Best Audio Holiday Season Ever, by Susan Glass

My husband John and I recently returned home from Falls Church, Va. and Washington, D.C., where we spent Christmas with my sister. An outstanding feature of our stay was the audio-described production of “Fiddler on the Roof” that we saw at Arena Stage on Saturday, Dec. 27. This production marked Fiddler’s 50-year anniversary — can I really be that old? — but I felt ageless as the universal story of tradition and change, hardship and joy, family conflicts and family ties played itself out on the stage. And now you must forgive me, because I am going to boast. My sister, Jo Lynn Bailey-Page, was the audio describer for this play. A dancer and musician in her own right, her descriptions lent profound new dimensions not only to the musical numbers in the show, but also to the flow of scenes, and the depth of character portrayals. I have always responded tenderly to “The Sabbath Prayer” song, but when Jo Lynn described the tableau of Tevye and Golde lighting their Shabbat candles, the gentle dance of the singing and processing villagers also celebrating Sabbath, and the Fiddler, Tevye’s alter ego, poised behind his chair as the song ended, I felt the spiritual context of the song more deeply than ever before.
 
During the wedding scene when Jo Lynn described Jerome Robbins’ astounding choreography in “The Bottle Dance,” I heard beyond the pirouetting clarinet melody that has always defined this song’s essence for me, and I became a pirouetting dancer, lithe and fleet-footed, balancing bottles on my head. And then there was the scene when Tevye mourned Chava’s elopement with the gentile Russian Fyedka by singing “Little Bird.” This had always been a heart-breaking song for me, but I never knew that it was choreographed. It was as if the show froze momentarily while Tevye sang. Jo Lynn described the dance in which Golde presents Chava to Tevye, and then there comes a point when — if I remember correctly — Fyedka and Chava dance, and the way in which Fyedka holds Chava makes her appear to be flying. What fitting grace for “the little bird,” “everybody's favorite child!” This was especially poignant because in her pre-show notes, Jo Lynn described Chava’s walk as skimming over the ground. I could picture such a being in flight.                   
 
Personal pride notwithstanding, this audio-described production of “Fiddler” is unique for another reason: It’s a first-of-its-kind collaboration between the American Council of the Blind’s Audio Description Project and Arena Stage, to offer audio description to blind and visually impaired patrons for every performance of the show. Usually, blind patrons who desire audio description are limited to the two or three performances of a show’s run when AD is offered. Offering AD at every performance constitutes a significant step forward in terms of accessibility. For this approach to succeed on a large scale, theaters will need to embrace audio describers as members of a show’s cast, with all the legitimate status that such membership accords. We blind patrons need to attend performances so that theaters know we are a viable audience.
 
This production of “Fiddler” also featured braille programs courtesy of ACB, a member list for Arena Stage’s board of directors, and a touch book displaying samples of the actors’ costumes: a prayer shawl, and fabric used for Tevye’s vest, his head coverings, and Tzeitel’s wedding dress. Through touch, braille literacy and audio description, Arena Stage’s “Fiddler on the Roof” came to life for me. 
 
Our second AD experience occurred at Mount Vernon, the plantation home of the United States’ first president, Gen. George Washington. I first visited this estate when I was 11, and what I remember — or rather what my body remembers — was the crunch of gravel paths underfoot, the musty basement smell of the stable and carriage house, and the thickly braided taut ropes that prevented entry into the bedroom where George and Martha Custis Washington slept. What a contrast to our current Mount Vernon experience!
 
The estate now features a GPS-driven, audio-described tour of the entire plantation. At the visitors’ entrance, John and I checked out headsets and digital players. The players were programmed with maps of the estate and pre-designated GPS coordinates. As we walked through the estate, the system would announce our location: “On your right is the blacksmith shop. Press the round button on your unit to hear a detailed description.” If we pressed the button, the unit would say, “Blacksmith shop. Estimated description time, one minute.” If we chose not to press the round button, we could proceed en route to the next described location. “On your left, the old tomb,” or “Straight ahead, the front entrance to the Mount Vernon home.”
 
So accurate and numerous were the GPS charted locations and descriptions that a blind person might proceed through the estate independent of sighted help. Well, not quite. You’d miss some as yet unmarked exhibits, and there were paths where you might get sidetracked. And there were many other visitors around whom you’d need to navigate. Still, the experience of this much access invigorated me.
 
The recorded descriptions tended to be objective. They’d say things like, “The dining room is 50 feet long by 30 feet wide, and the ceiling is 10 feet high. Three spindle chairs are grouped around the oak dining table.”  Live docents or interpreters provided cultural and personal details, as well as intriguing stories. One interpreter speaking with us outside of General and Mrs. Washington’s bedroom told us that General Washington ultimately died from a painful throat infection called quinsey, in which his throat swelled shut and choked him. She also said that the doctors of the day unwittingly hastened his death by bleeding him, and by making him swallow caustic liquids which were supposed to kill his throat infection, but which dissolved his throat tissue instead. Barbaric, we exclaim, until we compare the way Washington’s quinsey infection was treated with how our physicians currently treat cancer.
 
On our last day in Washington, D.C., we visited an audio-described exhibit at the Smithsonian Institute called “America On The Move.” This exhibit chronicles the history of transportation in the United States from the late 1700s through the 1990s. Dr. Joel Snyder, director of ACB’s Audio Description Project, narrated this pre-recorded tour. No headsets were needed. One simply walked through the exhibit hall, pressing on the lower right-hand corner of various touch screens positioned throughout the room. One then heard a description of what was located in that spot. This meant that all visitors to the museum — not just those with visual impairments — could benefit from the recorded audio descriptions, the contents of which were far more detailed than the printed museum labels that accompanied each exhibit. Those too were read aloud, but by a woman’s voice rather than Dr. Snyder’s. This helped listeners distinguish between the two kinds of text.  What a clever means for educating sighted people about the value of AD, I thought to myself.
 
“America On The Move” was enlivened by accompanying recorded sounds, and by items that could be touched. An exhibit on early railroad operations in Watsonville and Santa Cruz, Calif. featured calling seagulls, the thumping sounds of boxed strawberries and vegetables being dropped into train cars, and a bronze statue of a Chinese farm laborer, hands clasped behind him as he massaged his weary back. An exhibit on Washington, D.C. in 1900 featured a sound collage of grinding electric streetcar cables, coach wheels and horse hooves on cobblestones, and a singing mockingbird. Each part of the exhibit transported me, in a three-dimensional way, into the artistic fabric and space. Never before had I experienced this. Is this the experience that sighted people have when they look at paintings?
 
The exhibit confronted head-on a number of thorny political realities, such as California farmers’ exploitation of laborers — Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Mexican — and discrimination by hotels, restaurants and gas stations against African-Americans traveling across country by car. I left the exhibit feeling thoughtful and enriched.
 
I have only two minor criticisms of “America On The Move.” Without sighted help, there is no way for a blind patron to know where the exhibit touch screens are. I also think that hearing-impaired patrons might be overwhelmed by the sheer body of surrounding sound. At times it was difficult to hear a narrated description due to sound effects emanating throughout the museum building, and due to the clamor of other patrons. Tile floors and high ceilings didn’t help matters either. But both of these issues can, I think, be easily addressed.
 
My experiences at Arena Stage, Mount Vernon and the Smithsonian have shown me what audio support at its best can do to enhance one’s participation in cultural life. What fine models these programs are for venues throughout the country!