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This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on September 16, 1998. All rights reserved.
Eyes and Ears of Drama
McCarter Theater subscriber James Hill knows about seeing and he knows about being blind. For almost 40 years he was able to see. Since December, 1993, he has been totally blind. "You want to see what it's like to be blind," he says, "sit in back of your TV set and try to follow a show. Dialogue is okay. But with action shows you don't have a clue."
Hill, a Red Bank resident, attends McCarter's audio-described drama performances that include descriptions of stage action beamed over a special FM transmitter to patrons with visual impairments. The spoken information supplements what visually-impaired theater patrons take in through their ears. "It allows somebody who can't see the performance to enjoy theater," says Hill, 44, formerly a commercial insurance agent currently self employed doing exit polling for car dealers.
Significantly, enabling the blind to enjoy theater has a ripple effect that goes beyond an evening's pleasure. "One of the problems for blind folks, especially children," says Hill, "is that they're left out. What blind children can do to entertain themselves are things that a sighted child wouldn't be interested in. I have a friend who designs video games for the blind. They're really audio games. You hit the thing, hear the gun go off, and hear a glass break. Sighted kids would want to see the thing blow up when they shoot it. My friend and I think that it would be good to develop electronic games so blind kids could play together with sighted children."
"Being blind, there's a limited number of activities you can enjoy with other people," says Hill. "The audio-described performances give me an activity that I can do with my wife, or that we can do with another couple." In fact, the audio-described performances have altered the pattern of Hill's leisure activities "When I had my sight," he says, "I used to go to Broadway once or twice a year. I'm actually going to the theater more now."
McCarter Theater and New Brunswick's George Street Playhouse are leaders in offering services for patrons with either visual or hearing impairments in this area. Nick Procaccino at McCarter and Wendy Liscow at George Street, who are charged with providing for patrons with disabilities at their respective theaters, have both honed their skills by turning to John McEwen of Paper Mill Playhouse, the man recognized as a leader in services for New Jersey's deaf and blind theatergoers.
McEwen considers the task of improving theater accessibility to those with limited vision or hearing to be unremarkable. "It's just audience-building," he says.
Director of development for Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, McEwen is also founder and chairman of the New Jersey Arts Access Task Force, a project of the New Jersey Theater Group; Liscow has been a member of the task force since 1995. A resource for the cultural community as well as for individuals wanting to learn about accessible sites, the NJTG task force address is 17 Cook Avenue, Madison, 07940.
As director of development at Paper Mill, McEwen established advisory boards made up both of individuals who work with the disabled, as well as disabled individuals, to provide guidance and support in developing programs for the disabled.
The first fruit of the community effort came with a 1983 performance enhanced by an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter. ASL is a gestural language used primarily by individuals who are deaf from an early age.
McEwen estimates that about 20 people availed themselves of that first ASL performance. Now every mainstage Paper Mill production includes two ASL performances. McEwen estimates that with six productions a year Paper Mill now reaches about 1,100 patrons annually through its ASL performances. Following in the steps of Paper Mill, both McCarter and George Street have made ASL performances a standard part of their theater runs. McEwen notes that the cost of an ASL interpreter is significant. George Street's Liscow says the minimum cost of providing ASL interpretation for a single show is $3,000 plus marketing costs.
Another assist for patrons who are hard of hearing comes from infra-red audio enhancement devices that amplify sound emanating from the stage. The devices, essentially comfortable earphones, are used primarily by individuals who have developed hearing problems at a relatively advanced age and thus have not learned ASL. When I tried one at a recent performance by the Opera Festival of New Jersey, I noted that although the volume increased, the sound was somewhat distorted, and I could not distinguish which instrument I was hearing. Liscow reports having successfully used the device at a Broadway show.
In addition to ASL and infra-red listening devices, another option for the hearing impaired is open captioning. "Open captioning," says McEwen, "helps individuals who do not understand ASL, or do not benefit from the infra-red equipment. If I was to lose my hearing today," he says, "it would be difficult for me to learn ASL well enough to follow an interpreter for a two-hour play. But I could read lines of dialogue as it scrolled down from the stage."
