Access for All…


Chair of Birmingham Hippodrome’s Access Forum, Vidar Hjardeng talks about the theatre’s work in making live performance accessible for all…

During my time in Birmingham, going back some years now, I have always been a fan of the theatre and attending performances here at Birmingham Hippodrome. Over the last few years my enjoyment has been enhanced by the audio described performances, part of the Hippodrome’s commitment to access for all.

Vidar Hjardeng

Vidar Hjardeng

Audio Described performances are a wonderful experience. As I sit in my seat in the auditorium everything visual performed on stage is relayed to me through a headset by two audio describers who sit in a booth at the back of the theatre. They describe facial expressions, humour or tragedy and really enhance the theatre experience for any blind or partially sighted patron.

One of the aspects of the audio described performances that make it a VIP experience (Visually Impaired Person/Very Important Person) is the Touch Tour. Touch Tours takes place about one and a half hours before a show where blind and partially sighted theatre patrons get the chance to go on stage, sometimes meet the cast or backstage staff, explore the set and get close up to key aspects of the performance including props and costumes.

My most recent experience of a Touch Tour was during the recent run of the National Theatre’s War Horse at the Hippodrome. We met the puppeteers and cast who gave a fascinating insight into their work on the production and I got a real feel for how Joey the horse comes to life on stage. Probably one of the most impressive Touch Tours I have been on!

Patrons enjoy at touch tour at BRB's Cinderella

Patrons enjoy at touch tour at BRB’s Cinderella

About 3 or 4 years ago now Liz Leck, the theatre’s Creative Learning Manager, mentioned setting up an Access Forum where members with varying access needs could feedback and have a role in Birmingham Hippodrome and improving on the service it provides to patrons including those with a disability. I was asked to Chair the Forum and now, some years on, we have really done a lot of work, thanks to the passion of the theatre staff, in providing a top class service to those with access needs who come along to experience a show.

The Access Forum, who meet at the theatre every 3 months is an incredibly important part of the theatre’s work. Because of the rapport built up between members of staff and members of the Forum, people feel that they can express their views and that they are listened to making it all worthwhile and an invaluable platform.

I am a huge evangelist when it comes to the benefits for blind and partially sighted people. Particularly the Audio Described performances and Touch Tours. If you haven’t already do please give it a go it makes such a difference to the theatre experience.

Vidar is currently Diversity Consultant for ITV News and was awarded the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the 2012 Queen’s New Years Honours List for his services to Visually Impaired People and to Broadcasting. Tune in to a Podcast with Vidar here…

Audio described performances &Touch Tours at Birmingham Hippodrome – my first experience

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.

Emma and Rupert

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. 

Inside our audio description booth looking down towards the stage.

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.

Birmingham Hippodrome is committed to access for all.    For  detailed information on all our Access Performances please click here   To book  call our Ticket Sales team on 0844 5000.   Highlights include the brand new musical Top Hat, Evita, Cinderella and Calendar Girls.
Guidedogs are welcome and admitted into all public areas.    Birmingham Hippodrome staff can look after guide dogs during performances.    

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.