MaryAnn Graziano, above, recently completed her 100th audio description of a live performance andThe Arts Blog interviewed her about this important volunteer work for arts patrons. This blog post is one of several leading up to the LEAD Conference (Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability), which is part of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. LEAD will be hosted by The Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, July 31 – August 6, 2016.
MaryAnn Graziano, middle school Physical Education teacher with Seneca Valley, started volunteering about 12 years ago with Radio Information Services, reading on the radio for blind audiences. Another volunteer at the time was Marilyn Egan, longtime education director for the Pittsburgh Opera. Marilyn asked MaryAnn if she’d be interested in giving audio description a try and MaryAnn said, "Sure, why not?"
But, MaryAnn said, “I didn’t know squat about Opera. I thought, ‘It looks kinda cool.’ I shadowed Marilyn on The Marriage of Figaro. I didn’t know how to read music, but I could follow the words they were singing. I told Marilyn: if you’re willing to teach me, I’m willing to learn.”
Not long after that 2004-2005 season, Diane Nutting hosted audio description training at City Theatre by Bill Patterson of the Audio Description Coalition, and asked MaryAnn to the training. There were eight willing souls at that training, and two are still doing it today – Kellee VanAken at the City Theatre and MaryAnn.
MaryAnn has since gone on to audio describe over 50 operas, plus three seasons with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and theatrical audio descriptions with City Theatre, PICT, and Bricolage Production Company. The Pittsburgh Playhouse recently had a spring production described and is looking to do more.
The purpose of audio description is to describe the visual content of what’s happening on stage for people who cannot see the stage – it provides the missing visual information that is critical to understanding what is happening in a performance.
Sighted people generally do not think about what we take in, visually. But if you are visually impaired, being able to understand the action in the full sense of the production and staging is critical to understanding the plot, and helps visually impaired people understand the audience’s reaction. For example, why did the audience gasp? Is a character quietly sneaking up on another?
Necessity is often the Mother of invention. Marilyn Egan started audio description for the Pittsburgh Opera when a blind patron said that their friend sat next to them whispering what was happening on stage. The patron enjoyed the singing, but couldn’t always understand the stage action. Their homespun methods of audio description were annoying to those around them, so a new solution was created to serve patrons with visual impairment.
Those who need audio description receive an earpiece from guest services. The audio describer, in this case MaryAnn, sits in the tech booth, listening to the performance and watching on a smaller screen, following along the score and describing the story and action to the person in the audience, who hears her voice directly in the single earpiece while the other ear is available to the live performance.
Over the years, MaryAnn has developed relationships with her opera patrons, people who trust her to interpret the performances with nuance and understanding. As in life, it’s not always perfect, but MaryAnn welcomes the feedback; it’s how she has honed this craft, which, as she says, “…is a service, it’s about what THEY need.”
It can be fun, too. One of Mary Ann’s favorite fun moments was seeing the Lieutenant of Inishmore, at PICT. There was a humorous moment in which she timed her description perfectly to the staged humor so that her listener could join in the roaring audience laughter.
There is homework to prepare for that kind of timing. For example, for the Pittsburgh Opera’s production of Tosca, MaryAnn sat in the balcony and watched the dress rehearsal. She saw the lead character slide the knife into her sleeve – something she would have missed on the small screen in the tech booth, but she caught it in the dress rehearsal so she made note of it in the score and brought that scene to life for her listeners.
Most audio describers are volunteers, giving of their time to make the arts more accessible and enjoyable. It’s an adventure for MaryAnn, too – she used to sit in the Opera’s pit orchestra storage room among the instrument cases - jokingly referred to as the Belly of the Benedum. She now sits in what she fondly refers to as the “Taj Mahal” – the sound booth in the back.
Audio description can be fun, too, like City Theatre’s audio description of Sister’s Late Night Catechism, a late night comedy played by a character who’s a nun. When asked to audio describe that production, MaryAnn said, “Heck yeah!”
Photograph by David Bachman