The Rewards of Description
By Margaret Hardy
I have had two passions in my lifetime—helping others and theatre. I believe involving people in the arts is the best way to open their minds, gain new perspectives, and even change their lives. So, as Community Development Director for American Musical Theatre of San Jose (CA), I was thrilled to read about Gregory Frazier's work in San Francisco with AudioVision in 1999. Descriptive services for the visually impaired and blind people in our community satisfied both my passions, and I started a campaign to persuade my employers to provide this service for our season productions. When I was finally given the go-ahead, I contacted Gregory immediately, and we began to build a program for AMT. I spent countless hours tracking down organizations who work with people who are blind or visually impaired, and then I went on a marketing tour. I must have attended 20 different luncheons, meetings, and events at which I spoke about the upcoming opportunities for description services.
Our first effort was a performance of The Wizard of Oz in March 1991—a Wednesday matinee to which we extended an invitation to the California School for the Blind in Fremont, CA. The young people enjoyed their first theatre experience, and along with students from area public schools, met with the performers afterward. The response was heartwarming and encouraging, which led us to the next step—setting up a schedule of described performances for the season and establishing AMT's own describers.
Gregory auditioned about 50 people to be trained as describers, looking for clear, articulate voices which were pleasing to the ear. He selected eight. Since then, I have taken over the management of AudioVision, and we have increased our number to 12. Until AMT closed its doors recently, we had a regular audience of 50 plus for each production, including many season ticket holders. We currently describe all over the Bay Area and regularly at the Shorenstein Nederlander theatres in San Francisco as well as Broadway San Jose. We also describe the events at several other venues each year, including World Institute on Disability, Superfest, Silicon Valley Independent Living Center, City of San Francisco, and various other groups. While most of our work is live, we also do recorded description for films, art exhibits, and museums…even Beach Blanket Babylon.
Our describers are painstaking about their note taking, seeing several performances when possible in order to integrate their notes into the show script before the task of describing, continuing to uphold the standards that Gregory set up. The main point is to say what you see. How you say it and when you say it are what helps the listener to "see" what's happening, along with the rest of the audience. We work diligently to develop vocabularies that will describe something succinctly yet not be repetitious. We are careful about the use of technical terms and always look for ways to describe an action that will have meaning to the listener. Our focus is on using the best terminology that will enable the listener to gain a sense of the emotion of a scene as well as the action taking place. Generally we set up the scenes and costume descriptions before each act. At AMT we had the luxury of actually recording all this information plus notes on the show and sending it out to ticket buyers before they came. That is not possible today. We are, however, present at each performance to distribute the listening devices, and we are always interested to hear the critique of our users. The describer is there as well, as he or she is always working to improve the delivery technique and vocabulary choices.
I looked at our audience hearing the description and saw the tears in their eyes.
During my tenure at AMT an event took place that showed me we were doing something right. AMT did Phantom of the Opera—the Maury Yeston, Arthur Kopit version which differs from the Andrew Lloyd Webber version quite a bit in terms of soft beauty of the music and the emotion of the lyrics. All through rehearsals and performances the members of the cast had Kleenex standing by offstage for this one particular scene in which the Opera director, holding the dying Phantom in his arms, confesses that he is his father. The Phantom tells him he always knew and together they sing a most beautiful and heartbreaking ballad which ends with Phantom's death in his father's arms. Blackout.
I looked at our audience hearing the description and saw the tears in their eyes. At the same time, in a different part of the theatre our signers were signing to a group of deaf customers. They all also had tears in their eyes, as did everyone else in the audience. It was a shared moment of theatre that will remain in my memory forever. That is what description does.
Oh, and we used our equipment for description the next night in order to translate the dialogue into Vietnamese for a group of students taking Adult Ed English classes. Same thing. Truthful moments can and should be shared by all!
I regret that are no FCC adopted guidelines and regulations for establishing reputable descriptions services. AudioVision, like other similar organizations, continues to maintain the standards set up by our founder, Gregory Frazier in 1991, but we are not growing in terms of marketing our services and expanding our venues. While our describers are paid for their services, all other work is volunteer—mailing, address upkeep, bookkeeping, travel with the equipment, marketing—meaning mostly me. Diane DiSalvo is the Manager of our services and receives a small stipend for that. I look forward to a time when states will certify and license describers and a standard of payment will be mandated. Tick Tock!
Note about the author: Margaret Hardy is a pioneer in the field of audio description. Read more about her life and the outstanding contributions of others to the field of audio description on this page by the Audio Description Project.