Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Bringing 'Nutcracker' alive for blind people

Audio describer to give a mind's-eye view of the ballet.

By the last day of 2009, the Pennsylvania Ballet will have danced its annual holiday confection, The Nutcracker, 24 times - but one performance will be like no other.

In fact, as far as anyone knows, the show at 4 p.m. Sunday will be unlike any dance performance in Philadelphia.

In a dressing room off a hallway to one side of the stage, a woman named Ermyn King will watch a TV monitor beaming the show live from the stage. She'll wear a headset-microphone and will straightforwardly describe the dancing - how many performers are onstage, what they're wearing, what they're doing, how they're interacting - as well as the scenery, the storyline, even the lighting.

A black box about the size of a DVD player, with a stubby antenna on top, will transmit her voice to certain people in the Academy of Music audience. They'll be wearing single-ear headphones, listening to her with one ear, and to the ballet orchestra with the other.

Thanks to a local initiative called "Independence Starts Here," King will be describing the ballet for audience members who are blind or visually impaired. For the first time here, they will have access to the benchmark holiday performance - a mind's-eye view of what, for them, otherwise would be limited to a musical concert.

"This is Tchaikovsky's iconic score," says King, an audio describer from the Washington area who has been filling in the sight lines for theater and dance for about a decade. "So, I need to provide aural space. I'm not going to be chattering nonstop through this."

Still, she'll have plenty to talk about in the two-plus hours of Pennsylvania Ballet's colorful production, which opened this year's run Saturday. Phil Juska, the ballet's director of outreach and education, says the company knows of some people with visual impairments who have purchased tickets for Sunday's 4 p.m. performance, and he is expecting more. As the idea catches on, he'll be choosing volunteers - "I have my eye on lovers of the art form" - to be trained as audio describers for programs down the road.

"I'm really looking forward to it - especially with something like ballet that is so visual."

The impetus for this project comes from Art-Reach, a local organization that connects underserved audiences with the arts. As part of the long-running "Independence Starts Here" initiative, Art-Reach has joined with Amaryllis, one of the city's 40-plus professional theater companies - and one with a mission to serve audiences with disabilities and also hire artists with disabilities - to promote more access to live performances in the region.

Art-Reach provides marketing through, plus other services, and Amaryllis - the local piece of an international arts-access group called VSA - supplies the equipment.

Other local groups are involved, and a number of theaters are availing themselves of the equipment, which comes to them free, and also are hiring people to provide access as a way of opening up their work - and attracting new audience members.

"You can think of us as being a connector between cultural services and human services," says Michael Norris, executive director of Art-Reach.

On Dec. 9 at the Prince Music Theater in Center City, that connection was obvious. Enchantment Theatre Company, producers of professional family and kids' shows with headquarters here, staged its current offering, The Adventures of Harold and the Purple Crayon, with many opportunities for full access: Braille programs, American Sign Language, captioning, headsets to amplify the show, and other earphones for audio description of the action on stage.

Just before the curtain - as in most audio-described shows, including Sunday's Nutcracker - those using the service were invited onstage for what's called a "touch tour." In the case of the Harold show, that meant feeling the felt-covered teeth of a monster, plus a large lion, a giant plunger, and, of course, Harold's oversize crayon.

Providing sign language and, sometimes, captioning for deaf and hearing-impaired audiences is nothing new at Philadelphia-area theater companies that produce plays; several have done it for a decade or more. But audio description has been more sporadic.

Since the beginning of this arts season, "Independence Starts Here" has upped the ante dramatically. The project uses $25,000 in grants from PNC Bank and Lincoln Financial Group to market and equip theater companies - and now, the ballet - with audio description, plus live American Sign Language translation, and captioning screens that not only show dialogue, but also list sound cues, such as birds chirping or incidental music.

The Walnut Street Theatre, the Philadelphia Theatre Company, the Wilma, the Arden, and Hedgerow Theater are among those with audio, captioned, or signed performances so far this season. On Jan. 16, the Arden will use three signers to shadow actors as they move onstage during its performance of Peter Pan - something it first did at a show last year. "And our cast and crew and staff were so great with embracing it," says Arden general manager Jennifer Peck, herself a trained audio describer.

"The most recent show I was at was The Light in the Piazza, and it was wonderful," says John Luttenberger, who is blind and works for a group that produces Braille materials. He was referring to the Philadelphia Theatre Company production of the recent Broadway musical, which ended Sunday. Luttenberger attended the Nov. 28 audio-described show; the theater company was an early provider of audio description here.

Piazza begins with a visual element that could not possibly be grasped unless you see it or someone tells you about it: The wind carries a hat across the stage - a fluke that makes the show's plot possible. "That was all described," says Luttenberger. "Mostly, it's things like that. If someone glares at someone across the stage, they would mention that to us."

But not during dialogue and not with any bias. Sunday afternoon, when King describes The Nutcracker - she'll already have scoped out the production, taking extensive notes - she won't say the dancers are jumping impossibly high. Instead, she'll tell her listeners how high they're jumping. And they, like the rest of the audience, can process that and arrive at their own conclusions.

If You Go

What: The Pennsylvania Ballet's audio-described performance of George Balanchine's The Nutcracker.

When: 4 p.m. Sunday.

Where: Academy

of Music, Broad

and Locust Streets.

Cost: $24 to $129. Tickets may be purchased by calling 215-893-1999 or visiting EndText