Sunday December 26, 2010

Feature Story

What's That, No Audio Describers?

Chilliwack Cultural Centre leaves the visually impaired out of the picture

Craig Hill/Voice



Audio describer Teri Snelgrove with her script, in the technical booth, with a view of the stage at the Vancouver Playhouse. Photo courtesy of Meg Torwl, and EarSighted.   


he brand spanking new $21-million state-of-the-art Chilliwack Arts and Culture Centre (CCC) is not entirely state-of-the-art. They've hired all kinds of cleaners and guest service managers but one job they might think about filling is an audio describer.


Imagine being a visually impaired child and Dr. Seussical is coming to the CCC for eight shows. The child takes a seat in the main theatre, and puts on a set of infra-red headphones, plugs them in and listens intently as the describer brings her or him right into the action on the stage despite not being able to see everything that's taking place.

One's ability to sit in a theatre watching live stage action take place is something often taken for granted. To the visually impaired person following the action, it can be difficult due to low lighting or smaller stage props.

Audio Describers are trained to avoid putting their own spin on stage action and leave as much open for interpretation as possible. These talented individuals bring the play to life as they weave spoken narration around dialogue, sound effects and in some cases, music, to give a continual description of what takes place on stage.

It makes live theatre accessible to blind or partially sighted audiences by describing characters, what they look like including their costumes, movement and gestures, and locations, props, action, etc.

The CCC is equipped with headsets for the hearing impaired but visually impaired people in the community have been left out in the cold.

The Voice asked KellyAnne TeBrinke, the Marketing Manager for the Centre, if there was a plan to use audio describers and the response was that they've never heard of them.

"I don't know what an audio describer is," said Tebrinke in an e-mail. "I assume it is a hearing impaired device? I can tell you that we have ten hearing impaired headset units, however these are simply amplification headphones."

Fair enough. It is new to Canada and most people haven't heard of audio describers but they've been active in California for the last 20-years with resounding success. But that doesn't mean Canada, or Canadians for that matter, should plead ignorance and just because Chilliwack is a rural community is no excuse.

In Vancouver, the 2010-11 season is the first year the service is being offered for mainstream Broadway plays.

Meg Torwl, who is the program coordinator for Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture, wrote in an e-mail to the Voice in late August that they are excited to offer the new Earsighted Audio Description service in Vancouver and that they would be happy to meet with CCC officials.

"Audio Describers need to be trained to meet international Audio Description Standards. We have a team of 4 Audio Describers available, as well as a portable equipment set with 20 ear pieces. We offer this service for a fee negotiated with the theatres."

Janet McIvor, the Executive Administrator for Canadian Council of the Blind, told the Voice in an e-mail that live theatre should not be exclusive to people who can see.

"We truly appreciate you taking this issue to heart because accessibility and inclusion should certainly encompass all types of disabilities and it is extremely important to involve blind and vision impaired citizens in the life of the local community to avoid isolation."

According to the Vancouver Playhouse's website, "Audio Description brings the sets, lighting, costumes, characters, and onstage action alive for a visually impaired audience. Through a wireless transmitter a trained Audio Describer imparts this information, between the actors lines."

The site goes on to say that "Audience members who use the service, receive the Audio Description through a single earpiece and wireless receiver. Audio Description begins 15 minutes prior to the performance. EarSighted Audio Description is presented in partnership with Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture, and is made possible with assistance from Canadian Heritage, and the City of Vancouver."

The Vancouver Playhouse will feature audio describers for the upcoming plays; This on Jan 21, Death of a Salesman on Feb 25, 2011 and The Trespassers on Apr 8, 2011.

Michael Cade, the executive director of the CCC wrote the Voice in response to our questions and said that assisted audio devices, by law, much like wheelchair ramps and accessible washrooms, must be built to accommodate disabled people. However, Cade added that audio describers are not required under the code.

Cade avoided taking any heat by saying that "Audio describers are very new in Canada (and) the season currently advertised by Earsighted is in fact the first ever for any Canadian city and includes performances through five of Greater Vancouver's producing theatre companies."

"My understanding is that in order to provide this service, the staff doing the describing need to attend a number of advance performances in order to familiarize themselves with the production," explained Cade.

He went further to exclude the Centre from any responsibility toward bringing in audio describers by saying that "One of the most significant challenges to implement this kind of service for 'roadhouse theatre' venues like the Chilliwack Cultural Centre's Main Theatre and Rotary Hall Studio Theatre is that the bulk of our performances happen for only a single performance."

Cade is correct in saying that some of their shows in Chilliwack are there for just one performance, however many of the plays featured in Vancouver already have audio describers. What's good enough for Vancouver should be good enough for Chilliwack, so why the Centre isn't bringing in top-rated shows from Vancouver is anyone's guess.

"Extended run performances, like those of the Chilliwack Players' Guild and the Chilliwack School of Performing Arts could potentially use this service, however the decision to offer Audio Describers (and any costs associated with doing so) would be the responsibility of the group producing the show," said Cade.

After we first wrote the CCC regarding audio describers, Cade took in a show at the Arts Club in Vancouver.

"Personally, I do feel that anything that makes the arts accessible to a larger segment of our community is very much a good thing, and in fact I did attend the Arts Club Theatre's Audio Described matinee performance of Tear the Curtain just last weekend."

Cade further deflected pressure away from his organization by saying that it's up to Earsighted as well as local theatre companies to bring in audio describers. In other words, its everyone's fault but their own.

He didn't entirely rule out audio describers coming to Chilliwack but it may take years to accomplish that feat.

"My experience is that programs like this, if successful, still take several years before expanding to additional metropolitan areas, and much longer before expanding to the more rural communities."

How can Cade have any "experience" with a brand new program unlike anything ever tried before tried in this country?

Afuwa Granger, who has taken over the Earsighted program from Meg Towrl, said that "When organizing an Earsighted performance, (Cade) is absolutely correct; it is a complex process that requires organization well in advance. And as you know, our 2010-2011 programming is already sorted out, but we'd love to talk more with the Chilliwack Cultural Centre to discover if a future performance is feasible for both our organizations.

According to Cade, they don't plan on bringing in audio describers anytime soon. But instead of promoting and facilitating audio describers with local groups and theatre companies, they wash their hands of it entirely.

As an aside, its also anyone's guess if staff are bringing in local productions and charging the same premium prices that big Broadway productions charge. A quick check showed that the top-run show Death of a Salesman seats at the Queen E. Theatre are $32 while a seat for Dr. Seussical, a local production, is $35.

When the Voice brought up the topic, a local news reporter made the remark that "audio describers are a luxury"

What part of the Chilliwack Arts and Culture Center isn't a luxury?

About Audio Describers

Audio Describers usually work on a freelance basis for theatres. They are selected by Distributors from a variety of different voices and selection is based on the specific requirements of each play. They usually work on television as well as film productions.

Although there are no typical career routes for Audio Describers, they may have backgrounds in broadcasting or acting, or they may be grads with a keen interest in film and television, and/or with blind or partially sighted people.

For those people interested in becoming an audio describer, there are classes available if you have the following essential knowledge and skills;

For more information visit  or e-mail here.

To find out what shows in Vancouver featuring audio description follow this link:


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