Our Launch Party included Susan Dunstan (Broadway company of Come from Away) and Danny Johnson. We then produced Night Wings by Eleanor Albanese (a Thunder Bay playwright), which involved actors from Thunder Bay and Edmonton speaking not only their text but also closed captioning within each performance. This was followed by a community art-making project by Betty Carpick (connected to Night Wings), Moez Surani (a celebrated poet from Toronto) and a presentation of Jon Lachlan Stewart’s show Big Shot from Montreal. Our inaaugeral festival also included a Community Breakfast and talk-backs after the shows
A NOTE FROM ELEANOR ALBANESE
PLAYWRIGHT OF NIGHT WINGS
Audio Description as a Creative Process
"I began my career in theatre with a company by the name “Kaministiquia Theatre Laboratory.” Yes, it was a mouthful, so most of us shortened it to Kam Lab. It was my foray into the world of professional theatre and the idea that theatre is a laboratory of creativity has stuck with me for many decades. My most recent play, “Night Wings” just received its first production, and only after the play closed did I realize how much I had been influenced by those early experiments in theatre.
First productions are, by nature, a joint experiment between actors, a director, designer, playwright, etc. However, going into this production, I knew I needed to take an additional risk: one I hadn't tried before. The lead character in the story is a twelve-year-old girl who is blind. I felt strongly that I needed to make the play accessible to audience members with visual disabilities. Fortunately the director, Donna Marie Baratta, was not only supportive, but also excited about this proposed idea. Initially, I anticipated that I would write the visual description and either myself or someone else would read out the description of the action as it was taking place.
In most cases, when visual description is used in live theatre, the audience members with vision loss wear ear buds, while the remaining audience members are not privy to the visual description (the assumption being that the visual description may be disruptive to the sighted audience members). I thought about this approach, but reflecting on my friendships with those who have vision loss, I knew I wanted to try something experimental. Why not create a piece where the entire audience hears the visual description? And, taking it one step further, what would happen if the actors themselves described their actions as they were in the midst of performing them? For example, “I put on my hat and coat” as the actor dons their hat and coat, or “I rub frost from the windowpane”, as the actor performs this action. If we took this approach, the actors would be moving seamlessly from visual description to speaking their lines and there wouldn't necessarily be something to indicate clearly which was which. My “Kam Theatre Laboratory” genes were beginning to kick into high gear!
Throughout the process, we posed questions and tested a variety of approaches. How much is too much description and what is not enough? Together, we explored what to include and what to discard. It was a delicate balancing act and things changed as the blocking itself changed. We also discovered that when the actors spoke their visual description with intent, they were better able to keep the underlying emotional journey in tact.
Though audiences seemed to genuinely enjoy the production, my experiment wasn't over yet. I needed to pose questions: Were the audience members with visual loss able to follow the story and enjoy the unfolding of Molly's journey? Did the sighted audience members find the audio description distracting to the flow of the story, or was it an enjoyable experience? Did the actor's struggle to find the rhythm between speaking their lines and describing their action (blocking)? I approached a cross-section of people and posed my questions, inviting an genuine response. “It was quirky and I enjoyed it. Actually, it made me more aware of the barriers that people with disabilities face when going to live theatre,” was one response. Others included, “ I was expecting it to be more obtrusive, but the actors integrated it well into the tone and context of their character. Like movie subtitles, I forgot about it after a while.” and “It's a story about a young girl who is blind. It seems fitting to me to have the actors describe their blocking actions. Because the intention was made clear at the beginning of the play, I think it allowed the viewer to be generous and open to the actors describing their blocking.” I also put the question to the actors themselves. Jim, a seasoned actor who played the elderly grandfather wrote, “It as an interesting tool that in no way interfered in the acting process nor confused the objective of the scene.”
Ultimately, I feel grateful to the actors and director who trusted the experiment. I know it added another layer of risk to the project. Together we created a piece, where audience members― sighted and those with vision loss― heard the same thing. And of course, in the future, I would like to go further with accessibility to include a sign language interpreter and cast the lead role with an actor with a visual disability. However, for this first production, I was heartened to have taken a step towards inclusivity; and though we all have a long way to go, it is a step in the right direction."