When Elizabeth Moiles of Worcester was initially experiencing macular degeneration, a medical condition that results in loss of vision, she could still see the stage if she sat near the front of the theater.
“Now, if I sat on the stage I couldn’t see it,” she said.
But Moiles, a theater-lover, does still go to shows in Boston, where theaters offer audio description for some performances. With the service, patrons are given a small receiver with an earphone so they can to listen to describers at the show give a live narration of the visual aspects of the production in between the dialogue and/or singing of the performers.
“It’s the difference between staying at home and going to plays,” Moiles said.
Audio description is now much closer to home for Moiles and many blind or low-vision theater-goers in the area, thanks to a new partnership between Audio Journal and The Hanover Theatre for the Performing Arts in Worcester. The partnership will enable audio description for certain performances in The Hanover Theatre’s Broadway series of touring shows and its own production of “A Christmas Carol.”
The service got underway with “A Christmas Carol” in December, and continued with “Million Dollar Quartet” in January. The next audio-described performance will be for the 1 p.m. Feb. 15 matinee of “Flashdance: The Musical.” Upcoming for the rest of the 2014-15 season will be descriptions for “I Love Lucy,” 1 p.m. March 8; and “Camelot,” 1 p.m. May 10. The service, which is expected to continue in the 2015-16 season, comes at no extra cost.
“It’s all about breaking down barriers,” said Vincent Lombardi, director of the Worcester-based Audio Journal, a radio reading service for individuals who are blind or otherwise challenged (or anyone interested in listening) that broadcasts an array of programing.
For “Flashdance” Feb. 15, Lombardi and his description partner Robin Sitten will be “way up there” at the back of The Hanover Theatre. The renovated theater was once a popular movie house, and Lombardi and Sitten will be in an old projection booth. The booth is soundproof, and “as far as you could possibly get from the stage…There are two small windows, but they have a direct line of sight to the stage.” Lombardi will have a pair of binoculars handy.
Last year, Lombardi approached Troy Siebels, president and CEO of The Hanover Theatre, about possibly offering audio description.
“I love it,” Siebels said. “I would love to be able to be truly accessible to everybody.” He noted that the theater is accessible to the physically handicapped and offers services such as American Sign Language. “It (audio description) is consistent with what we’re trying to do with accessibility generally. It would be nice to be really universally accessible,” Siebels said.
A grant from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Blind to the Audio Journal and The Hanover Theatre helped get things underway.
Audio description began in the early 1980s with the efforts of pioneers such as the late Margaret Pfanstiehl, founder of the Metropolitan Washington Ear reading service, which entered into a relationship with Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
Theaters in Boston that began to offer audio description include Wheelock Family Theatre and the Huntington Theatre Company. For several years, the former Foothills Theatre in Worcester also provided the service.
Lombardi described for the shows at Foothills. “We had a good run at Foothills Theatre — six of their shows every year,” he said.
The audio description at The Hanover Theatre is an Audio Journal initiative with the theater, but Lombardi has described shows independently at other theaters, especially in Boston.
“I love theater, and my work with the blind has been something that’s really satisfying, so it’s been very rewarding,” he said. He trained as a describer via a program under the auspices of the Bay State Council for the Blind with Wheelock Family Theatre.
Moiles said that at some theaters in Boston at matinees “there are many people with seeing eye dogs listening to the describer.”
There is skill to describing a show well and not overlapping with the dialogue of the actors.
“It’s a talent they’ve learned, I guess. They’re not talking over. You can hear what they’re saying and you’re also hearing what’s going on on the stage,” Moiles said.
“That’s the whole art of it,” said Lombardi. “Being as succinct and descriptive as you possibly can. We can supply them with information they want to know and do it in a creative way so that they can possibly see a figure in red going across the stage. The challenge is the timing and doing it with the right words.”
The descriptions have to be done live because each live performance can be different, from running time to stand-in actors.
Another important principle for describers: “You want to just be the eyes for the patron. You don’t want to interpret for them,” Lombardi said.
For example, a describer shouldn’t say ” ‘She opens the letter and looks sad,’ ” Lombardi noted. Much better would be to say, ” ‘She opens the letter, lets it fall to the floor, and drops her head in her hands.’ ”
Describers have ideally had a good opportunity to get ready for each new show.
“They need time to prepare,” Siebels said. “The intention is to do it for the Broadway shows and ‘A Christmas Carol’ each year (both of which are at The Hanover Theatre for several performances). For the one-nighters, it doesn’t really work.”
“In an ideal world you watch the play first as an audience member to get the feel of the play and maybe take some notes,” Lombardi said. “Some houses will help with a video of an earlier performance.”
Ideally also, there are two describers for a show. Lombardi soloed for “A Christmas Carol” and “Million Dollar Quartet” because Sitten was unavailable. With a team of two, the “secondary describer” sets the stage, so to speak, by talking about the theater, the characters, describing the set and costumes, and then setting the scene again after intermission. The “primary describer” is like “a play by play broadcaster,” Lombardi said.
He will be the secondary describer for “Flashdance,” with Sitten, who works at the Perkins School for the Blind, the primary describer. They will alternate for the “I Love Lucy” and “Camelot” shows.
So far a handful of people have availed themselves of the audio description service at The Hanover Theatre.
“Not big numbers yet, but it was a good experience to get our feet wet and build,” Siebels said of the first two shows.
“We’re just getting the word out,” said Lombardi. “I think once people hear what we’re doing, we’ll have people coming to plays.”
Moiles hasn’t been to an audio described show yet at The Hanover Theatre but fully intends to.
“Oh yes I will. I love the theater. The atmosphere at the theater is so nice,” she said.
She remembers The Hanover Theatre when it was a movie theater. Her husband was the late Worcester Telegram columnist William H. “Bill” Moiles Jr. “We went to the movies every week there,” she said.
Elizabeth Moiles’ macular degeneration is at the point where “it’s like looking at everything through a thick haze. Faces just fade into nothing.”
Moiles said she also loves ballet, but won’t go to ballet performances any more. “You have to see that. It (audio description) wouldn’t help with certain things. But with any kind of play, you can follow it along. You can’t see it, but you know it’s happening,” she said.
“When it’s described it tells you what the set looks like, who’s going to be in it, what the characters look like — so you can imagine it. Sometimes I close my eyes. I imagine it better that way.”
For information about Audio Journal, visit www.audiojournal.org