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Virginia Nonprofits Bring Theater To Life For Visually Impaired

At performances of Mary Poppins and Shakespeare in Love, Virginia Voice and the Virginia Repertory Theater
At performances of Mary Poppins and Shakespeare in Love, Virginia Voice and the Virginia Repertory Theater offered guests with blindness and vision impairments the opportunity to experience a tactile tour before the shows and Live Audio Description services during the performances. (Photo by Aaron Sutten, Courtesy of The Virginia Rep)

In Central Virginia, a new partnership is providing increased access to the performing arts for people with vision impairments and blindness. The non-profit Virginia Voice and the Virginia Repertory Theater are now offering performances with Live Audio Description. WCVE’s Catherine Komp has more for Virginia Currents.


Evelyn Cabrera-Heatwole loves plays, comedies and musicals. She’s seen Jersey Boys, Wicked and the Radio City Christmas Spectacular   

Evelyn Cabrera-Heatwole: It's exciting because the music in itself is wonderful. I love the music.

But she says, it can be frustrating. Cabrera-Heatwole is totally blind. When something visually important happens on stage, her husband Ray fills in the blanks - as best he can.

Ray Heatwole: Seeing something for the first time, it's hard to know where to focus your attention and so and it's very hard to describe when people are dancing because I don't know the technical terms for what they're doing, it's hard to describe their costumes.

When a visual prank happens, Cabrera-Heatwole’s left wondering what’s the joke, until Ray leans-in to describe it.

Evelyn Cabrera-Heatwole and Ray Heatwole.

Evelyn Cabrera-Heatwole: I'm like Ray, what's happening?!” I get all excited and he'll try to explain to me, “Well, they just fell,” or whatever and then you know everybody's finished [laughing], and I'm [still] laughing and trying not to stand out in the public.
Ray Heatwole: The other challenge with that is Evelyn has a bit of a hearing impairment, so when there is background noise it's really hard for her to hear what I'm saying, so I'm trying to give a loud stage whisper, so it's frustrating because it's there's just a balance that we need to attain and it's really hard sometimes to find that.

But now, there’s a new way for the Richmond residents to experience the theater: Live Audio Description. The initiative was launched by the non-profit Virginia Voice and is a partnership with the Virginia Repertory Theater (which is a sponsor of the Community Idea Stations).  Jennifer Cunningham is director of development at Virginia Voice and Jim Wark is CEO.

Jennifer Cunningham: Audio description has been taking place in other metropolitan areas for some time, and we really recognize the need. We are a big arts community, and why not make it accessible for all so when we discover the need for audio access we jumped right on it, and we see we can provide audio access to many cultural events moving forward.
Jim Wark: It's in our wheelhouse to do this because what Virginia Voice is about is providing equitable access to things that are not easily accessible to people with vision impairment. And live theater, it allows people with vision impairment to decide to or not to go to the theater; in other words to have the exact same rights that everybody else does when it comes to these shared cultural experiences.

Bruce Miller: Good evening Ladies and Gentlemen….

Bruce Miller, the theater’s founding producer, welcomes about twenty people here for "Mary Poppins." He begins the evening with a pre-show tactile tour. Actors come out and say hello using the accents of their characters.

Chimney Sweep: I am dressed like a chimney sweep so we probably talk a bit like this and we sweep chimneys! (Laughter)

Guests can feel the patchwork of the chimney sweep’s vest, the teddy bear’s soft fur and the statue Neleus’s bulging muscles.

Guests feel the costumes during a Mary Poppins pre-show tactile tour.

Miller: You can feel his arms and feel how we pad…
Neleus: Assume they’re real. (Laughter)

Miller also brings out some important props, the first one is Mary Poppin’s umbrella.

Crowd: Ahhhh!
Miller: She has a parrot’s head on the handle of her umbrella, now it’s never even mentioned in the play and no one else in the audience gets to feel the parrot, you’re the only ones. I’m going to start right here...

There’s lots of laughter and a feeling of joy and anticipation in the crowded lobby just outside the theater. And this part of the program gives the group a much better sense of what will be happening on stage.

(Music: orchestra warming up)

As the orchestra warms up, the group takes their seats. Each has a wireless device with an ear piece. Jim Wark helps them get it set up.

Wark: Now did you all figure out how to turn it on?

Upstairs, in a darkened balcony, volunteers Catie Huennekens and Alex Wiles, also a WCVE employee, sit before pages of notes and the play’s script. They also have a stenomask, a microphone fitted into a padded mouthpiece that’s connected to a wireless transmitter.

The Rep brings out significant props for guests to touch.

Catie Huennekens (heard through earpiece): The Banks home is depicted on a massive, rotating set piece. All scene changes for this show will be taking place in the dark.

Huennekens provides the pre-show description, sharing precise and vivid details about the set, scenery, props and costumes. This is what the guests down below hear...

Catie Huennekens (live audio description heard through earpiece): The front door will be on your left. Next to that are hooks for hanging coats and a fireplace. High above the fireplace, is a large six-paned window.

Huennekens points out that when Bert sweeps chimneys, he wears red and black, that a pocketwatch chain drapes from Mr. Banks breast pocket, and Mary Poppins always stands with her heels together, toes pointed out.

Catie Huennekens (live audio description heard through earpiece): Her makeup is simple: a little blush, bright red lips that are always pursed in a half-smile. Her hair is pulled back elegantly into a bun. At work, she dons a starched, white pinafore apron.

