With audio descriptions of what's onstage, Civic Theatre presents 'theater for all'

Abby Tongue sat in a small room in the basement of the Kalamazoo Civic Theatre, watching a grainy TV showing the Civic Youth Theatre's Saturday matinee of "Madagascar Jr."

Figures moved across the screen -- the stomp-stomp-stomp of feet on the ceiling above, 25 young actors sounding like a herd of animals coming out for the opening musical number, emphasized that everything was live. 

Tongue, a grad student from Western Michigan University's Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies, is part of the performance for some in the audience. Brightly announcing into a microphone, Tongue describes the action on stage. "A penguin raises a big plastic spoon.... Alex the Lion struts across the lion enclosure, accompanied by two lionesses wearing sparkly outfits.... Melman sneezes the candles out, and sneezes all over the cake!"

Tongue is pioneering a new tradition in the 90 seasons of the theater -- audio descriptions for people with visual impairments. Her voice broadcasts to radio receivers in the audience, used by people who can't see the results of Melman the Giraffe's sneeze, but would still like to get the full experience.

The DreamWorks' stage musical of the animated movie was the second try-out of the system. The first was "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" late last year, the next will be "War Paint" in May.

Before curtain call, Tongue's fiance Osman Karoma puts on the receiver he'll wear during the show. Blind since 14, he's been serving as her test subject.

"This one should be pretty easy to describe," Tongue says. 

"But that 'Chitty Chitty Bang Bang' one was, ohhh," Karoma says.

"That one was more tough!" she says with a laugh. Tongue admits to trying to describe everything on stage. "Now a flying car appears; wings sprout from the side of the vehicle!"

What kind of advice has Karoma given her? 

"He has been so helpful and supportive," Tongue says. "The most valuable advice he's given me is to turn my microphone off between comments, otherwise everyone can hear me breathing throughout the entire performance!"  

"Theatre for All"

Tongue did some theater in her home town of Alpena, but after volunteering at a camp for the blind as a teen, she has had a strong interest in helping people with visual impairments. "They teach me a lot."

After a patron with failing vision expressed a desire to find a way to keep enjoying the theater, the Civic reached out to WMU's Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies. Tongue jumped at the chance.

Abby Tongue, grad student at WMU’s Department of Blindness and Low Vision Studies, and fiancé Osman Karoma, testing audio description service for Kalamazoo Civic Theatre. Photo by Mark WedelShe's found herself in situations at WMU theater events where sightless friends kept asking her to describe what was happening on stage, to the annoyance of others sitting around them. "It put us in an awkward position," she says.

But should her friends and her fiance have to avoid the theater? Should they sit at home if something requires vision? 

"To have community events so they don't have to sit at home, you know, is fantastic," she says.

"Being visually impaired doesn't mean you don't want to go to the theater. It just means that the theater as it is currently isn't a very welcoming place, because there are points in the show that can cause confusion -- and usually people go to the theater to get away from the feeling of confusion," she says with a laugh.

The Civic's marketing director Janet Gover, visiting Tongue before the curtain rises on "Madagascar," declares, "It's theater for all!"

"Theatre for all" is their official initiative for the 2019-20 season. The Civic has long had ASL performances for people with hearing impairments, and sensory-friendly ones for children on the autism spectrum. 

The audio description -- each coming mainstage show of their 91st season will have a performance with the service, Gover says -- helps more people enjoy the theater.

Civic lighting and sound designer AnnMarie Miller will be the theater's new diversity and inclusion coordinator in June.

"What does it mean?" they constantly ask themselves about the phrase "theater for all," Miller says. They take suggestions seriously when people tell them, "I could enjoy your theater more if...."

They recently expanded t-loop enabled service -- a means to target amplified stage sounds to hearing aids -- to all theaters. "You don't even have to ask for headphones," she says. 

The Civic also wants to include more people from the community onstage. In development is the Civic's version of the Penguin Project, a program to help youth with disabilities get involved in performance.

Translating the Visual

So when a visually-impaired patron mentioned they'd like to know what's happening on stage, Miller continues, they knew there had to be a way to help. "There's so much of the story that's told visually. It could be something as simple as somebody nodding their head, and if you miss that piece of information you're not getting a clear story."

"It's such an emotional experience," Tongue says about theater. She has to translate what she's seeing on stage to convey that to her audience.

She attends dress rehearsals and fills her copy of the script with notes. Tongue has learned that she doesn't have to describe every detail -- just the right details.

During "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang," she went out at intermission to ask the people with the radio receivers how it worked or didn't for them. One said, "I want more descriptions of the dancing," she says. "Okay! Then I'm down here trying to describe the dance moves on the fly. It was really fun."

"War Paint" is going to be a challenge, she says. The 2017 Broadway musical on a rivalry between two women in the mid-20th-century cosmetics industry is aimed at adults, with no flying cars or comical animals. "Apparently it's a lot more intricate, a lot more facial expressions and unspoken communication. It'll be a new challenge -- I'm super excited!"

Tongue is earning a double masters in teaching children with visual impairments, and orientation and mobility for children. She'd like to stay in Kalamazoo, but employment might take her far from the Civic.

For "War Paint" she'll have a group of trainees with her. The Civic has invited people from Tongue's WMU blindness and low vision studies department and the Bureau of Services for Blind Persons Training Center to get involved. Volunteers have been stepping forward to make sure the service continues. 

"It's just one more way to even the playing field, and make one more thing that people who are both blind and sighted to enjoy together -- which I think is one of the biggest most powerful aspects of this. You can take your friend who's blind and both of you can enjoy a night at the theater." 

Audio description service will be available for the Kalamazoo Civic theater's "War Paint," Saturday, May 4, 7:30 p.m.
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Read more articles by Mark Wedel.

Mark Wedel has been a freelance journalist in southwest Michigan since 1992, covering a bewildering variety of subjects. He also writes on his epic bike rides across the country. He's written a book on one ride, "Mule Skinner Blues." For more information, see www.markswedel.com.