Thursday, November 09, 2006

Hamlet and the visually impaired

The play's the thing for a team of University of Toronto and Ryerson University researchers aiming to bring quality visual descriptions of dramatic works to the visually impaired.

On Nov. 25 at 2 p.m., the team will present Hamlet Described, a Hart House Theatre production of Hamlet with an additional creative element unlike any other live performance in Canadian theatre. This matinee performance marks the first time blind and visually impaired audience members in Canada can hear live audio descriptions of the play as it is being performed.

Hamlet Described began when Laurel Williams of U of T’s Adaptive Technology Research Centre (ATRC) at the Faculty of Information Studies approached Paul Templin, managing director at Hart House Theatre, about developing live audio description for theatre. Live description of visual information that can’t be heard — for example, the costumes, set and the action — will be created with the help of LiveDescribe, software developed by Carmen Branje at Ryerson. The software lets the describer — in this case, OISE/UT student Paul Leishman — know when it’s appropriate to insert descriptions.

Conventional film and television audio descriptions are currently created independent of the original production. The describer does not have any creative liberty with the material and is trained to take a neutral tone. “A lot of what is available can be distracting and a lot of blind people don’t like it because it gets in the way of the rest of the show,” said Ryerson professor Deb Fels, the principal investigator on the ATRC-initiated project.

At Hart House, Leishman will be in the theatre talking through a microphone in real time. His voice will be blended with the show’s audio and broadcast through an FM transmitter to audience members wearing wireless headsets. Hamlet Described blends the current strategy with more of a play-by-play style where the describer has more creative license. “It’s important that the describer is part of the creative team, so that there isn’t any disconnect between what the describer thinks should happen and what the director thinks should be described,” Fels said.

Hart House’s Templin said it’s an exciting project. “There was no reason not to do it and every reason to give it a try,” he said. “I thought Hamlet would be the right project because of the language that’s in Hamlet. I thought it would be of most interest to a broad audience and I like the fact that it’s never been done before.

“Hamlet is a very descriptive play to begin with,” Templin added. “You could listen to it and still get great enjoyment out of it. But there are elements that go into a production that are visual.” A touch tour prior to the show’s start will also allow audience members to get a tactile sense of the space. A walk on stage and a chance to touch the set, props and costumes will help to build the world that a sighted audience would have when they sit down to a performance.


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