When the show gets underway, Alex Wiles describes the visual elements of what’s happening on stage.

Alex Wiles: I’m like a play-by-play guy on a sports broadcast.

Wiles has to do a careful dance, choosing key visual elements and slipping in between dialogue and vocals.

The equipment and position of the Live Audio Describers.

Alex Wiles (live audio description heard through earpiece): A chimney sweep’s broom appears out of a chimney on a rooftop. Bert appears up out of the chimney, climbs up on the edge, looks out at the audience.

Bert (singing): Winds in the east, there’s a mist coming in…

(Music fades to Super‐cali‐fragil‐istic‐expi‐ali‐docious)

From A Spoonful of Sugar to Super‐cali‐fragil‐istic‐expi‐ali‐docious, the Live Audio Description gives guests a fuller view of what’s happening on stage.

Alex Wiles (live audio description heard through earpiece): The actors dance up the aisles, jumping up and down, their funny colored wigs bouncing up and down, spotlights still twirling all around the theater. Bert gestures to the word which is projected on a screen. The actors do high kicks in the rows! They throw confetti in the airs, it’s pink and purple and green and blue, multicolored confetti falling down on the audience.

Scott Saunders: The show is so good.

At intermission, Scott Saunders and Franklin Nixon were smiling.

Saunders: She’s doing a wonderful job explaining it in the earpiece. It also is nice to know when to clap because she says when the scenes change and stuff like that.
Franklin Nixon: And the key is to have someone that’s describing the play to not be dry, be animated, help get you into it, that helps a lot.

Bruce Miller: We know there were people out there who wanted to have a more full experience.

After being approached by Virginia Voice about the project The Rep’s Bruce Miller jumped right in.

Bruce Miller: As theater artists, our goal is to make sure that everyone in the audience has the opportunity to participate fully in the experience. I believe in theater,
I truly do and I believe in the opportunity that theater has to transform lives and elevate lives, and cause excitement and so making that available to everyone is a really great thing for me.

Thinking about "Mary Poppins" and the pre-show tactile tour, he put himself in the shoes of a child with vision impairments. He thought, what if they could experience that magical moment with Mary flies across the stage?

Miller: And feel the individual actually leave the earth, you know? Then that would give them a sense of what the rest of the audience is seeing, because there's always that little bit of a “ahhhh!” when that happens. So that's what I thought I thought of the kids having their fingers on Mary Poppins skirt as she begins her flight, and then having a fuller sense of what that actually feels like in the physical world as it happens in the play.

Virginia Voice and the Rep started this pilot program with "Shakespeare in Love." During the tactile tour, Bruce Miller brought guests up on the stage which resembled The Globe Theater in London.

A group of residents with blindness and vision impairments experience Mary Poppins through Live Audio Description.

Miller: And they got to touch the set as suddenly this whole huge set started to move and they could feel the breeze that it caused and they could put their foot just a few, another few inches forward and feel the floor revolving. And being there with them when it happened was so great because you start to experience this show that you know, you start to experience it in a different way because these people are feeling the movement of the set, in a way that I had begun to take for granted because I just saw it every day, and I know how it works. And suddenly the set starts to move and everybody's going “Ohhh!” It just was a real thrill and that's the type of thing that makes you go, this is really worth it.

Evelyn Cabrera-Heatwole: Oh my gosh. That was like being-- For me personally, it reminded me of when I was a little kid and I did some performances at a school for blind children where I grew up.

Evelyn and Ray Heatwole were at that performance. It was a captivating experience, for both of them.

Ray Heatwole: The set actually does move throughout the performance. They moved it manually for us so we could get a sense of how it feels when it moves. We got to touch the beams on the on the sets, we saw balconies and doors and all of those kinds of things so it's just nice to be able to put your hands on those things because if you can't see and the only one of the only ways that you can see is through touching, tt just makes it much more real for the participants.

Evelyn Cabrera-Wole participates in a tactile tour at Shakespeare in Love.

Evelyn Cabrera-Heatwole: That was a very first for me, and I just felt excited because for me, that's just another door opening regarding accessibility. You can go and actually do what everybody else is doing and enjoy it without having to always ask for help so to speak, for a narration. I felt independent, I was so excited about the whole experience. It was the first time I was able to sit there and know I was going to enjoy and get the feedback, get the information I needed to enjoy the performance.

The nearly 40 year old Virginia Voice provides reading services for people with blindness and visual impairments. It's available online and through a special radio receiver that picks up a signal through WCVE's non-broadcast bandwidth, what’s also called a “subcarrier transmission.” 24/7 programming includes volunteers reading magazine articles, conducting interviews and sharing literature.

Jim Wark:  We think about ADA, we think about access, we tend to think maybe a little too much about ramps and railings. And that’s all really important, access to buildings is where a lot of things start access. But things like this program, access to information, access to shared cultural experiences. I think the arts is great place to look when looking for ways to increase access. And sports, a lot of things we think of as amenities, but they’re really much more than amenities, they’re the things we share as a community and as a culture. So inclusiveness, I think, in arts performances, in sporting events, in government meetings, I think there’s room for improvement across the board.

Virginia Voice is still in the pilot phase of the program but plans to expand Live Audio Description at the Virginia Rep in 2018. For Virginia Currents, I’m Catherine Komp, WCVE News.