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Arizona Artability Makes Theater Come Alive For The Visually Impaired

By Stina Sieg
Published: Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - 8:26am
Updated: Tuesday, October 11, 2016 - 4:51pm
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(Photo by Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
Marlow Koller (with her seeing-eye dog Ramzi) would love to have audio description bust beyond just movies and TV. She wants it at more museums, even national parks. "We still have a lot of work to do," she said, "a lot of advocating to do."

The show hadn’t started yet at Phoenix Theatre, but David Struyf’s job had. Sitting on a platform overlooking the stage, he leaned into a microphone and described what he saw.

“There’s a two-story, brick building, a business sign above a rolled-top, storefront door that reads “Rosario’s Car and Limo Service” on the first floor there,” he said, his voice continuing to map out the stage.

Struyf’s words were going straight into the headphones of a visually-impaired theater-goer down below. When the play started, Struyf will kept going, speaking in-between the dialogue, describing important actions, facial expressions and even costumes — whatever it takes to help that patron completely picture tonight’s musical. It was “In the Heights,” by Lin-Manuel Miranda, of “Hamilton” fame.

This process is called audio description, and for the visually impaired: “It’s huge,” said Marlow Koller. “It’s absolutely huge.”

She knows that now. But when she first lost her sight a decade ago, she had no idea what audio description was.

Then she heard a demo, not during a play, but a movie: 1990’s “Ghost.”  You can probably guess the scene, with Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore — and a pottery wheel.

“And he goes behind her sensually,” Koller said, smiling. “And the describer was so good! I would have never known what was happening in that scene.”

A little while later, Koller heard live musical theater audio described for the first time. The show was “Phantom of the Opera,” and long-time audio describer Sue Berliner was the one speaking into Koller’s headphones. 

“I cried,” Koller said. “I said, 'Sue, I had no idea how much I was missing.'”

That’s when Koller, a social worker, took up spreading audio description as one of her causes.

“Sometimes I’m a little pain in the tush,” she said, “because I’m relentless.”

But that’s what it takes. Pressure from people like Koller got most local movie theaters to offer audio description. However, when it comes to live theater in the Valley, there’s only one group that trains group audio describers — Arizona Artability — and only a handful of theaters here offer regularly scheduled audio described shows. A few others will offer it on demand. But many theaters don’t even know this service exists.

As Tom Belsan puts it: “If they don’t know about it, they can’t do anything about it.”

Belsan lost his sight 40 years ago, but that doesn’t stop him from going to about 25 plays a year. In a perfect world, all of those would be audio described. But Belsan knows, right now, that’s just not realistic. The problem is, it’s not just theaters that don’t know about audio description. It’s many visually impaired people, too.

“There aren’t enough of us that go,” he said.

Which means there isn’t enough demand to make audio description universal yet. That’s why Sue Berliner — who’s been an audio describer for nearly 20 years — said whenever she meets a visually-impaired person, she tells them about the service. It’s free, by the way.

“I want to be supportive,” she said, “and I want to be supportive in every sense of the imagination.”

That also means supporting newer audio describers like David Struyf, back at Phoenix Theatre, where the show was hurdling toward the end of act one.

“Other dancers enter from the back and sides,” he said, over pounding music. “Multi-colored lights again …” 

The actors were dancing across the stage To their left, two women were frenetically signing for deaf patrons. And up above it all, there was Struyf, describing a tender moment between the musical’s two romantic leads.

“Standing on opposite sides, they look at each other,” he said, his voice getting just a touch sweeter. “Run toward each other, meet, embrace, kiss.”

The scene was sweet and exhilarating — and understood by everyone in the house.

The next audio described play in the Valley will be King Charles III at Arizona Theatre Company Wednesday, Oct. 19.

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