On the brightly lit theater stage, the first scene of Robert Schenkkan’s Tony award-winning play “All the Way” is in full swing: President Lyndon B. Johnson is pontificating behind a podium. A large desk is wheeled into the spotlight. An agitated secretary darts into view.
Steps from the bustling action in the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage, about 20 audience members are not actually watching the drama unfold. They sit silently, some with their heads bowed, others with their eyes closed. They are all blind or visually impaired; they either can’t see the stage at all, or it appears as little more than a haze of light and shadow.
But these theatergoers aren’t missing the action: Through the headphones clamped over their ears, a woman’s voice is explaining everything happening onstage, in detail, in real time.
The voice belongs to Rita Tehan, a veteran theater describer for the Metropolitan Washington Ear, a nonprofit organization that provides audio services to the blind and visually impaired in the Washington region. Tehan sits behind the crowd in a dark, elevated sound booth as the fast-paced plot — depicting the efforts of Johnson and civil rights leaders to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — unspools below.
Tehan speaks crisply into a plastic audio mask linked to a large radio transmitter, explaining what’s happening on the set as vividly and efficiently as possible.
“He waves her away, and pats her on the rear end,” she says when Johnson abruptly dismisses his frazzled secretary.
“LBJ is picking his nose — really deep,” she says during one of the show’s comic moments, raising her voice slightly to be heard over the audience’s laughter. “Hoover is watching.”
Tehan points out when Johnson turns from one character to another mid-sentence: “He’s talking to the tailor now,” she quickly interjects. She makes sure that her listeners don’t miss the joke when Johnson, frustrated by his strict diet, swipes a bite of Sen. Richard Russell’s dinner. (“LBJ stabs a pork chop on Russell’s plate and pops it in his mouth,” she says. “Russell’s eyes widen.”)
She continues for well over an hour, until the stage lights dim and Act One comes to an end.
“This is intermission,” she says. “It will be about 15 minutes.”
Then she lowers the mask and exhales.
Tehan’s preparation for “All the Way” began weeks before the May 1 matinee, one of more than 50 annual performances with description services provided by the Ear. Describers typically see a performance at least once or twice before they narrate it live, to familiarize themselves with the script and note important visual cues.
The Ear’s roughly two dozen volunteer describers serve more than 250 blind or visually impaired people at seven local theaters every year. They take special requests, too — a couple of years ago, a describer accompanied a blind fan to a Lady Gaga concert at Verizon Center.
“It takes a very special person to be a describer, someone who can think fast on their feet,” says Neely Oplinger, the Ear’s executive director. The people who sign up — and pass a rigorous audition — tend to stick around; many have been volunteering for 10 years or longer.
Tehan joined the organization in 1992, but she had practice long before that: Her father went blind from diabetes when she was a teen, and she used to describe his favorite television shows to him.
“They are so dedicated, and most of them really know theater,” Oplinger says of the group’s volunteers. “But it takes a lot more than knowing theater.”
They also have to know the rules: When describing a performance, you have to slip all the description into the gaps between dialogue. You shouldn’t make judgments; instead of concluding that a character looks “disappointed,” you note simply that he frowns and his shoulders droop. You must capture any movement that’s essential to the plot. And — as with any live performance — if you make a mistake, you have to keep going.
These guidelines were created by Margaret Pfanstiehl, who founded the Metropolitan Washington Ear in 1974 to improve the lives of the blind and visually impaired. Pfanstiehl, a Virginia native, suffered from a degenerative disease called retinitis pigmentosa, which eventually left her almost entirely blind.
At first, the Ear was a radio reading service — still a core part of its identity. The Silver Spring, Md.-based nonprofit has nearly 400 volunteers who read newspaper and magazine articles over closed-circuit radio, and the organization offers a dial-in service for listeners to hear recordings of articles from major publications, including The Washington Post, the New York Times and many others. About 5,000 people in the Washington area use the service.
But Pfanstiehl, who died in 2009, was also a devoted opera fan and theatergoer who longed to find a way for blind audience members to enjoy live performances.
“I always wanted a little voice to tell me whether it was a gunshot or a slamming door onstage, if the villain was walking across the stage with a dagger, and whether or not the lovers were facing each other,” she once told Reuters.
In 1981, Arena Stage approached the Ear about making live performances accessible to the blind. Pfanstiehl — then Margaret Rockwell, a divorcee — recruited longtime Metro spokesman and radio pro Cody Pfanstiehl as the first volunteer describer.
They watched dozens of movies together, says Oplinger, and he described the scenes unfolding onscreen. “Together, they devised what they called ‘the art and technique of audio description,’ ” says Oplinger. “And in the process, they fell in love.”
The couple, who married in 1983, went on to develop a comprehensive training system, teaching hundreds of volunteers to capture live performances for the blind.
Of course, the human mind is not a camera, so the description process is perhaps more like translation — an art in itself: The word choices matter, as do the pacing of the narration, the tone of voice and the clarity of enunciation. A secretary doesn’t just run into view, she gallops. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. doesn’t touch his wife, he gently strokes her arms. The describer has to engage in a sort of verbal dance with the actors, gracefully avoiding overlap or interruption.
And like any art, it’s imperfect. Sometimes details are missed, or a describer talks over a character, or the audio sounds muffled. But even with minor hiccups, the effort makes all the difference to a blind member of the audience, says Freddie Peaco, president of the Ear’s board of directors.
“You can hear the voices, but you don’t know the setting of the stage. The audience gives a great gasp, and you don’t know why they’re gasping,” she says. “With the describer, all of that comes to life, and I can’t tell you how meaningful that is.”
For a describer, Tehan says, “the moment the curtain rises, you’re on your toes” — and so she is as the second act of “All the Way” begins. She stands in the dark booth, her eyes trained on the stage.
“House lights are fading to black,” she says.
After the show, her listeners will praise her performance —“You did a great job, a great job!” one man will gush, grasping her hand — but Tehan won’t be entirely convinced. Even now, halfway through, she’s frustrated by details she couldn’t capture, by how little time she has to speak between the actors’ lines. An artist is never satisfied.
But the show goes on. Tehan cranes forward to follow the actors, her glasses reflecting the glow of the stage lights. She raises the mask to her face. In the seats just beyond the booth windows, all ears are on her.