Visual Aide

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

May 31, 2000 at 4:00 am
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.

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."

Despite his assurances, no one embraced the idea. "People working in theater are very sensitive about somebody coming in and disturbing the status quo," Harris observes. "Most of them said they were interested, but nothing happened."

The resistance is understandable. Anyone who has attended the theater has been annoyed by inconsiderate chatter. Overhearing a running description of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ("George mixes everyone drinks ... George mixes everyone drinks again") strains the legitimate merits of full access to the disabled. However, technology provides a remedy to the situation. Harris uses a microphone that ingloriously resembles a pig's snout. As he speaks in a normal voice, sound is completely insulated within the chamber. The receivers the audience members carry are small enough to fit in a pocket or handbag and cannot be seen or heard by those nearby.

The Rep is where Harris at last was granted entry. "They were not much different from other people. They were a little reluctant about this: 'How can you talk and tell people what's going on without disturbing people?'" Harris credits the Rep's artistic director, Steve Woolf, for giving approval. "He was the most critical of all," says Harris, "and finally said, 'I think it'll work.' If it hadn't been for the Repertory Theatre and all the people out there, we wouldn't be doing it."

With the Rep providing a favorable reference, Harris "kept plugging away, be-cause we had already proved to a St. Louis audience and a St. Louis theater that this would work." Harris also credits the Lions Club of Webster Groves, which funded the project "when there was no project to fund."

He's now described every Rep Mainstage production since 1997, including The Taming of the Shrew. Shakespeare presents particular challenges to the audio describer. "The casts are always large," Harris explains. "The names are always unpronounceable. And many times names are similar for two different characters, and I find myself giving the wrong name. Shakespeare has a habit of having characters switch identities in midstream. It's very easy to imagine a blind person having trouble keeping track of that."

Harris now has five describers ready to illuminate musical theater for the visually impaired at the Muny this summer. As to whether musicals are easier than straight plays, Harris says, "I'll know better after the season ends." He does look forward to the possibility that the musicals at the Muny "are all familiar in some way. It's not like a brand-new show that nobody's ever heard of. You mention West Side Story, some songs come to mind, some characters come to mind. You mention Sound of Music, you think of Julie Andrews. It's not like you're starting from ground zero. In musicals, usually the words and the music and the tunes are familiar already, so it won't hurt much if you talk, particularly during a second chorus. Once the song has been sung by the star and then it's picked up by the second banana or a chorus and sung again, that second chorus is fair game for description -- if you have to."

For the matinee of Miss Saigon, Harris is seated by those weird finned creatures with tusks. He prepares the audience for the opening scene in the Dreamland club with its "multicolored pulsing lights and scantily clad bar girls."

"Listen to the lyrics -- this is where the story is," he advises before the curtain rises to "angry orange and red colors."

In the second act, Harris and Miss Saigon make their big visual impact. "The last helicopter descends and a scramble ensues.... The helicopter rears up slowly, and it's up, up and away.... The desperate Vietnamese scurry to find a place to hide -- any place."

In the ultimate scene, the American veteran holds his dead Vietnamese lover in his arms. "Chris screams in anguish as the curtain drops for Miss Saigon."

In the lobby afterward, a group of some half-dozen who've experienced the performance through Harris' words give him high marks. "He did really well," says one woman with platinum-white hair who has attended the Rep productions as well. "Richard's wonderful."

The only man in the group offers a mild criticism, saying there were times Harris was talking while an actor was singing, but this was easily remedied. He simply turned Harris off.

But if there's any proof that Harris' performance within the performance is successful, it's in the group's overwhelming agreement on what was most memorable about Miss Saigon: "All those special effects."

For information on audio description for the visually impaired, call Richard Harris at 842-0033.