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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, like skip, slide, march,” said Cindy Shaler, co-coordinator of View Via Headphones.

At the show, there are “all ranges of sight loss,” Anslinger said. “It’s a challenge for us to create mental pictures for people who have never seen anything, like a color.”

One type of show that Anslinger finds difficult is the musical.

Musicals differ from plays because the speech is nonstop and rapid, Anslinger noted. To combat this, she said she uses short sentences and concise phrases.

“If they’re not speaking, they’re singing,” Anslinger said. “Plugging your description into a musical puts the pressure on.”

Kennedy and Mengle have the same problem at The Merchant of Venice, but they manage to sneak in one word, like saying “hug” or a character’s name, while the actors pause for breath.

The describers of View Via Headphones usually offers their service at the State Theater, Eisenhower Auditorium, Schwab Auditorium, Boal Barn and the State College Community Theater, but View Via Headphones is expanding into other mediums of art that are more strictly visual.

View Via Headphones has sponsored tours for the visually impaired at the Palmer Art Museum, Centre Mansion for the holiday tour, the Paul Robeson Gallery and Arts Fest as well as many other art exhibits in Central Pa.

In an art exhibit, the describers of View Via Headphones look for works of art that can be touched, like sculptures, to compliment the audio description. If the patron is unable to directly touch the artwork, View Via Headphones provides “pactiles,” a physical representation that would tactilely simulate what is presented in the painting, such as a piece of velvet to stand for a velvet gown in painting, said Anslinger.

Next summer, View Via Headphones plans to add a tour of outdoor sculptures to its program, said Anslinger, and is hoping to expand its services to cover all forms of art.

View Via Headphones is looking for more volunteers and is preparing to add a preparatory class next summer. Interested volunteers should contact the Sight Loss Support Group Office at 814-238-0132.

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