Presenting theater for the blind

Last night Rick Jacobson was recognized at the 2011 Sally Awards for his work describing theater.

Over the past 16 years in the Twin Cities, Jacobson has described more than 850 performances to blind theater patrons.


Rick Jacobson

Image: Ordway Center for the Performing Arts

While I’ve witnessed many ASL interpreters sign shows for the deaf, I wasn’t exactly sure how audio describing works for the blind. I imagined it to be sort of like the sports caster narrating a golf tournament.

So I called up Jacobson to find out just what exactly it is that he does, and how he got his start in the business.

Jacobson, it turns out, got his start in the movies – that’s to say, he took a blind friend to the movies and then whispered into his ear what was happening on the screen.

Now Jacobson sits in a glassed-in booth and speaks into a microphone. What he says is picked up by patrons carrying receivers and earbuds.

It was the Guthrie Theater that first started offering audio description of shows, and would then loan its “kit” to other theaters to use. We really have them to thank for making this happen.

Jacobson’s work describing the show usually begins about 15 minutes before curtain. He’ll read the program, describe the set, and mention some noteworthy costumes.

Jacobson says he only needs to see a show once to prepare but his job varies drastically depending on the play. A play that’s heavy with dialogue won’t need much describing at all, but a show like “Noises Off,” which features lots of physical slapstick and little dialogue, had Jacobson talking for 40 minutes straight.

After so many years in the business, Jacobson says he knows most of his clients, so if just one shows up for a performance, he’ll cater to the clients needs. For instance, one client suffers from severe tunnel vision, so Jacobson will simply direct him to “look right” or “look left” depending on the action.

Jacobson says traditional schools of audio description push a strict code of objectivity, but he listens to his patrons to find out what works best for them.

At present Jacobson works regularly with nearly 20 local venues and describes more than 90 shows each year.

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