Visual Aide

He talks his way through theatrical productions -- and fellow theatergoers thank him for it

The first task Richard Harris has before him, serving as audio describer for the visually impaired at a Saturday-matinee performance of Miss Saigon, is not to figure out how to describe a helicopter descending onto the stage -- the Broadway musical's most talked-about effect -- but to render the Fox Theatre as a comprehensible word-picture for those who cannot see. The Fox, with its phantasmagoria of elephants and dragons and Buddhas and red-eyed lions and strange finned creatures sporting tusks, is difficult for even the sighted person to fully take in, but Harris must encapsulate the bizarre gaudiness of it all for the blind audience members in the few minutes he has before the house lights dim. Over the small receiver that has been supplied, with a soft earpiece that hooks unobtrusively on the ear, Harris sounds tenuous and begins by giving a little history, mentioning the Strausses, who renovated the place, and a few facts, such as that the Fox was one of the first air-conditioned theaters in St. Louis. Finally he lands on the term "Siamese Byzantine" and notes the Fox is "ornate -- there is not a surface that has not been decorated." He fixes on the great stained-glass ball at the center of the dome of the ceiling and calls it "a lighting fixture par excellence."

With that descriptive challenge behind him, the fall of Saigon is a breeze.

The story of Harris' new vocation begins after his retirement from the engineering field and his move from Hawaii to small-town Kentucky. The retirement dream was too quickly dissolved, however, after his spouse passed away. Harris found himself with too much time to fill alone, with a need to get out of the house and out of his melancholy.

Richard Harris prepares for Miss Saigon's big visual moment: "The last helicopter descends and a scramble ensues."
Jennifer Silverberg
Richard Harris prepares for Miss Saigon's big visual moment: "The last helicopter descends and a scramble ensues."

One day an ad appeared in the local paper: "Audio describers wanted." Harris had no idea what an audio describer was, but he was ready to try anything. Before long, he was participating in the audition process, describing the opening 10 minutes of The African Queen. First he watched the scene (Katharine Hepburn and her brother arrive in Africa as missionaries; Humphrey Bogart shows up in his broken-down boat; Germans invade; fire; mayhem). Then, with a few tips from his teacher ("Don't step on the dialogue" being the most important), he watched the scene a second time and described it as it ensued.

A movie is not the same as theater, Harris admits, but, for training purposes, "you can't go out and have a live theater performance just so somebody can practice to do this." His second audition clip was a direct contrast to the action-laden opening sequence of The African Queen -- The Turning Point, in which Leslie Brown and Mikhail Baryshnikov rehearse a pas de deux that moves surrealistically into a lovemaking scene. Harris says it was actually to his advantage that he possessed no dance lingo to describe the ballet sequence; his audience most likely wouldn't, either, so he relied on describing the movement.

Harris -- who, well into his retirement years, remains sandy-haired, thin, runner-fit -- possesses a smooth manner of speaking, even in conversation, without pauses or stutters or a complex circumnavigation of syntax, so it's not surprising he was a natural for this work, and after a three-day training session in Louisville, he was on his own back in his hometown, preparing for a community-theater presentation of A Christmas Carol.

He did his homework, readying historical background on Dickens, going to rehearsals. Harris feels the preshow description he gives is important for the visually impaired. He fears that if they miss his introduction, "they've missed something I cannot give them during the performance." He presents basic information (the author, the duration of the play, intermissions -- the blind need to plan ahead, Harris mentions); discusses the play itself without giving away the action; and introduces the cast and characters, costumes "and, most important, the set. If I can tell them the set is of an elaborate apartment, and what we see as we're looking into the apartment, now during the performance, they know this is here and this is here, and as the sounds come to them, they can relate to that a lot better."

For A Christmas Carol, Harris described the Victoriana, talked of "Scrooge as the epitome of the tightwad" and, after the first act, visited the lobby to meet with his special audience to see how he was doing. But he had no audience. No blind persons had arrived to listen to him. "Unless you have some tipoff ahead of time, you don't know where your audience is," Harris explains. Undaunted, he says, "I went back upstairs and did the second act. It was good rehearsal for me."

Audio description has been "spreading erratically around the country," says Harris, for nearly 20 years. Kentucky is a state particularly involved, primarily through the efforts of the Kentucky Center for the Arts. Harris says that in the small town of Bowling Green, Ky., there are as many as eight trained audio describers.

When Harris remarried and moved to St. Louis to be with his wife, Jean, in 1997, he thought that in such a large city he'd be moving directly into an established program. To his dismay, there was none. He took it on himself to sell the idea to local theaters, but the response was dubious. "There is no cost, there is no involvement, there is no disturbance, there is no problem at all," Harris argued. "You will not know that this is being done in your theater."

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