I am often asked the question by sighted theatre-goers, what’s the point of going to a live show if you’re blind and have no hope of seeing anything?
But recently, I experienced an audio-described musical for the first time in my life and I am truly hooked. The difference it made to my enjoyment of a live show was immense, thanks to a small group of dedicated audio-describers from Vision Australia.
Flower Children: the story of the Mamas and Papas
Being vision-impaired since the age of fifteen, I have always held a particular fondness for musicals. I enjoy nothing better than to pump out harmonies along with my music idols. But as a person with a degenerative eye condition, Retinitis Pigmentosa (RP), I have to rely on my sighted companions to keep me up to speed with the happenings on a theatre stage or movie screen.
We often risk annoying those people around us who haven’t noticed my folded white cane and turn to tell us off for whispering during a show. So I sit back in my seat, feeling somewhat annoyed to be missing the visual cues and hope at some point, the show will begin to make sense to blind eyes.
I had heard of the audio description services from Vision Australia for some time but had never experienced it. So when I received an email alert that the musical, Flower Children: the story of the Mamas and Papas was coming to the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne and was being offered as an audio described show, I knew I had to call Janene Sadhu, the Melbourne coordinater of the free service at Vision Australia.
What happened next was a real eye opener.
Janene sent me an email with a detailed description of the costumes and stage props, everything that a sighted person would see on the night of the show. I read it through with my computer software for the blind and it was like having my own private ‘viewing’ before the performance. The notes painted a vivid picture:
“Papa John, played by Matt Hetherington, is a man in his early thirties. He is approximately 6 foot tall, and of medium build. He has brown eyes, short brown hair and sports a beard...”
On the night of the show, my partner and I rocked up with great anticipation. Friendly volunteers from VisionAustralia greeted us and gave instructions on how to use the portable radio receiver and off we went to find our seats.
Using the device with ear-phones was as easy as singing along to California Dreaming and for the first time in my theatre viewing life, I could keep up with the whole story. The clear voices of the volunteers speaking through my ear-phones brought the entire show to life. I was laughing (and crying) at the gestures being described, understood who was coming on and off the stage and imagined the colourful descriptions of the shifting props on stage.
At one point, my partner leaned in close to describe a scene but before he could speak, I grinned with eyes alight, and said, “I know!”
Did this sensory experience get any better? It sure did.
After the performance of the Flower Children, Janene had organised a tactile tour with the stage manager so our blind group could see through excited hands the props and feel some of the costumes worn by the actors. While we sat up on stage on the same steps used in the show, Matt Hetherington (Papa John) came to join us and we launched into a happy rendition of one of the show’s hit songs.
I am so grateful to Janene and her dedicated group of volunteers from Vision Australia who gave up their time to organise and describe the Flower Children performance in Melbourne which has sparked a renewed love for live theatre – I can’t wait until the next show. Bravo!
“Blockbuster Musicals, Operas, Comedies, Ballets, Dramas and more. The Vision Australia Audio Description Service is set to deliver over 75 audio described performances across Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra and Wollongong in 2013.” To find out about the upcoming shows for 2014, visit:
This story first appeared as a published article in 2013 as a news feature on the national website of ArtsHub Australia under the title 'Theatre through blind eyes'
© 2013 Maribel Steel