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Blind Theatre a Tough Call

Editor's Note: The following article is reprinted with permission from the Sydney Morning Herald, October 28, 2004.

Visually impaired theatre patrons can now catch all the action, writes Jacqui Taffel

The audience around me laughs as an outrageously attired and bewigged figure steps onto the stage. It's the first scene of Sydney Theatre Company's production of The Miser by Moliere. Moments later, as the character pauses for breath, a voice in my ear says: "Cleante enters wearing a ridiculous wig." I laugh, in an odd delayed reaction.

The voice belongs to Rebecca Di Corpo, one of the Royal Blind Society's 12 volunteer audio describers in Sydney who describe plays for vision-impaired theatre-goers. She is in a sound booth at the back of the theatre and I'm listening to her via a small receiver set with an ear-piece. I can see what's happening on stage, but for those who can't the service allows them to experience the play more fully.

Before the show starts, Di Corpo reads sections of the program, describes the set and costumes, explains characters and runs through cast lists. She and fellow volunteer Susan Bee, who calls the second half of The Miser, research each play they describe to provide useful background. (STC also runs pre-show workshops that explain the play and allow access to props, costumes and the set.)

Once the play begins, Di Corpo uses the pauses in dialogue to describe the unfolding action, including expressions, gestures and movement. "Harpagon slithers towards Mariane," she says as the unpleasant central character approaches the young, unsuspecting object of his affections.

Bee says the commentary involves "choosing the most evocative words you can, so what you're putting across gives as much meaning as possible with as much economy as possible".

Volunteers must audition for the job. Bee, a copywriter who loves theatre and is "a bit of a performer", was accepted and trained last year in an intensive week of daily work sessions with a final assessment task. Bee had never met anyone with vision impairment before and discovered that very few patrons are fully blind--they may have tunnel or peripheral vision, or see some light or colour. She also learned not to wave or nod, or say "see you later".

This year, the service has covered six STC plays and six at the Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli. Describers see the play three times before they call it.

Cliff Jackson, 78, lost most of his sight 12 years ago due to retinal vein occlusion. Before then, he was an avid theatre-goer and loved the ballet. He's had to give up ballet, but since he discovered the describing service, he goes to more plays now than when he could see.

And he gets more out of them now. "The audio describer will describe things that the sighted person may not pick up," he explains.