Skip to Content

Describers enhance art experience

“Welcome to The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare,” she began. Small ear buds relay her words to the ears of the visually-impaired members in the audience below her.

Kennedy is an audio describer and board member of Sight Loss Support Group, Inc. (SLSG), which created View Via Headphones Audio Description Services. This program, the first of its kind in central Pa., provides free descriptive services to the visually impaired during performances and tours of art galleries.

Describers enhance art experience

By Allison Robertson

Fifteen minutes before the curtain rose at Eisenhower Auditorium, Susan Kennedy sat in the audio booth and put an oval-shaped, tan mouthpiece close to her lips and spoke.

“Welcome to The Merchant of Venice, by William Shakespeare,” she began. Small ear buds relay her words to the ears of the visually-impaired members in the audience below her.

Kennedy is an audio describer and board member of Sight Loss Support Group, Inc. (SLSG), which created View Via Headphones Audio Description Services. This program, the first of its kind in central Pa., provides free descriptive services to the visually impaired during performances and tours of art galleries.

View Via Headphones is supported by private donors and the Center for the Performing Arts’ Accessibility Services program at Penn State.

JoAnne Mengle, an audio describer of about seven years, sits on Kennedy’s right and surveys the stage.

“This one is going to be very tricky to describe,” she said.

While there are twenty-seven characters in The Merchant of Venice, this production used only five actors, making it difficult to determine which character was speaking.

“When we can, we’ll give them a heads-up of who’s talking,” Kennedy said.

Each description has two describers in case one describer has to leave for an emergency. One describer describes the event, and the other handles the equipment, said Mengle.

“The point [of audio description] is to describe visual aspects of what happens onstage,” said Nanette Anslinger, co-coordinator of View Via Headphones. “We [described] the costumes, scenery, light changes and actor’s movements, gestures and facial expressions.”

But the describers do not interpret what they see; instead, they strive to convey the scene as though their clients were seeing it directly.

To give a good audio description, Anslinger advised, “Be as objective as possible so client having as close to same experience...as other, sighted patrons would.”

The idea for View Via Headphones was born in the mid-90s when Rana Arnold, now director of View Via Headphones, and Ermyn King, who was a researcher for SLSG, went to see an audio described performance in the Globe Theater in San Diego, Calif. Arnold, who since birth could see only bright colors, tried the audio service because a friend was giving the description.

Arnold attended her first performance, an opera, when she was four. Since then, Arnold said she went to different versions of the same play six or seven times.

“I thought it was enough,” Arnold said. “But it wasn’t.”

With the audio description at the Globe Theater in San Diego, Arnold said she grasped new details that made it a more fulfilling experience.

“[Audio description] really brings the stage to life. I didn’t think I needed it until I heard it,” Arnold said.

In 1999, SLSG asked Dr. Alan Wood, a professor from Ohio University who is well known internationally in the field of audio description, to provide a three-day training session for the describers to bring quality audio description to Centre County for the first time.

“It was a thrilling weekend,” said Anslinger, one of the ten describers chosen.

Anslinger, a retired high school drama teacher, decided View Via Headphones was a “way to give back [to the community] and tap into [her] theater training.”

During that first weekend, Anslinger said Wood worked nonstop to teach her and the other describers the principles behind audio description and about the audience’s reaction.

Another part of the training includes review of language and use of words.

“We avoid the word walk, because there are so many other terms for that