The Smith Center with rainbow over top
by Niki White

If movies are a visual medium, I'm not sure how people can see any difference in theater, as the precursor to film. Of course the natural difference is that theater is live, but in terms of being a blind attendee this obvious fact is sometimes an extreme annoyance. If for some reason a person who is blind or visually impaired are unable to watch a movie with descriptive audio, they have the luxury of re-watching it after looking up the script, seeing it with a sighted friend, or simply making up their own reasons for the random moments of silence/movement/music--that last kept me very entertained as a child. However, while the plot remains unchanged and long stretches of music in a song will forever signify dancing, there's ALWAYS something that alters in every musical performance: an actor will emphasize something differently, or trip, or an understudy will make or break the emotional connection the audience has with a character. And of course, there's comic improv; that split second decision that brings the house down and gets mentioned at least three times in the lobby as people file out to their cars, and tends to leave blind theater goers feeling slightly left out and nettled that they could only appreciate said moment afterwards when someone clarified, instead of in their seat with everyone else.

The above factors make descriptive audio for musicals just as crucial as descriptive audio for movies, and with the start of its third season The Smith Center is now providing descriptive audio for the blind and visually impaired for its Broadway series, during their Thursday night performances. Even more wonderful is that they weren't shy about starting this new accessibility off with a bang: the traveling tour of Les Miserables served as this season's premier, and due to the fact that the only prerecorded description you'll find for this story is the 2012 film's, this meant that the describer was live for the three-hour production. Such ambition is not only a credit to how essential description is for performances, but on a personal note, said performance was particularly poignant for me.

In regards to the show's history and thus the center's ambition, there is the fact that even nonmusical theater fans know of "Les Mis"; it's 25 years old, there are at least four concert anniversary dvd's available to buy, YouTube has enough footage  that in order to view it all you'd have to devote several weeks of your life to the computer screen, it's heading back to Broadway this year, and of course the recent film adaptation will deservedly draw in a whole new crop of fans. Had I known this going into The Smith Center's production, I would probably have been merely excited, but anxiety was a more prevalent emotion as I put in my earpiece. I was 9 years old when I saw my first musical, and have been in love with the genre ever since. All the big moments were conveyed auditorily; how could I, as a blind child, find any fault with the idea? While my praise has deepened over the years to a more complex appreciation, I cannot in good conscience recommend Les Miserables to parents of young children. Had my mom known anything about it beyond that there was a little girl in the story, I'm sure I could say otherwise, and my first taste of Vegas's old traveling Broadway would have been Beauty and the Beast (incidentally I think that was my 4th musical).

At 21, my feelings about that particular show have likewise evolved to a deeper appreciation: prior to the start of The Smith Center's 3rd Broadway season, I'd seen Les Miserables three more times (in the West End, Tuacahn's amphitheater, and on Broadway), bought and memorized the score soundtrack (there are some that only have the "musical numbers" and others that have the opera-like moments of sung dialogue as well), memorized deleted songs, and can be provoked far too easily into discussions about the characters actions and morality. Therefore, apart from explanations of the choreography and costumes (something that is always enlightening or fun) I could not see how the descriptive audio would add any new insight to something beloved and whose praises I could literally sing.

Thus I was delighted to leave the theater knowing that the solos I adored included subtle body language that detailed the character's feelings before they sang certain lyrics. Shocked to discover that for over a decade I had had no idea that there were far more props in the show then the ones referred to by the characters (there are some VERY meaningful candlesticks nobody ever mentions by name throughout the three-hour saga--I've checked). I also had no idea that certain set pieces existed, let alone were symbolic and methods of foreshadowing. Prior to that night I had had preconceived ideas of when characters entered and exited that I now know were completely wrong, and I can no longer give the movie credit for certain visual moments, only for embellishing them; i.e. a previously unsympathetic character's reaction to a child's fate. And I could laugh along with the rest of the audience at the improved moments, versus mentally saying: "she/he made some gesture"; I literally cannot articulate how gratifying that was!

The 9, 14, and 16 year old me had no idea what she was missing. No idea just how moving a classic musical about the French revolution really was, or precisely how "miserable" certain characters were at times (i.e. the visual moments in the songs "A little Fall of Rain" and "Empty Chairs at Empty Tables" and the staging of the finale--if these statements mean nothing to you, I'm obligated to tell you to google with tissues at the ready). That night brought home to me just how vital audio description really is, and given that the scope of its detail never disappoints (something else I was reminded of that night), I couldn't be happier that such a defining moment of my childhood has been altered irrevocably!

As something of a sidenote and a deserving mention, the other superb thing about Les Mis that had nothing to do with the production itself was the word choice of the describer. While nothing stops you from appreciating the inflections and word usage a describer makes for movies, since the audio description was live (this is usually the case for shows) I could tell when pauses were made solely to keep up with the actor's shifts of expression or when they moved. Generally speaking, the describer is just as much a part of the show as the lead actor, and there is something humbling and satisfying about dimly registering while applauding the curtain call (relayed to you by the person that has been detailing the rest of the show) that the people involved with the audio description put just as much time and thought into their work as did the conductor. Plus, it's just as exciting and fun to bump into the describer on your way out as it is when that sort of thing occurs with the actors. The key difference regarding the visuals of theater, versus the visuals of film is that the former is live, providing an immersive experience. Whether that is perceived aurally or visually is incidental; I for one can't wait until the next Thursday night for another opportunity.


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