years ago. It was something that I thought was no longer available to me, part of my former existence that was mourned, along with driving and reading, and that I resolutely refused to allow myself to miss. However, a serendipitous meeting via a visit to a public event with my children, led to my becoming involved with Birmingham Hippodrome’s Access forum. Here I was persuaded that my denial driven dislike of audio description was worth reconsidering and that theatre was still something that I could experience and enjoy. Tentatively, and with huge reservations, I decided to come to the touch tour and to see the audio described performance of Avenue Q on 21 May 2011. I enjoy musicals, love the Muppets and definitely needed a few laughs, so it seemed a good choice.
I arrived at the Hippodrome with Rupert, my guide dog, where I was met by a member of staff. I was only just in time, so we were immediately taken backstage for the touch tour. I was surprised straight away. The area behind the stage is vast, so there was plenty of room for the five people on the touch tour, three guide dogs, two audio describers, two staff members and the Avenue Q stage manager. After a brief introduction we were taken onto the stage where the scenery was explained to us. I was able to see into the puppets’ homes, which were small rooms concealed inside the larger terraced houses of the scenery. In each room the furniture and decor dropped little hints about the owner’s character. I learnt who lived in each house – both human and monster, I could walk along the street where the action would be, feel the paving and avoid the dustbins; I was being made privy to detail that adds dimension to any story. When we had mapped the stage and understood the scenery, we got to meet the puppets. By being close up I could see the colour of clothes, the different hairstyles and feel the textures – all details which would, for me, disappear into vague, hazy shapes at a distance.
Then it was time for a drink so, with my head full of puppets and scenery and the odd little precursory bits of knowledge that the touch tour gave me, I waited to be taken to my seat. I was very excited and during this time I was given the headsets for the audio description and I learnt how to change the volume and turn them on and off. When the auditorium opened, I was shown where my seat was and Rupert was taken away until the interval. The dogs are supervised in the office where the theatre provides blankets and water bowls and Rupert apparently curled up and went to sleep.
A few minutes before the show started there was an audio description introduction. The scene was being set, the stage explained and there were introductions to the characters. As this was my first performance I found this a good time to set my volume levels and to get used to the live audio description.
When the lights dimmed and the curtain went up I was transported to a small street in New York which was populated by monsters and people with everyday problems and an amusing and musical way of expressing themselves. Rather bizarrely the monsters soon became indistinguishable from their human handlers and I found myself longing for a happy ending for all of them. During the play the audio description was an extension that enabled me to understand what was happening on stage and to be included in the laughter at visual gags and it didn’t take long for me not to notice it. At the end of the show Rupert was brought back to me. I handed back my headset, put his harness on and left.
Avenue Q was a really good show to come and see. It was very funny, totally irreverent and I loved it. The audio description was very well done and I think the fact that I soon ceased to notice it attests to that. Something to bear in mind is that I was sitting near the front and on the left hand side of the auditorium which was very close to the speaker. This meant that I was continually adjusting the volume of my headset so that the audio description wasn’t drowned out during the songs, or too shouty during the quiet bits. It may be that sitting more centrally would have reduced the need to do this. Other than this it was a superlative experience and I cannot thank the Hippodrome, Avenue Q and the Audio Describers enough. I am busy trying to decide what to come and see next.
Audio Description in theatre is a live verbal commentary on the visual elements of a production as it unfolds. The description gives only the essential information that a visually impaired patron might miss.
For every Audio Described performance we do, we have a Touch Tour that precedes the show. Our Touch Tours allow visually impaired patrons the opportunity to familiarise themselves with the set, props and costumes.