Making Broadway accessible

New York audio describer helps theatergoers who are visually impaired enjoy popular plays and musicals

In a scene from the musical "Cats," an actor dressed as a cat reaches his arm out to the audience

Audio describers like Laura Congleton make a variety of shows on Broadway accessible, including "Cats," "Kinky Boots" and "The Merchant of Venice."

August 30, 2016

The joy of live theater is that anything can happen.

At a Shakespeare in the Park performance in New York, that “anything” was a trap door that failed to close. The audience roared with laughter as the perplexed actors surveyed the sudden hole in the center of the stage, making snarky comments as the crew scrambled to remedy the situation.

But some in the audience had no idea what was going on: patrons who were blind. Who could bring them in on the joke?

That’s where Laura Congleton, an audio describer for the festival, came in. She calmly explained the situation to the Shakespeare fans who couldn’t see.

“That was one of those spur-of-the-moment challenges,” she said. “The unexpected stuff is always fun.”

Congleton is used to the unexpected. She’s been making theater accessible for people with visual impairments for 25 years, by describing many of Broadway’s most popular plays and musicals, including “Cats” and “Les Miserables.”

“It’s tremendously rewarding to do it,” she said. “I love hearing from people what a difference it makes.”

In her role, Congleton describes the action as the play unfolds, inserting her comments between lines of dialogue. She describes the actors’ facial expressions and physical behaviors, such as, “He takes an envelope from his breast pocket, opens it, pulls out a sheet of pink paper, unfolds it and begins reading.” Before the show and during intermission, a colleague describes the sets and costumes.

Patrons who are blind get a receiver and headphones when they arrive at the venue. Congleton speaks into a microphone, directly transmitting her voice to those headsets.

Ideally, Congleton said, she’s far enough away from the stage and audience to speak normally. But usually, she has to speak quietly so she doesn’t bother sighted theatergoers – and in the worst case, she has to wear a facemask to muffle her voice.

Even when it’s not easy, however, Congleton knows her service is valuable. She doesn’t want patrons to have to rely on recorded audio descriptions, as some theaters have started using.

“It’s close but it’s not the same,” she said. “What if an understudy is on stage that day, or they’ve changed things on set after several months?”

Not all theater performances are audio described. While some theaters hire audio describers for an entire season or festival, others partner with nonprofit organizations that bring in volunteer describers more sporadically.

Richard Chapman, a 1964 Perkins School for the Blind alumnus, thinks that’s a shame.

He’s a big theater fan, but has to rely on friends to describe local productions. It was a relief when he attended his first audio-described opera about a decade ago: He finally had a headset that wouldn’t disturb anyone else, giving him all the details – from the playbill notes to the curtain calls.

“I’m in awe of the audio describers,” he said. “They put so much work into this that people don’t realize.”

Chapman just wishes more theaters would offer audio description.

“I think everyone should be included,” he said. “There are many plays that deserve audio description, and people who deserve to see them.”

Read more about: Accessibility, Arts & Music