by Linda Goodspeed
You know the landscape has shifted when two people stand up after a live show and the sighted one asks the blind one, “What was that all about?” and the blind attendee proceeds to explain what just took place on stage.
That’s what happened at a Cirque du Soleil performance of Michael Jackson 1 that my daughter and I attended at the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino in Las Vegas. I was the first blind person Cirque had described the MJ1 performance for, and as a result could talk knowledgeably about what we just saw.
Thanks to the American Council of the Blind’s Audio Description Project, audio description (AD) has become more common for movies, television, museums and live theater. But when I called the Cirque box office at the Mandalay Bay to ask if an AD narrator would be available for our Cirque show, the answer was, “What is audio description?”
“I’m blind,” I explained. “A narrator describes visual elements of a performance – set, costumes, body language and movement, facial expressions, etc. – to help me understand what is happening.”
“Never heard of it.”
But amazingly, I got a phone call on our travels to come to the theater a half hour early, and a narrator would be waiting for me.
Cirque du Soleil shows are incredibly visual, with dozens of people on stage at any one time. They are more thematic than plot-driven, with dancing, acrobatics, projection screens, many different props, set and costume changes, and loud music, but no dialogue.
“Hands down, the Michael Jackson Cirque show was the single hardest show I’ve ever done and probably will ever do,” said Chanelle Carson, an ACB trained audio describer. Carson, who has been doing live theater AD at the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Vegas for the last three years, previewed the Michael Jackson show twice before going live for me.
“The fact that you could tell your daughter who is fully sighted what you saw is honestly the biggest compliment I could ever receive,” Carson continued. “That’s huge.”
Tracy Blackwell, production administrator for Cirque, agreed. “I can see a Cirque show five times and still see something new each time. The fact that Chanelle could describe it to you and give you a sense of the show was just amazing.”
Both Blackwell and Carson hope AD will become a more common offering at Cirque shows and other live performances.
“I honestly think shows don’t know about it,” Carson said. “It could open doors to so many other people.”
“It’s something we would like to explore doing more often, and even opening up to the general public,” Blackwell said. “It’s a whole group of people we didn’t know we could impact.”