One of the coolest, most unique, and most useful skills I took away from my time at WFT is Audio Description, the live description of all on-stage action for patrons who are blind or have low vision.
Back in 1994, I was a junior at Wheelock when Kay Elliott asked me if I wanted to participate in the training that the Theatre was hosting. I had never heard of Audio Description and had no experience with theatre accessibility, but I sensed that it was an opportunity to get in on the ground level of something important.
The training was co-led by Andrea Doane, WFT's resident Describer Extraordinaire and describers from the New Jersey theatre company, Paper Mill Playhouse, which was a pioneer in Audio Description at the time. We sat for two full days in the Alumni Room, watching videos of productions, writing descriptions, and learning how to assist patrons in the house on the day of performances. We were introduced to the infrared equipment that WFT had purchased and we were taught how to install and set it up. And then, finally, after hours of intensive instruction and practice, we were given certificates and our proverbial Describer wings.
The first show I ever officially described for WFT was Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella, which, let me tell you, was no easy feat for my first time out of the gate. Among the standard skills needed to objectively describe every single thing that is happening on stage, musicals bring their own unique challenges. I remember having at least three different conversations with choreographers about the best way to describe a gavotte for someone who had never heard of that type of dance and had never seen it performed. And then beyond that, working out the timing so that none of my description was spoken over lines or lyrics.
The process of writing description is tedious, but incredibly challenging and invigorating. Usually, a video is made from the final dress rehearsal so the describer can write and practice. The pause and rewind buttons are a Describer's best friends. Watch. Pause. Write. Rewind. Watch. Read. Pause. Rewind. Watch. Practice. Pause. Rewind. Edit. Read. Pause. Rewind. Edit. Read. I remember figuring out that it took 30 minutes to write 3 minutes of stage time. But there is something about getting the precise movement described perfectly accurately in the exact space of time between lines that is so rewarding that the time investment doesn't matter. And to be able to look down from the Describer booth and see patrons who are listening to the description nodding their heads and laughing at visual jokes is nothing short of amazing.
Of course, even the best describer can't catch everything. Anyone who has been involved in a production at WFT knows that the final weekend of performances is often riddled with practical jokes. Improvised lines, prop swaps, and costume "alterations." And, at least at The Wheelock, the final weekend is also when the described shows are. See where this is going? A good describer can watch the action and describe on the fly, but we all miss things sometimes. I remember one such joke during the final weekend of Cinderella that took place in the far corner of the center aisle, which is the only spot in the theatre that the Audio Describer can't see from the third-balcony booth. Cinderella surprised her "horses" with fresh carrots pulled from her satchel. Lines were flubbed, the audience roared with laughter, and I was oblivious. I ended up saying that something unscripted had happened, but that I couldn't see it. Fortunately, WFT patrons are among the kindest and most forgiving I have ever worked with!
Since that first show, I have Audio Described more than twenty productions at more than five different theatres, including two national tours of award-winning musicals at The Wang Center. The Wheelock Family Theatre is among only a handful of theatres in the nation that offer Audio Description and I have often said that it is "the coolest thing ever." I am so proud of WFT for making accessibility one of its primary missions and I am so proud and grateful to be an ongoing part of it.
The Audio Described performances of The Miracle Worker will be this Friday night, May 11th at 7:30pm and Sunday, May 13th at 3:00pm. Call the Box Office to make your reservations today for the final weekend of this critically acclaimed production!