Woman lights candle on stage

Seeing yourself for the first time: the power of people in audio-described theatre

By Joanna Wood, VocalEyes Trustee

It’s April 2019 and my sister Melanie and I are at Shakespeare’s Globe to see Richard II in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. This is our two-year ‘audio description anniversary’ and it’s taken until now for me to fully understand why audio description (AD) has changed my life, why it is so important to me in ways that go far beyond simple access to theatre.

To explain, I need to take you back a year before my first encounter with AD, to spring 2016. Aged 30, I was adapting to significant sight loss, having suddenly and unexpectedly lost the sight in my left eye two years earlier through retinal detachments. Though losing my job (with hindsight, completely unnecessarily and possibly illegally), my home, and decimating my savings, it had not affected my ability to go to or enjoy the theatre. In fact, through that  year of couch surfing, soul searching and rebuilding my life in 2014-15, theatre had been my touchstone from the cheap standing seats in the gods. However, the loss of sight in my right eye in the autumn of 2015 stopped everything.

Not classified as sight impaired, qualifying for any benefits, unemployed, and by now having exhausted my savings, I was surviving thanks to my mum, who housed, fed and supported me. Less than two years earlier, I had been working at a University, managing multiple research programs, publications and staff. I have an MA in International Relations, read History at Cambridge and, because my mum is reading this and will hijack the comments section if I don’t, I have to admit that I also have a Blue for rowing in (and winning) the 2005 Boat Race. And maybe it’s OK to mention because it says that before sight loss I had a full life, had achieved things, had potential.

I am put in touch with an employment advisor who specialises in supporting visually impaired people back into work. Weeks of detailed examination of my CV, skills and employment history culminate in the advice that ‘If you’re really lucky you might be able to aim for a part-time job on a checkout. Join a craft group, there’s one that does basket weaving.’ I’m floored. The one job I definitely can’t do is run a checkout – I have no reading vision and tills have touch screens. I won’t comment on the basket weaving.

To cheer me up, Mel books us all in to a production at our local theatre. But none of us, as ridiculous as this sounds, have factored in my sight loss. We’re sitting quite far back and I can’t see anything; I find the lighting disorientating and spend a lot of time with my eyes closed (I’m not yet au fait with wearing sunglasses indoors). I can’t follow what’s going on and my mum and sister’s attempts to describe for me provokes extreme displeasure in those around us. My head is pounding and being shut out of what I desperately want to experience, want to be a part of, brings me close to tears. I leave, accepting that I won’t be back – the theatre isn’t for me anymore. But it feels like an amputation, it has gutted something deep inside me in a way that no checkout or basket weaving suggestion ever could.

Woman in white dress and ruff on stage
Natalie Klamar as Desdemona in Ellen MacDougall’s Othello, that ran from 23 February to 16 April 2017 in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse. Photograph by Marc Brenner.

Mel is distraught and, without telling me, sets herself a mission: she simply cannot believe that someone somewhere hasn’t made theatre accessible to people with visual impairments. She takes as her starting point Shakespeare’s Globe, an inspired choice. For Christmas, my gift is a trip with her to see Othello at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in April 2017. Though both of us are eagerly looking forward to it, neither of us can begin to guess at the impact that day will have.

Sunday 9th April comes round quickly. It starts with an absence: the absence of surprise, of panic, of fear. The box office staff don’t bat an eyelid. They’re friendly, welcome us to the Globe and know everything about the day. I’m not asked if I mean to be there, have I lost my carer, why don’t I have a dog, or what does this mean for fire regulations. The complete normality we meet is a balm; Mel and I have clearly entered a very different world. The audio describers, Alison Clarke and Willie Elliot, and David Bellwood, the Globe’s access manager, explain what will happen and lead us on, accompanied by the phenomenal volunteer stewards who are the heart of the access program. I’m blown away that members of the company come and talk to us just a couple of hours before being on stage. I can’t believe it when they stay on; Natalie Klamar, Thalissa Teixeira, Jon Foster and Peter Hobday spend 45 minutes talking us through the set, props and costumes that day. Despite now being something of a touch tour veteran, this aspect of an audio-described performance – the presence, engagement, time and enthusiasm of actors before the show begins – continues to amaze me, is a privilege and, I think, an underestimated contribution in the business.

Woman seated on low bed on stage
Thalissa Teixeira as Emilia in Ellen MacDougall’s Othello. Photograph by Marc Brenner.

Mel and I exit the touch tour speechless. We’re overwhelmed and can’t put into words what has happened, or the effect it has had. And of course, we go on to enjoy an incredible performance, brilliant description and the continued assistance of David and the stewards. It is an amazing, emotional day.

