Arts & Culture

Arts Access brings theater to life for the visually impaired

Susi Michelau, center, is an Arts Access audio describer. Evan Wilkerson, 8, left, and his sister Olivia Wilkerson, 9, have both used the audio descriptions for shows, movies and even a performance of “The Nutcracker.”
Susi Michelau, center, is an Arts Access audio describer. Evan Wilkerson, 8, left, and his sister Olivia Wilkerson, 9, have both used the audio descriptions for shows, movies and even a performance of “The Nutcracker.” jleonard@newsobserver.com

Toward the end of “(You’re) Timeless to Me,” the second-act love song in “Hairspray,” Wilbur and Edna Turnblad (played by Kevin Ferguson and Tony Hefner) came together on the Raleigh Little Theatre stage. If you had the right kind of short-wave headset at a recent Sunday matinee performance, you could hear a move-by-move description between lines of the actors’ singing.

You’ll always be du jour, mon amour, you’re timeless to me.

“He pulls her close…”

You’ll always be first-string, ring-a-ding-ding, you’re timeless to me.

“They start to waltz away, stop, look into each other’s eyes…”

You’re timeless to me.

“They kiss on the mouth, both with one leg up, and off they go…”

Up in Raleigh Little Theatre’s balcony, describer Susi Michelau watched the scene. She swayed in time with the music and spoke in a low murmur through a special microphone that looked like an oxygen mask covering her mouth (to keep from disturbing nearby patrons).

Michelau was narrating “Hairspray” for Arts Access, a group that has done audio descriptions of Triangle theater and film events for more than two decades.

On the receiving end was Will Carlile, seated on the theater’s second row. A 41-year-old math teacher at Cardinal Gibbons High School in Raleigh, Carlile lost his vision from a stroke in 2003. He recently became an Arts Access regular after hearing about the service.

“I used to really love small theater before the stroke,” Carlile said after the show. “It was hard to enjoy after I lost my vision, but this made it possible. It’s been great to be able to enjoy theater again. The next best thing to seeing it.”

Arts Access began in 1982 with an initial focus of making local arts venues wheelchair-accessible for patrons with disabilities. Other groups do American Sign Language (ASL) signing interpretations at arts events for the hearing-impaired, but audio description was an open niche until Arts Access started doing it in 1991. Arts Access does not provide sign language services, but there is a referral page on its artsaccessinc.org website listing groups that do.

The Americans With Disabilities Act requires theaters to provide and pay for audio description services if a patron requests it. Arts Access charges on a sliding scale per performance, from $100 for a small theater up to $250 for large venues (it also relies on donations and grants for funding).

Audio description is regularly offered at some area venues such as Raleigh Little Theatre, where Arts Access describes matinee shows every second Sunday. Other venues, like Durham Performing Arts Center, are by-request. Similar audio-description groups have started up in Charlotte, Asheville and Winston-Salem.

Most months, Arts Access schedules audio description for four to six shows (although September was unusually busy, with nine events). At some audio-description shows, only a handful of people are listening, or one – Carlile was the only user at “Hairspray” – but the amount varies widely.

“The record for one show was 28 for ‘Cinderella’ at Fletcher Hall a few years ago,” said Debbie Hippler, Arts Access’ audio-description coordinator. “It’s usually somewhere from one to four per show. And we just started doing shows in Greensboro, too.”

Most describers come to Arts Access through a personal interest in blindness. Hippler’s husband was blind, and Michelau had been volunteering for Triangle Radio Reading Service (which offers audio recordings of program notes to accompany N.C. Symphony performances, among other services).

Arts Access pays its describers, but not a lot – a stipend of up to $70 per show. To earn that, describers attend a show three times, twice to preview it and take notes before describing it the third time.

“Consider the time for travel and script-writing, and it comes to much less than minimum wage,” Hippler said. “Our describers do it for the love of theater.”

The group has 13 describers, and covering each show takes a three-person team. One person passes out the listening equipment in the lobby; another, like Michelau, does the description during the show; and a third handles the pre-show description of the set and characters, providing key background that would be too much to get in around the dialogue.

“A lot of shows are difficult to figure out, but fun,” Hippler said. “We did ‘Lipstick Traces’ a few years back, about the Dada movement. It had three men on toilets with casters on the bottom rolling around, speaking gibberish and putting hats on and off each other as they did this toilet dance. Now that was memorable.

“And there was a play at Legends Nightclub with a number of characters in drag. Some of the describers still talk about that one.”

Challenge of musicals

Michelau, who is also secretary on the Arts Access board, has been describing long enough that she remembers the old days using transmitters that had to be plugged into wall outlets and to the receivers. And she’s done enough different shows – six to eight per year for two decades – that she jokes that she “should be much, much better at it than I am.”

But that means she’s also done audio description for a wide variety of plays, everything from tense dramas to musicals. Musicals represent a special challenge for describers who need to figure out how much to say; there were stretches of “Hairspray” where Michelau was mostly ticking off the ’60s-vintage dances happening.

Couples twirl, dancers are on the steps, girls in high heels. Now they’re doing the swim … pulling a rope … funky…chicken … dancers slapping their sides, lining up behind Corny and now the girls are rolling over the backs of the male dancers…

“I found ‘Hairspray’ difficult because it had so much dancing, and so much of the script in song,” she said. “So I had to decide whether or not to speak while they were singing to describe the dances. I tend to err on the side of not talking when they’re singing, and I felt like I maybe didn’t do enough descriptions of the dancing.”

Before doing a show, audio describers go through training in which they learn different ways of looking at things to hone in on what needs describing. It’s an interesting exercise for a sighted person to listen in on the narration, close eyes and experience a show the way that visually impaired Arts Access patrons do.

One thing you discover is that there’s a learning curve for users, too.

“The first few shows with it were kind of like a brain game,” Carlile said. “The describers tend to do a really good job of not talking over dialogue, but sometimes it can’t be avoided. So I’d be listening to a couple of different things at the same time, which was tricky. I was not sure I could sort out all the information flying at me. But I got better at it.”

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