Paint­ing the pic­ture

The Monthly (Australia) - - THE NATION REVIEWED - PAUL CON­NOLLY

Ness Sari wouldn’t nor­mally go to the cir­cus. Be­ing al­most com­pletely blind, she fig­ures that there’s lit­tle point. She’s here tonight, though, sit­ting in the front row for Cir­cus Oz’s lat­est show, Model Ci­ti­zens, staged in a large tent pitched by the Yarra River in

Mel­bourne. From her seat, Sari, 34, can make out lit­tle more than the oth­er­worldly glow of the ul­tra­ma­rine-blue set – and, oc­ca­sion­ally, ghostly sil­hou­ettes of performers in mo­tion – but this even­ing she is vi­su­al­is­ing the ac­tion, with as­sis­tance.

For peo­ple with vi­sion im­pair­ment, go­ing to the theatre or cinema of­ten means re­ly­ing on the cocked­head whis­per­ings of a pa­tient com­pan­ion. Tonight, the words that Sari is hear­ing – piped to her ear­phones via the small re­ceiver in her hands – orig­i­nate from the rear of the tent’s cen­tral stand. There, in the pop­corn­scented shad­ows, sur­rounded by a buf­fer of empty seats, sit Bruce Pyke and Lau­ren Wil­liams, two of Vi­sion Aus­tralia’s au­dio de­scribers. This team of 74 vol­un­teers nar­rates select per­for­mances of some 160 live the­atri­cal shows ev­ery year, from re­gional plays to block­buster mu­si­cals in­clud­ing The Book of Mor­mon. Sit­ting among the notepa­per at their tres­tle ta­ble in mi­cro­phone-equipped head­sets, with his re­treat­ing sil­ver hair­line and her cropped, bleached ’do, they look like a mod­ern take on the ar­che­typal sportscast­ing team: the wily vet­eran and the twin­kle-eyed up-and-comer.

And when they be­gin talk­ing – Pyke in the first act, Wil­liams in the sec­ond – they ini­tially sound the part too, an im­pres­sion coloured by the cheers, oohs and aahs of the au­di­ence. Their pitch and pace are com­posed, how­ever, and hy­per­bole (the sportscaster’s crutch) is not part of their ver­bal arse­nal. “Mitch dips his [flam­ing] torch to­wards his ex­tended arm and sets it on fire,” Wil­liams calmly nar­rates at one point. A sports com­men­ta­tor would burst a valve over that.

It’s not an au­dio de­scriber’s job to lead the wit­ness, or to ac­tively evoke emo­tion in their lis­ten­ers, of whom there are six tonight. “I try to make sure I tell peo­ple ev­ery­thing they need to know to fol­low the story. But I’m not there to in­ter­pret the story or be­come part of the show,” Wil­liams, a law stu­dent and for­mer ac­tor, tells me later. “It’s like I’m a cam­era. So if some­one walks on­stage look­ing su­per ex­cited, I don’t say that. I say what leads me to think that: that they are walk­ing on with a big smile on their face.”

Live au­dio de­scrip­tion for theatre was de­vel­oped in the United States dur­ing the 1980s by Mar­garet Pfanstiehl of the Metropoli­tan Wash­ing­ton Ear, with her hus­band, Cody. In the late 1980s Pfanstiehl vis­ited Aus­tralia, where she trained six au­dio de­scribers as part of a pi­lot pro­gram or­gan­ised by Mar­jory Lane, a vol­un­teer at the As­so­ci­a­tion for the Blind (now Vi­sion Aus­tralia). The first Aus­tralian pro­duc­tion to be au­dio de­scribed was Arthur Miller’s The Cru­cible, per­formed at the Play­house in Mel­bourne in 1991. Vi­sion Aus­tralia’s

Michael Ward says that Pfanstiehl and Lane’s work con­tin­ues to un­der­pin the rules and tech­niques of au­dio de­scrip­tion.