Paper Mill began adding open-captioned performances last season. The dialogue appears, as it is being spoken, on a screen at the far left of the stage. A stenographer, usually a court stenographer, types exactly what each character says. To accurately convey what is occurring onstage -- even the mishaps -- the stenographer must work in real-time, rather than preparing a text in advance. The stenographers frequently request scripts in advance, to familiarize themselves with the vehicle, so that they are ready for any zigs or zags that might occur in performance, says McEwen. The stenographers are paid. Those who request the service are seated on the left side of the auditorium. "Our open captioning works fine for patrons," says McEwen. "You might think there might be complaints from audience members not needing the open captions, but they find that it enhances their theater experience." McCarter and George Street have yet to develop open captioning as a standard service.
Just as a number of enhancements are available for those with hearing disabilities, various modalities are offered to those with visual problems. Large-print programs and braille programs are available. The large-print programs are used primarily by those who develop visual problems relatively late; braille is used most commonly by those who are blind from an early age. However, neither of these aids conveys exactly what happens on stage. McEwen hit upon a distinct advance for the blind after he learned, about 10 years ago, that the braille programs were infrequently used: he calls his innovation, "sensory seminars."
"I thought of what museums were doing to help the visually disabled understand their holdings by letting them touch things," McEwen says. "With the help of an advisory board, I put together sensory seminars. My very first attempt was in the fall of 1989 and all of six people came. Now probably 1,000 people a year attend." McEwen describes the first attempt. "An hour and a half before show time," he says, "we passed around props and costumes used in the production. By touching them, people could get a sense of the actor's body-type, the character, and the time period."
McEwen soon refined the form. "Sometimes," he says, "props and costumes are rather ordinary, and spatial relations on the set are more important. Staff members who have had sensitivity training lead users around the set. The client may have a sighted guide or friend, or sometimes a seeing eye dog or a cane. As the play proceeds, the clients who attend the sensory seminar will know where characters are entering or exiting, and where they are speaking from." Both McCarter and George Street have followed Paper Mill's lead in offering sensory seminars.
Within a few months of instituting sensory seminars, Paper Mill expanded its repertoire of assistance for those with low vision and began using audio descriptions. The first took place in 1990. Janet Dickson, now a member of McCarter's Access Committee which provides services for the disabled, was the catalyst.
A Lawrenceville resident for the last three years, Dickson began doing audio descriptions 17 years ago in Washington, D.C., under the guidance of Margaret Pfanstiehl, who originated the procedure. Dickson recalls that Pfanstiehl, a graduate of Baltimore's Peabody Institute, was preparing for an opera career when she became blind. When it became clear to Pfanstiehl that her prospects as an opera performer were dim, she and her husband, Cody, a retired publicist, threw themselves into making performances at Washington's Arena stage as vivid for blind patrons as for the sighted. Dickson began working with Pfanstiehl shortly after graduating from Washington's Catholic University. She quotes her mentor who characterized audio describing as "the art of speaking pictorially."
Dickson remembers visiting her parents in New Jersey during her residence in Washington and seeing an article in the Star Ledger about McEwen's sensory seminars at Paper Mill. She gave the article to the Pfanstiehls, who came to New Jersey to train Paper Mill personnel in the art of audio description.
"The Pfanstiehls came up and auditioned staff and volunteers," McEwen recalls. "Aspirants watched scenes on video, and described them on an audio cassette. The cassettes were sent to the Pfanstiehls, who evaluated the quality of speaking voices, the vocabulary, the quality of the description, and the conciseness. If audio describers tend to talk a lot, they will talk over the lines of the actors. Perhaps 18 or 20 people tried out. The Pfanstiehls selected six." Having served an apprenticeship under the Pfanstiehls, McEwen went on to train audio describers at McCarter Theater and George Street Playhouse, each of which held their own auditions following the Pfanstiehl's model.