And I am changed.

Though I struggle to articulate what it is about the AD experience that has been so transformative, to nail down what exactly happened that day, I know I need to keep coming back. My consequent obsessive Globe and wider theatre-going sets me on an accelerated track of rebuilding my life. Just a year later, in 2018, I have a place to start a PhD in history, a long-held dream. With this comes the means to move to a city, live independently, travel, and spend 9 months in the US doing research. My first action is to search what AD theatre options exist in the US, because by now this is an essential part of my life.

And there this story would have ended, with no great reveal, no final analysis and with me remaining a committed theatre-goer and AD user but one still ignorant as to what lies at the root of its impact. Instead, everything is brought to a head when my mum has a stroke and is seriously incapacitated in the summer of 2018. Instead of moving, I am at home looking after her. This removes me from my planned theatre-going for around 9 months and makes for a bumpy start to the PhD. It’s a tough time.

Re-emerging in early 2019 and looking at my Globe and theatre options makes me realise that I’m not myself and haven’t been for a long while, in ways that go far beyond what’s happened. I need to understand why 9 months without theatre has had such an effect. Although important, the equality of access, ability to experience something at the same time and to the same degree as family and friends, theatre as art, or the description (an art form in its own right), aren’t quite it. There’s something else going on that I haven’t identified before.

The power of audio description is how you’re treated. I finally realise that on that day in April 2017 at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse I was treated like a human for the first time in two years outside of my immediate circle. A full person, someone with value and worth. And the reason this was so powerful was that until that point, until seeing myself through their eyes, I hadn’t realised that I’d also stopped seeing myself as human. My plans had been downgraded so many times, I had been diminished so often, that I had completely lost who I was. I had forgotten to be ambitious for myself and to demand more than simply meeting my immediate needs. And discovering that you have stopped seeing yourself as a person, someone with innate value and worth, is an anguished moment, it is the final act of humiliation. But what brings you to this realisation also saves you. Because a stranger, someone who doesn’t know you, who is meeting you for the first time, who is a respected and talented person in their profession, sees you as a person, treats you as a person and by the end of the encounter has got you seeing yourself as a person again. This is more than transformative – the only word I’d found in the last two years in my inarticulate attempts to understand – this is redemptive. This is redemption. And I have come to depend on it.

It is why I need to mention the Globe, David, the stewards, Alison and Willie, and Natalie, Thalissa, Jon and Peter, specifically. Because their warmth, kindness, interest in me (not my eyes), intelligence and profound humanity redeemed me that day and I’ve never looked back. Because once you’ve seen yourself as human again, you’re invincible. I still can’t fully express the debt, the gratitude, the depth of feeling that I have for them and maybe never will. And while I’ve on several occasions subjected David, the Globe and VocalEyes to my ill-wrought attempts at articulating it, I hope one day to have the opportunity to tell at least one of the company the difference they made, the impact they had, the complete transformation of my life, the redemption of my self. Because I shouldn’t think they gave it a second thought. It likely wasn’t the first touch tour they’d done, nor would be the last. I suspect it’s never occurred to them that it was anything other than an ordinary day.

At this point you may say, ‘well, that’s a nice story Jo, but it’s a one off. For most people that’s not what audio description means.’ But I think that for a significant number of people, an encounter with the theatre staff, cast and crew might be the first time someone treats them like a person, and that they have seen themselves as a whole, valuable human since their visual impairment. I’ve certainly met others on touch tours since who share my sense that the power of audio description is as much to do with the people you encounter and their attitude as the performance itself. This goes so far beyond an equal right of access or even the power of theatre as an art form. And I don’t think that VocalEyes, theatres and theatre people realise that in this, in these moments, in these encounters, they’re doing something extraordinary that many other places in society, in life, simply aren’t.

The closer it gets to my departure for my research trip to the US in September, the more painfully aware I am of the coming separation between myself and the places and people that sustain me. The Globe specifically has become the consistent core of my life, my second home, and people like David my rock (though he will be embarrassed to be credited as such). Theatres remain the only places in my life, other than my childhood home, in which I don’t feel disabled. They are safe, restorative spaces. For the hours I spend there, I am simply Jo. Not visually impaired, not disabled, not a curiosity or an inconvenience. They hold a guaranteed welcome. Audio-described theatre has become the guardian of my self, my true self. An absence of whatever length means I go back to being a thing, an object, subject to the misapprehensions of others and at risk of again losing sight of myself as human. For all these reasons the trip will undoubtedly end up being an adventure in audio description as much as in research. I have promised to send VocalEyes the occasional blog post, so be warned!