If the first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club, the first rule of au­dio de­scrip­tion is you don’t talk over di­a­logue. An au­dio de­scriber will go along to two or three shows be­fore their main per­for­mance, in order to fa­mil­iarise them­selves with the plot, the set, the cos­tumes, and any phys­i­cal jokes they will have to set up in their com­men­tary so that their lis­ten­ers will laugh at the same time as the sighted au­di­ence. They must be as­tute at fill­ing si­lence, and hum­ble enough to sup­press their ego. “It’s not about them; that’s some­thing we weed out early on,” says Ward, ex­plain­ing that only about one in five who au­di­tion have what it takes. An ef­fec­tive au­dio de­scriber, he adds, must be con­sis­tent with ter­mi­nol­ogy, be able to find the right word, and have good voice pro­jec­tion and a good mem­ory.

Calm­ness un­der pres­sure is another im­por­tant qual­ity, says Pyke, a telco cus­tomer-ser­vice man­ager who has been vol­un­teer­ing as an au­dio de­scriber for more than 20 years. I put it to him that he must surely strug­gle with the im­pulse to de­scribe cir­cus ac­tion as if call­ing the fi­nal fur­long of the Mel­bourne Cup. Pyke ex­plains that his tech­nique, when faced with a busy set, is to de­scribe what his eye is drawn to, fig­ur­ing that it’s likely to be the fo­cal point of the per­for­mance. “But it can still be tough. How do you de­scribe the moves be­ing per­formed by a con­tor­tion­ist? Or how many ways can you de­scribe some­one spin­ning around a rope? I won­der some­times what peo­ple are vi­su­al­is­ing at times like this.”

One of the lim­i­ta­tions of au­dio de­scrip­tion (be­sides there not be­ing enough of it, par­tic­u­larly on free-to-air and catch-up Aus­tralian tele­vi­sion, which, de­spite lob­by­ing, has no gov­ern­ment-man­dated au­dio de­scrip­tion) is the dif­fer­ing ex­pec­ta­tions among lis­ten­ers. While au­dio de­scrip­tion has been honed through ex­pe­ri­ence and feed­back, some lis­ten­ers find the clin­i­cal de­scrip­tions too, well, clin­i­cal. For in­stance, Sari, a para­le­gal with Pub­lic Trans­port Vic­to­ria, found the emo­tion­less de­scrip­tion of the char­ac­ter Mitch set­ting his arm alight “too sci­en­tific and in­suf­fi­cient”. Then again, per­haps Sari later found some po­etry in Wil­liams’ de­scrip­tion of a chain of ac­ro­bats sus­pended from a hor­i­zon­tal rope: “hang­ing like a half-moon”.

A lis­tener’s ex­pe­ri­ence of what the world looks like can de­pend on how long they’ve been vi­sion im­paired or, in­deed, if they’ve ever had sight. Be­fore the Cir­cus Oz per­for­mance, the cast and crew wel­comed a young vi­sion­im­paired boy on a tac­tile tour of the set, props and cos­tumes. He and his par­ents loved the tour, but as the boy dipped his fin­gers into the wounds on a knife-thrower’s tar­get, his mother said that, some­times, de­ci­pher­ing au­dio de­scrip­tion re­quires an “adult un­der­stand­ing of the world”.

For the 384,000 Aus­tralians with vi­sion im­pair­ment, how­ever, au­dio de­scrip­tion can over­whelm­ingly open up their world. At the con­clu­sion of the cir­cus show, Sari, her mo­bil­ity cane trac­ing her path, walks over to Vi­sion Aus­tralia’s small ta­ble near the box of­fice and re­turns her trans­mit­ter. She’s had a ball. “The at­mos­phere was great,” she says. “But I only came be­cause of the au­dio de­scrip­tion. It’s not the same as see­ing for your­self, and it was hard at times to fathom how amaz­ing the ac­tion was, but with­out the de­scribers it would have just been sound and noise with­out con­text.”

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