Making audio described performances possible requires the purchase of an FM transmitter, and headsets for those who will hear the description. To cut costs, the New Jersey Theater Group, an organization of professional theaters, has purchased three dozen receivers that can be shared among its members.
George Street's Liscow is particularly sanguine about using audio description. "If you are creating a plan to make your organization accessible, one of the first thing you can do is audio description. A few thousand dollars will get you started. For $2,500 you can buy an FM transmitter, 12 FM receivers, the ear buds, batteries, charging case, and a microphone; $1,300 will pay for 12 more receivers." One of the economies in offering audio-described performances comes from the services of volunteer audio describers.
For the 1998-'99 season George Street plans to make available brochures on tape for the use of visually-impaired theatergoers. In addition to a reading of the standard brochure, the tape will include information about how to reach the theater by public transportation, the location of the GSP ramp, and other matters of special interest to those with low vision.
Crossroads Theater, a maverick theater that addresses the African-American experience, has not yet matched the outreach programs of its larger neighbors. The goal for the 1998-'99 season, however, is to add at least one signed performance for each of the four productions, explains Stephanie Clark, director of marketing. This signed performance is scheduled for the last Saturday evening of each production, beginning with "Blues for an Alabama Sky," on Saturday, October 31.
At George Street, the audio describer works under challenging conditions, broadcasting from a windowless closet that contains a chair, table, microphone, and a TV monitor that shows the stage action as picked up by a dead hung video camera.
The audio describing facilities at McCarter are hardly more luxurious. At the back of McCarter, just below the roof, are the technical facilities for light and sound, as well as an audio description booth. The projection equipment generates heat, and the area can be uncomfortably hot, both summer and winter. The audio description booth has a window from which the stage is visible.
Inaugurating its first performing season at McCarter Theater, Opera Festival of New Jersey (OFNJ) included audio-described performances of all three operas in the season repertory. Here Jim Van Arsdale, who works in Summit Bank's Cranford office, made his debut as an audio describer for Puccini's "Tosca."
Visiting Van Arsdale on the job, shortly before curtain time, he notes that although two audio-describers normally divide the task of describing the performance, on this evening, he'll go it alone. He has copious notes that he plans to read about the appearance of sets, costumes, and characters, as well as a summary of the opera action to follow and amend, as necessary, once the performance begins.
"Now that I've seen `Tosca' six or seven times," says Van Arsdale, who also boned up on the opera by viewing it on video and attending earlier OFNJ performances of the piece, "I feel comfortable with it." Armed with a bottle of mineral water, he is highly conscious of his responsibilities. "A sighted person can consult the program later," he says, "but a visually-impaired person relies very much on the describer. The non-sighted person is likely to listen carefully because there's no possibility of hearing the audio description afterwards."
Even Liscow, an experienced audio describer, expends considerable effort preparing for a show. As a seasoned theater director, she says, "I'm able to do some of the shows in a relatively short time because when I direct a play, I know the show. But I have to figure out when to describe, what to say, and how to explain what I might take for granted. I have to work out how to set up for a laugh. So even if I know the show well, I have at least a week's worth of work."
Neophyte Van Arsdale knows that Procaccino, who is in command of the entire program for the disabled at McCarter, and Dickson, who has helped him prepare for describing the opera, will listen attentively to this, his first performance, and critique it afterwards. As I join the audience for `Tosca,' I put the cigarette-pack sized radio receiver in a pocket, plug the earbud into my ear, and close my eyes. Van Arsdale has a pleasing voice. He makes every word count, pacing his comments to avoid talking while the performers sing. With his help the performance becomes very vivid. I find that I am disappointed during the moments when the orchestra drowns him out.
Having passed muster after his first performance, Van Arsdale reviews the event. "I don't get nervous," he rationally observes, "because it doesn't help. You're up there, and it's somewhat soundproof, but you don't want to rustle papers or swallow so anybody can hear you when you're drinking. Sometimes I needed binoculars to describe the action accurately. I really had to concentrate. I was surprised by how tired I became."
-- Elaine Strauss
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