Hearing Voices at The Belfry

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December 5, 2013

By Hanna Leavitt

Earlier this fall, Belfry Theatre patrons may have wondered at the contingent of blind and visually impaired patrons and guide dogs in attendance at a particular performance of Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet).   Like the other blind people, I was there to experience the Belfry’s first-ever described theatre-arts event, a service provided by VocalEye Descriptive Arts Society. This Vancouver-based non-profit organization delivers live-audio description services for the blind, the first of its kind in Canada to do so.

I asked my friend Kristi to check out the show with Calvin and me. Calvin’s my guide dog. He’s pretty keen on the theatre, although sometimes he does forget it’s acting. We showed up 45 minutes before the start of the play to register with Larry, the VocalEye representative. We were each issued a single earpiece headphone along with a receiver with its own on/off and volume control. Larry escorted us to our front-row seats where we settled in for the performance.

“Turn on your receiver,” said Kristi, “Someone’s already started describing.” I flipped my receiver on and adjusted the volume. Sure enough, a clear, soft-spoken voice came through my earpiece.

“Good afternoon and welcome to VocalEye’s described performance of Goodnight Desdemona . . . by Ann-Marie MacDonald, directed by Ron Jenkins and produced by the Belfry Theatre. I’m Steph Kirkland, and I’ll be your describer for today. I’m describing from the old follow spot booth behind the balcony, left of centre.”

Kirkland, a 20-year veteran of the Vancouver theatre scene, also reads textbooks for the blind at Vancouver’s Langara College. “When I saw the call for audio theatre describers for blind people, it was a natural fit,” she says.  She has since formed a non-profit society called VocalEye that trains and promotes the services of audio describers to the theatre community. “It’s my goal that this service be sustainable,” says Kirkland. “I would love for it to be available at theatres across Canada.”

Fifteen minutes before curtain, Kirkland provided brief descriptions of the set, characters and costumes via our wireless earphones.

“There are five performers in this production, three women and two men. The main character is Constance Ledbelly, assistant professor at Queens University, played by Daniela Vlaskalic. All the other characters are played by the remaining four cast members. The central location is Constance’s office in the basement of Queens University. The back wall of her office is completely filled with nine built-in bookcases, each about 3 feet wide and 16 feet tall. The shelves are filled with leather-bound books, their spines embossed with gold and tagged with library labels. Dog-eared sheets of foolscap, a table fan, portable radio, stapler, lamp, clock, mug, and other odds and ends are also crammed in among the books.”

She continued her thorough set description, right down to the blue recycle box alongside Constance’s work space. I now had a picture in my head of the set, the same set that sighted audience members took in with a simple glance.

“I’ll be back in a few minutes when the play starts,” said the voice. The earpiece went silent.

“This should be good,” said Kristi. I agreed. I attend plays from time to time, but it’s frustrating to miss body language and other actions that aren’t always evident from the dialogue alone.

Moments later, the Belfry’s manager took the stage, welcomed everyone and invited us to enjoy the performance.

The voice was back.

“Darkness. Flash of light: Man smothers woman with pillow. Flash of light: Young woman plunges dagger into her belly. Flash of light: Constance Ledbelly in red toque slowly lowers phone receiver to desk picks up leather manuscript, drops it in recycling bin plucks white feather from her toque, drops it in.”

Okay, so I knew what the set looked like and what was happening. I wondered about the character of Constance. I didn’t wonder for long though. The voice must have read my mind.

Constance Ledbelly is in her 30’s, large boned, slim and gangly. Her square face is pale, without makeup, and flanked by two scrawny, brown pigtails. Her large, wire-frame glasses are taped in the middle. She wears a full set of blue-grey long johns under a purple, t-shirt, hand-knit sweater vest, a drab, plaid pleated skirt and knee-high, black rubber gumboots. To top it off, she wears a bright red toque with a big pom-pom on top, a white feather pen tucked in the brim. She writes with this feather pen in green ink.”

Okay, now I had it – the set and the eccentric main character.

All freeze.

“Janitor mops floor, smokes cigarette. One hand on mop. Lets go of mop the handle stays upright.”

Kristi and I laughed along with the sighted audience members, sharing a comedic moment in real time. What a treat not to have to tap a friend on the shoulder and whisper, “What just happened there? Why is everyone laughing?” I was hooked. The descriptions were concise, informative and blended effortlessly with the action. Kirkland elaborated on the process a theatre describer goes through prior to a performance.

“I typically attain a copy of the script, attend the play at least three times and take notes. Then I spend several hours working on the actual descriptions I’ll use during the play.” Preparing for the play and describing it can take as much as 20 hours per production, according to Kirkland. Her training and skill were evident as she quietly provided just enough detail to inform but not so much that it interrupted the dialogue and action.

VocalEye is committed to offering a comprehensive, theatre-going experience for blind patrons with its three-fold package. Through its Theatre Buddies service, volunteers meet blind patrons at a designated, accessible location. Buddies then guide patrons to the theatre. The audio describer takes over during the performance. But wait, there’s more. After the performance, we were invited to stay for a touch tour.

Kristi, Calvin and I ascended the stairs to the stage along with six other blind patrons. The touch tour was fabulous, adding an entirely new layer of enjoyment to the play. Belfry staff, actors and VocalEye representatives assisted us in our exploration of the set and props. We met the actors. We touched Desdemona’s gown with its elaborately beaded bodice, Romeo’s and Othello’s swords and daggers, the masks worn at the ball and some of the 1,500 hollowed-out books that lined the set’s floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Touching the costumes and props fleshed out the theatre experience for me, the finishing touch to an enjoyable afternoon. The Belfry contracted with VocalEye to describe one matinee performance per run this season. Will Calvin and I be back for another described show? You bet we will.

Hanna Leavitt is in the second year of her MFA in Writing.



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