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. 

BUSY ON EVERY FRONT

Jonathan Thompson, Head of Customer Services blogs about his challenging role looking after the running of Front of House.

Front of house is a pretty wide description of customer service in the theatre world, covering all our public areas, the auditorium and foyers and looking after the many thousands of patrons who come to the Hippodrome every year. With potentially 2,000 patrons walking through the doors of Birmingham Hippodrome on a daily basis working front of house is a fantastic challenge and every day is so different.

Jonathan pictured with pop superstar Kylie Minogue during her visit to see Dick Whittington in January.

With 18 full-time staff, 63 casual and 70 volunteers we are the faces of the Hippodrome and have to be fully prepared for any questions from customers . We are responsible for looking after the health and safety of our audience so communication is very important. We hold daily briefings so we know what’s happening in the building: if there is strobe lighting in the show, for instance, we would need to know in case we have any epileptic members of the audience; will any groups need particular help; or do we have any celebrities in to see a show (we recently had pop superstar Kylie Minogue in to see our Panto at Christmas!).

 One of the most challenging things we deal with is when a customer becomes unwell especially if it is during a performance and if they are sitting in the middle of a row. We are all very well practiced and complete training sessions with all of our First Aiders on a regular basis. This was put to the test only recently. I had just finished my 2 day refresher training course with St John’s Ambulance (this is done every 3 years) when we had an internal call to say that a gentleman had collapsed at our Stage Door. We rushed to the scene and discovered that the gentleman, an autograph hunter waiting for the Calendar Girls cast, was starting to lose consciousness and then stopped breathing altogether. We started CPR just before the ambulance service arrived with a Channel 5 film crew in tow! So not only were we dealing with a First Aid incident, but doing our bit for the Hippodrome’s PR too!

The gentleman is still in hospital but we are pleased to say that he’s made a fantastic recovery and is now on the waiting list for a heart by-pass.  I was particularly touched when his wife came in to see me and thanked me for saving her husband’s life. That will live with me forever.

We are very proud to have two Creative Apprentices working Front of House at the moment.  We were delighted when they were asked to represent the scheme and the Hippodrome at a national conference in London to talk about what they do and the skills they are gaining.  The scheme has encouraged 8 of our full time team to start NVQ level 2 qualifications as this can be completed and assessed while they are at work.

Birmingham Hippodrome has an access working group consisting of audience members, and representatives from the local community who are either visually impaired, deaf, deafened, hard of hearing or have impaired mobility. This group meets every few months with members of the theatre staff from all departments including myself. We discuss how we can improve our access services and encourage ideas and suggestions. Recently we found out that the some groups were struggling to find places to train their new guide dog puppies.  The theatre volunteered to help out and we recently welcomed 3 new puppies to the theatre so they could get used to lots of people, lights and sounds etc. The group also attended a Touch Tour (accessing the stage in advance of a show to obtain a sense of the space, the scenery and the props) and got to meet Marti Pellow, starring in Jekyll & Hyde, who came on stage to say hello to the group. And as a result of our last meeting we are now working with two local students who are going to film a guided tour of the theatre in sign language – do look out for this as it will be posted onto our website so patrons can watch it from home before coming here.

Puppies Diesel and Willow with their owners following the Touch Tour

With a constant stream of customers in the building there are many items that are left behind and are destined for our infamous lost property box. Many of these are claimed on the evening of the performance itself but some are never claimed and after a period of time we donate these to a local charity shop. So far this year we have a total of 17 mobile phones, 21 cardigans, 23 pairs of glasses, 50 hats, 53 umbrellas, 79 scarves and 116 gloves! Some of the more unusual items include a single black sock, a foot off a table, a gold coloured cushion, a black patent ladies leather shoe and a single raw potato! One customer was very happy after we reunited her with both her wedding and engagement rings – I don’t think her husband knew she’d lost them!

We’ve just announced our Cinderella panto cast and we are looking forward to welcoming back Brian Conley as Buttons this Christmas with Lynda Bellingham as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella. Christmas is our busiest time of the year with two performances pretty much every day including Sundays so we have to be really efficient, quick and on the ball. It’s a long run and we don’t get much time off but the atmosphere in the foyer is great and it’s worth it to see all the happy faces at the end of the show.

But it’s back to today’s business and another show.    Happy theatre-going!

Information on Touch Tours and how to book tickets for forthcoming productions go to www.birminghamhippodrome.com