My son, theatre and audio description

VocalEyes is a very important part of Richard’s life.

Richard is totally blind. He was born with a rare genetic disorder, one of the symptoms of which is blindness. He had a little vision at birth but, by the age of 9, he was registered blind.

My husband and I have always been theatre lovers and we wanted all three of our sons to feel the same joy in theatre as we do. It was easy to take our sighted sons to the theatre but it was a huge challenge to take Richard. We used to take him to age-appropriate theatre performances when he was young but always needed to fill in the gaps when there was no dialogue. Obviously we were not very popular with other members of the audience and I have unpleasant memories of disapproving looks in our direction.

Imagine our delight when, in 2000, we discovered VocalEyes. By this time, Richard was 19 years old – but we’ll draw a veil over those years of no audio-described theatre! VocalEyes transformed our theatre-going life.

Group of blind and partially sighted people on stage with audio describer for touch tour
Describer Roz Chalmers on stage with participants of the touch tour for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

From our first VocalEyes-described performance of ‘Rough Crossing’ at Watford Palace Theatre in 2000 to ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ at the Old Vic on 4 April 2017, Richard has enjoyed many audio-described performances. He has travelled to Stratford- upon-Avon and Chichester but mainly he goes to theatres in and around London. He has his favourites, mainly the small intimate spaces where he feels close to the action. Regardless of the number of theatres, there is one factor which is constant and that is the presence of our friends, VocalEyes’ audio describers. When we arrive, we are greeted warmly as if we are members of the VocalEyes ‘family’. Here I must add that this warm and friendly feeling extends to the theatre staff who go to extraordinary lengths to make Richard’s experience as pleasurable as possible.

Woman touches the backs of the hands of a costumed actor
Touch tour participant feeling the hands of an actor, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, Old Vic. Photo: Manuel Harlan

As well as the theatre and back stage staff, several actors also participate in the wonderful touch tours which usually take place a short time before the performance. Richard values this input and often comments on how valuable it is: for example, Gillian Anderson at The Donmar’s A Doll’s House touch tour spoke to him in her differently pitched voice so that Richard would be able to pick this out during the performance. There are numerous instances such as this but this article would go on forever if I were to list them all! Knowing the importance of focus in acting, I am amazed that actors give as much time and attention to the visually impaired audience members who attend the touch tours.

Exploring the set is another valuable experience and Richard was delighted to revolve on the stage of The Cripple of Inishmaan, feel the height of the set of Polar Bears (with a helping hand from the lovely Celia Imrie) and venture out on to the stoop (where the frightening bottle smashing took place) of Buried Child. Surprisingly, the very visual The Play That Goes Wrong and Peter Pan Goes Wrong are among Richard’s favourites, which is praise indeed for the quality of VocalEyes’ audio description. There are so many elements of a production which we sighted audience members take for granted. Richard has learned by direct experience how incredibly heavy some of the period costumes are and he has handled all manner of props. Including all of these elements in a touch tour considerably enhances Richard’s experience. We will never forget Richard wielding the execution sword at the touch tour of Bring Up the Bodies!

Not only does Richard enjoy the touch tours and audio-described performances at the time but, in addition, they provide him with marvellous memories. On 11 October 2008, Richard was proud to be a part of the largest number of visually impaired people in a theatre audience, an event organised by VocalEyes and making it into the Guinness Book of Records. Before this memorable performance, VocalEyes organised a ‘barricade’ workshop which added to the atmosphere for the visually impaired audience.

I have lost count of the wonderful VocalEyes experiences since 2000. I choose the word experience, because it’s not just about the performance, always beautifully described: it’s about the warm welcome, the attentiveness and care, the opportunity to meet cast members, explore the set, feel and handle props and costumes – the whole superb package.

Written for the VocalEyes website by Drina Parker, 9 May 2017