When Jonathan and Judith Knight of Kensington attend the theater with their visually impaired son Kenneth, they no longer need to worry about describing the stage action. The job has been taken over by a program unique to the Washington area -- the audio description program.
The program is the brainchild of Silver Spring resident Margaret Rockwell Pfanstiehl, whose efforts were recognized in May when she was honored with the first Helen Hayes Humanitarian Award.
"Audio narration," explains Pfanstiehl, "is the art of describing costumes, setting, action and body language, and fitting it in during pauses in dialogue. You work only with the empty spaces that have been left. It is a pictorial expression and you must be the verbal camera lens so that the visually impaired person can 'see' what everyone else sees. You must not make qualitative judgments. The narrators are all volunteers and most have some theatrical background. It is not easy to be a good narrator."
Kenneth Knight can hear the narration from any seat in the house during specially scheduled performances at the Kennedy Center, Arena Stage, National Theatre, Tawes Theatre at the University of Maryland and the Round House Theatre. He listens through a tiny headset attached to a receiver the size of a cigarette package; the narrator broadcasts from the back of the house via a low-power FM or infrared transmitter.
By speaking quietly into a special funnel-shaped stenographer's mask or from a soundproof booth, the volunteer ad-libs commentary on nonverbal stage action without disturbing other patrons. Just before curtain time, he plays prerecorded program notes, which detail the cast of characters and list of scenes, and during intermission he broadcasts an update on costume and setting changes for the next act.
The program was born in 1981, when Pfanstiehl, who is visually handicapped herself, got a call from Wayne White, house manager at Arena Stage. White said the theater had just gotten a $10,000 grant from the Public Welfare Foundation to make its productions more accessible to the handicapped. The theater wanted to do something for the visually impaired, but White didn't think the stage could commit the time to handling the project, Pfanstiehl said, "so he asked me if I would be interested. He caught me at a good moment."
White researched the technology and Pfanstiehl coordinated the program, enlisting the assistance of Cody Pfanstiehl, former community relations director for Metro, in developing a rigorous volunteer training curriculum. It was while working on the project that "romance bloomed" and they were married.
Barbara Cire, former chief engineer at Washington Ear, the closed-circuit-radio reading and information service for the visually impaired that Margaret Pfanstiehl founded in 1974, is a volunteer narrator. "You have to be able to convey the most information in the least number of words," Cire says. "You need to complement the performance, not interfere with it."
And she adds, "You need to use concrete language. For example, when I was narrating 'Dracula' at the Kennedy Center, I might have said that 'Dracula stalks slowly across the stage towards Lucy, wraps his cloak around her shoulders and sinks fangs into her neck.' You use action words like 'swirl,' 'slink,' 'strut,' rather than passive verbs like 'walk.' "
Narrating musicals, such as "Cats," presents a special problem, because "it is difficult to describe the dancing. You can't use dance terminology because you can't assume your audience has a knowledge of it, and the action happens so quickly that you can't keep up with it. Like when Mungojerrie and Rumpelteazer cartwheel around the stage."
The Washington area is currently the only one offering such a free service, but word is spreading. The Washington Ear has received inquiries from theaters in New York and Atlanta and, according to Pfanstiehl, one visitor from Australia "was extremely interested and was sent to tour and research."
But for now, visually handicapped Washington theater buffs are thoroughly enjoying their advantage. They can get half-price tickets at the Kennedy Center or two-for-one tickets at the National Theatre -- a system encouraging the sighted to provide transportation for their visually handicapped friends. Patrons should make reservations for the equipment at least a day in advance.
"The greatest asset," says Charles Rupard, a Maryland resident who is totally blind and has attended several narrated performances this year with his wife, who is partially sighted, "is the description of the placement of the people on the stage, which you can't get yourself, especially if you have a microphone that picks up the sound."
And, as 15-year-old Ian Paiewonsky, blind since birth, said after attending a narrated performance of Round House's "The 1940s Radio Hour": "With audio narration, it's easy to imagine and to relate almost perfectly to what is going on on stage."