For legally blind couples like Stacy and Max Fleisher, Broadway musicals were always a half-enjoyed affair. With limited vision (him), or none at all (her), they were missing much of what made the performances so special. Elements like bright lights, colorful costumes, and unspoken facial expressions were a mystery.
"We usually shy away from seeing musicals because... so much is missed," said Stacy.
That all changed in 1981 when Dr Margaret Pfanstiehl of Metropolitan Washington Ear invented the practice of audio description for Arena Stage in Washington, DC. The program Pfanstiehl and her husband Cody developed, which features trained "describers" providing detailed but unobtrusive commentary on everything from the color of a woman's dress to the height of the set's walls, was seen as a major step forward in arts accessibility for the visually impaired. The same techniques would eventually be applied to movies, television and even museums. And in 2010, President Obama signed the 21st Century Communications & Video Accessibility Act, which mandated that the top four broadcast networks and top five cable networks provide four hours of audio description for their top 25 markets.
In New York, Healing Arts Initiative, or HAI, continues Pfanstiehl's work as it began — live in the theatre. The non-profit, which aims to "remove barriers to arts and culture" offers the service to a variety of Broadway and Off-Broadway shows for free and is only one of a handful of organizations, including the Theatre Development Fund, to provide the service locally.
HAI's trained "describers" detail the scenery, costumes, characters and action live from the back of the theatre, using a wireless radio. The grant-funded initiative, known as Describe!, even provides discounted tickets and orchestra seating. (Upcoming shows are announced via an email newsletter and on their telephone concierge service.
"For myself, personally, as I had gradually lost more and more usable vision, I had crossed the thought of seeing a Broadway show off my list," said HAI's marketing and development associate Rebekah Cross. "But once I saw my first described show, everything changed."
Currently, HAI has three volunteer describers, which limits the amount of shows they can provide services to. (They currently manage about one show per month.) Cross says they are currently training more describers, utilizing a mentor-mentee approach, and are always auditioning more.
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