Being a literature student, it probably won’t come as much of a surprise to you that I am a self-confessed theatre buff. Plays, musicals, dramatic monologues; the theatre is one of my favourite places to go because I just adore the magic of the stage. I believe that there are fewer things more electrifying than being privy to a really powerful performance.
I’ve been to the theatre twice this summer and am due to go again this weekend, not to mention having a few performances lined up for the rest of the year. So seeing as it’s something of a regular occurrence for me lately I thought I would explain a little bit about what it’s like to go to the theatre as a visually impaired person.
Audio description and touch tours
Visually impaired patrons of the theatre can attend specific performances that feature an audio description service. During these specific performances, anyone who is blind or partially sighted can request a headset through which they can hear a live commentary of the visual aspects of the performance. The commentary is designed not to impede on the dialogue so that you can keep track of the action on stage while picking up the description simultaneously.
Audio described performances also often include a touch tour. Usually scheduled at least an hour before the curtain goes up, the touch tour gives visually impaired patrons the opportunity to get hands on experience of the stage, costumes and props. Exploring the layout of the stage and being able to inspect the props and costumes close up certainly helps me build up a more accurate picture in my mind enabling me to visualise the performance. It’s an added bonus if the actors come to meet you during the touch tour!
My most recent trips to the theatre have been to see To Kill a Mockingbird (TKM) at The Barbican Theatre and The Importance of Being Earnest (IBE) at the Vaudeville. Very different stories, but both equally brilliant performances. I received audio description for both and got there in time for the touch tour for IBE.
To Kill a Mockingbird
TKM is a very emotional story and I’m not ashamed to say that the intense atmosphere and fantastically talented actors had me welling up on more than one occasion. I was blown away by the child actors playing Scout, Gem and Dill, not only because their accents were amazing!
Having the actors address us in the audience as if we were the jury during the court-house scenes was particularly powerful, and the tension in the room when Boo Radley finally appeared on stage was incredible!
The Importance of Being Earnest
I was welling up during IBE as well, but because I was laughing rather than crying! The Vaudeville’s auditorium is much smaller than that of The Barbican’s which made for a much more intimate atmosphere. This meant that when Algernon addressed the audience with some quip or comment about his companions, it really felt like he was sharing a secret with you. All of the actors were spectacular but David Suchet’s portrayal of Lady Bracknell was a particular hit, having the audience in hysterics more than once!
Attending the touch tour for this performance definitely made a difference. I was able to appreciate the speed of the scene changes that much more after having exploring how small and crowded the stage was for myself. Getting to see all the props up close, right down to the intricate paintings on the walls added that extra bit of detail that made it that much easier to picture the opulence and wealth depicted in the set in my mind.
The audio description and touch tour were produced by Vocaleyes; a registered charity dedicated to the description of the arts. Vocaleyes provide audio description for theatre performances including plays, musicals, ballets and opera’s, as well as recorded audio tours for museums, galleries and architecture. They also provide training and advice on how to best support blind and visually impaired customers to venues with assisted performances.
I must say that every assisted performance I’ve attended with Vocaleyes has been brilliant. The audio description is descriptive without being intrusive and the commentators attentive but not overbearing. All Vocaleyes staff I’ve met have been friendly, accommodating and happy to help. During IBE, I took advantage of Vocalise’s service to arrange for someone to take care of Jazzy during the performance. She was returned to me at the end of the play fed, watered and walked, much to her enjoyment! Vocaleyes provide an excellent service making the arts as accessible and inclusive as possible.
To find out what Vocaleyes are getting up to in your area, check out:
I hope I’ve shed some light on how it’s possible to experience the theatre as a visually impaired person and if you’re blind or partially sighted and have never been to the theatre before, I hope my post has succeeded in encouraging you to try it; there really is nothing like it!
Keep an eye out for my upcoming blog all about my weekend seeing the sights in London!
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