Each and every touch tour and performance since that Sunday in April 2017 has renewed that moment of redemption and ensured that I never lose sight of myself as a whole person. To the front-of-house staff: thank you for simply welcoming me and not doing a headless chicken impression. It means more than you can know. If you’re an actor or crew and I end up on your touch tour, know that your time, passion and sheer humanity has redeemed me that day, topped me up for the week, and that your time on this is never wasted and always appreciated. To the access managers – the unsung heroes of theatreland – and to David Bellwood in particular, for whom I long ago ran out of worthy adjectives: thank you for running the amazing programmes that you do, for advocating for access and disabled people and for your dedication far beyond the call of duty. Without you, none of this exists. To the Globe stewards: you’re my team, my squad, thank you for everything. To the describers: I’m constantly in awe of the talent, creativity and performance you bring to every description. It is an art form and you are consummate artists. To Matthew, Sarah, the Board and all the staff at VocalEyes, thank you for creating the incredible opportunities you do but also for inviting me to join you. You helped me see myself in that moment and continue to do so at every meeting, every encounter. It is a privilege to work with you all.

Woman with fork hovering over lemon meringue pie
The author poised to enjoy a lemon meringue pie

And so, the next time you are in a theatre, the West End, or the Southbank and you see a tall woman in her thirties walking too fast, with a white cane and large sunglasses, long bob and skinny jeans, you may well have made a Jo sighting on an AD day. Should you sit next to me at a performance, by all means ask about the headset, or the play or other shows I’m going to see. Ask about what I do, what I love and what I think about the performance. But please, just here, don’t ask about my sight or personal life, air your fears, pity or amazement. I’m not here to educate, entertain or inspire you. That’s what the actors are for. I’m here for the play. This period of time, this space, is precious to me and I’m enjoying a moment of just being Jo, being my full self. I need this. And, remember that I can very likely still bench press more than you and certainly beat you in an arm wrestle. I knew the rowing would come in handy one day.

Joanna Wood is a Leverhulme Trust PhD Student at the University of Sussex working on the history of women’s international thought and is a Trustee of VocalEyes. She is yet to weave a basket.

Hear Joanna on BBC Radio 4 In Touch, first broadcast Tuesday 5 June 2019

For more information about audio-described performances at Shakespeare’s Globe, contact their access team.

Discover upcoming audio-described performances in theatres around the UK on the VocalEyes website

 

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Comments

  1. Joanna, thank you so very much for sharing your story. How incredibly difficult and painful your experiences have been. I hope that many people will read your story and that change can be brought about to make the arts accessible to everyone.

    You mentioned looking into productions in the US that offer AD. Houston, Texas would be a good place to start. Houston Ballet and the Alley Theatre definitely offer AD performances. I don’t know if they will be as wonderful as The Globe, though! It sounds like your experience with them was amazing!

  2. Thank you for sharing your story. You have inspired me to try a visit to the theatre which prior to my sight loss was a lifetime passion.

  3. Dear Joanna,
    How lovely and reassuring to read your article. As an audio describer of 19 years here in Aberdeen, I also have had the privilege to work with a dedicated team of fellow describers and our access manager, Lynn Hackett, at Aberdeen Performing Arts. Another member of our team is a talented young artist, Clair O’Hagan. who makes wonderful “finger tour” boards in relief, showing the main outlay of sets for those with partial sight, or anyone unable to attend a touch tour.
    Above all, being an audio describer has given me the privilege to make real friends with our inspiring and courageous VIPs (visually impaired people) whom we not only escort in the theatre, but meet with regularly on a social basis too. It’s so important for us to get constructive feedback on the descriptions we offer. Our VIPs especially value the touch tours that precede the performances and we always work together to improve the service we offer, as it enhances our enjoyment of the whole theatre experience too.

  4. An inspiring story, and thank you for highlighting the redemptive value of treating a person as a person, Joanna. Here in SINGAPORE we’re just beginning the AD journey – 11 of us were trained by Access2Arts from Adelaide last November. The first audio-described shows were presented in April 2019. I and my partner did the first kids show and yes, the response to the touch tour was a highlight for us. As you say, it’s something special in the best sense of the word – our touch tour participants not only met the actors playing Gretel and Hansel but also learned secrets of the trade (magnets in the puppet hats and shoes to keep them on while being manipulated!) which were not shared with regular theatre-goers. I am looking forward to describing an iconic Singaporean play (Emerald of Emerald Hill) which is being staged by another theatre company in September, which is encouraging, as it means more arts companies are becoming aware of/open to programming an AD performance.

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