'The Play's The Thing..." - Helping the visually impaired enjoy a show

Published on Wednesday, 12 February 2014 21:45 - Written by Stewart Smith ssmtih@tylerpaper.com

Sight is no longer a requirement to enjoy a play. Not in Tyler, at least. Thanks to the new descriptive theater program soon to be offered at Tyler Civic Theatre Center, even those who are sight impaired can have a night out to take in a new production. The program involves wearing special headphones as a descriptor (stationed in the tech booth) works from a special script that fills in the visual gaps.

Lou Townsend, a licensed counselor in Tyler who is also legally blind, was who first approached DeAnna Hargrove at Tyler Civic Theatre with the idea after a friend in Houston had informed her of its existence.

“I thought, ‘Well, I’d love to go to the Civic Theatre, but when I go I can’t see what’s going on even sitting on the front row,’” Ms. Townsend said.

Mrs. Hargrove and the board were receptive to the idea, and so a trip was made along with several other blind and visually impaired people from Tyler to the Winspear Opera House in Dallas for the chance to experience descriptive theater live. Mrs. Hargrove said the experience was revelatory.

“You know, I had never really thought about how much is missed but could be provided. I had never thought about it, having never experienced something like that on a video. She just completely opened my eyes to the need,” she said. “And then when we went to the Winspear in Dallas, I intentionally closed my eyes and listened. And I thought. ‘OK, I get it. I get it.’ I hear laughter, what just happened?”

Descriptive theater goes to great lengths to describe everything, from the way a character walks to their clothing, when one character enters and another leaves. But it’s also not simply narration and it’s not description that is always anchored to a script, either. The descriptor is allowed a chance to improvise in the moment, much in the way an actor would in order to preserve the unpredictability and spontaneity that comes with live theatre.

“The value of doing this live instead of having it recorded is that … just like in a live performance you never quite know what’s going to happen,” Mrs. Hargrove said. “Imagine if someone takes his hat off and the wig comes off with it, and the audience roars with laughter and it’s not scripted, (someone visually impaired) would miss that. You can actually have (the descriptor) integrate something live.”

After some deliberation and planning, the Civic Theatre board decided to move ahead with the program, and it will now be implemented with each of its mainstage shows beginning with “The Drunkard,” the world-famous melodrama by W.H.S. Smith, on March 7.

Ms. Townsend and other members of the visually impaired community will continue to work to refine the process for its implementation locally.

Ms. Townsend said having this service available has opened her world and allowed her to feel like a more involved and included person in the Tyler community.

“Now I can go and enjoy live theater and not be stressed or worrying about what’s going on sitting there feeling left out. I can go and enjoy it almost to the level that someone fully sighted can,” she said. “There’s going to be lots of people who can (do the same).”

It’s all too common for a visually impaired person to feel like he or she simply can’t be a part of what other people so regularly enjoy, Ms. Townsend said, and a program like this helps ameliorate that feeling.

“Sometimes I just feel left out,” she said. “(Descriptive theater) makes me feel like I can be a part. If a group of friends want to go, well I can be a part of that. It’s a sense of inclusion. … And DeAnna and her group have done a lot of work on behalf of my request that is going to help a lot of people feel included.”

Linda Moore is 62 years old, has been blind for more than 15 years and will be able to attend her first play ever thanks to descriptive theatre. She said people with disabilities often feel as though their life has effectively ended. A program like descriptive theater can help change that mindset.

“A lot of people that have a disability, when they found out that they are legally blind or completely blind; they think their life is over. And it’s not. It doesn’t stop there. It just means we have to change some of our ways of doing things,” Ms. Moore said. “This is what’s going to help us to keep going. This would give us a chance to enjoy life and know that, just because of our disability, it does not mean you have to lock yourself in your home.”

That sense of inclusion and community is 100 percent why the program was moved forward at Tyler Civic Theatre, Mrs. Hargove said.

“I think the beauty of it all is that it completely and totally brings the community together. And that’s the idea for a civic theatre, isn’t it? To be able to bring together everyone and make it enjoyable and accessible for everyone,” she said. “(Visually impaired people) don’t want to go to a show about blind people. They want to go to a show that you and I would. They have the same tastes and now they can go and not miss the experience because half of it is gone.”

For more information on the program or to reserve a spot for its use, contact Tyler Civic Theatre Center by calling 903-592-0561. Ticket prices are the same as general admission, but reservations must be made for individual use.