Theater ‘audio describer’ helps blind audience membersWhen an evil stepsister sashays across the stage in the University of Minnesota Duluth’s production of “Cinderella,” Kristy Miller is there to describe what it looks like to visually impaired members of the audience.
By: Christa Lawler, Duluth News Tribune
When an evil stepsister sashays across the stage in the University of Minnesota Duluth’s production of “Cinderella,” Kristy Miller is there to describe what it looks like to visually impaired members of the audience.
And when the Bennett sisters consider their marriageable options in the College of St. Scholastica’s “Pride and Prejudice,” she’ll describe that, too.
In the past few months, audio description has become available for some local theater productions. Miller is the voice behind the descriptions.
“I’m their eyes for the show,” she said.
How it works: Miller attends one or two performances and takes notes on the show, including the size and shape of sets, the colors on the stage and costumes. During performances, those who
request this aid are given a Walkman-sized receiver and headphones and are able to catch Miller’s brief, descriptive, maybe even poetic, play-by-play — and sometimes a fun fact she has picked up after repeated viewings.
“When I did ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ (in Fargo), the bed on stage was actually where one of the actresses was born,” she said.
A production of “Cinderella” on Thursday night at the UMD included audio description and “A Chorus Line” at the Duluth Playhouse and “Pride and Prejudice” at the College of St. Scholastica have upcoming shows where audio description will be available.
Miller, who has always been a fan of theater, got her start as an audio describer in Fargo. When she moved to Duluth, the equipment wasn’t available. She did some freelance description work with independent films and visual art shows.
The technology has been used in playhouses in the Twin Cities area for about 15 years, according to Jon Skaalen, access coordinator at VSA, the state organization for arts and disability. The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis has the largest number of audio description users, he said.
A recent grant from the Minnesota State Arts Board gave smaller theater communities access to the service, bringing it to Fergus Falls and the Rochester/Lanesboro areas.
Randy Rusnak, who is blind, said he has attended plays without an audio describer.
“A lot I do understand without description,” he said. “When I do go, I usually have someone sitting with me who describes the play in a low voice.”
Mary Kaye Caskey, who is an administrator in the University of Minnesota Duluth’s disability resources department, said that at least one performance of each theater production at UMD will include audio description. The university already has incorporated performances translated into American Sign Language.
“It’s just another accommodation for making every play accessible for everybody to see,” Caskey said.
Caskey, who is not visually impaired, has tested the equipment.
“I have vision so it was different for me,” she said. “It just brings color. It takes black and white and brings in color.”
There are challenges to the job, Miller said. For her first gig, she described a play at a small theater with no room for her to watch. She had a copy of the script and previous viewings to work from. She sat outside the theater with the door open watching when she could, but closing the door and going from memory whenever a train went past the venue so the audience wouldn’t be distracted by the train whistle.
Next week she will describe “A Chorus Line” for audiences. The sets are easy, but the stage movement could get tricky. She likes to present colorful, not repetitious descriptors.
“Sometimes I feel like a human thesaurus,” she said.