st. Clair Shores company helps visually impaired ‘see’ productions

Coleen Downey describes “The Band’s Visit” at the Fisher Theater April 24.

Photo provided by Coleen Downey

  From left, Anthony Coats, former descriptionr Emily Clark, Anna Inmesch Reid and Downey pose after a performance of “Cats” in 2019.

From left, Anthony Coats, former descriptionr Emily Clark, Anna Inmesch Reid and Downey pose after a performance of “Cats” in 2019.

Photo provided by Coleen Downey

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ST. CLAIR SHORES — Live theater is so much more than words recited on a stage.

With creative sets, colorful costumes, facial expressions and physical comedy, a story is brought to life for the audience to see.

Unless they are unable to do so.

“In ‘Jersey Boys,’ there are a lot of visual jokes. This consumer could be sitting there and everyone around them is laughing, and they don’t know what’s going on,” said Coleen Downey, of St. Clair Shores, the president and CEO of Audio Description Services Midwest. “One of the male patrons said to me, ‘I saw “Jersey Boys” before without the description because this was my music, (but) there were so many times that the audience was reacting, I had no clue what was going on. ‘”

The St. Clair Shores company, however, provides a narration service for individuals who are blind or have visual impairments. A trained audio descriptionr provides an ongoing dialogue of visual events occurring in a wide variety of formats, such as the shows produced by Broadway in Detroit, guiding the listeners through the presentation with descriptions of scenes, settings, costumes, body language and more slipped in between portions of dialogue or song.

“We are filling a hole for someone that, maybe, has enjoyed theater all their lives and maybe they only started losing their vision as they became older,” Downey said. “The majority of people that become blind or visually impaired (do so) through either illnesses or accidents. They have had vision at one time in their life. They have a whole visual catalog that they can call on.

“They know what red looks like,” Downey said. “They know what a rose looks like.”

Downey graduated from Lake Shore High School and Oakland University before leaving St. Clair Shores to pursue a career in opera. She spent 30 years in that career, during which she toured with the Prince Street Players of New York and worked with various opera theaters and symphonies. She returned to the area about seven years ago to care for her aging parents.

She was working with a state organization on arts and disabilities creating arts programming for schools when someone called to inquire about audio description training in Michigan. Downey discovered that it was not offered in the state and also that the service was only offered in very limited places across Michigan; the Wharton Center in East Lansing has staff trained to provide audio description, as does the Swan Theater in Ann Arbor.

“I thought this would be a great side gig for an actor … and you get to see all the shows for free,” Downey said. “I didn’t understand the scope of what this truly was.”

She trained with Arts Access in North Carolina at the North Carolina Museum of Art and became certified with the American Council of the Blind’s Audio Description Institute.

Audio description is legally required through the Americans with Disabilities Act but, as Downey pointed out, there are no “disability police.” When she began her company in 2019, she contacted Broadway in Detroit, which had just begun offering captioning for hard-of-hearing patrons at certain performances, and told them they were still not an ADA compliant. The manager contacted the Wharton Center and other performance venues throughout the state and discovered Broadway in Detroit was still in a potentially libelous situation. The organization contracted with Audio Description Services Midwest in September 2019 for six shows.

“My first show was ‘Cats,’ which was extremely difficult because there are 19 cats that I had to describe,” Downey said.

Blind or visually patron patrons are accommodated, along with hard-of-hearing and deaf patrons, at an accessible performance of each show produced by Broadway in Detroit.

Downey said she and her describers go to view a performance one time before they have to describe a show. She also pours through social media to find clips of other performances to help supplement her research.

The night of the performance, the patron checks out an audio receiver and finds their seats at least 15 minutes before the curtain rises. During those 15 minutes, they listen to a pre-show script that describes the sets, the costumes and the physical characteristics of the actors.

“They are listening to our descriptions, and they are able to create their own visual pictures,” Downey said.

Then, she uses what she calls a “beat script” of the physical action that occurs in between dialogue and songs to narrate the show.

“We work in a team of two because we feel that two sets of eyes and ears at that preview … will each capture different things,” she said. “We have to be very intentional with our adjectives that we use to not only describe the action but, also, to sometimes imply an emotion in there.”

For example, a scene from “Cinderella” when the Prince is coming to the home might feature a description such as: “’The Prince enters stage right. He approaches the door.’ They would hear knock, knock, knock. ‘Stepmother crosses to the door and opens it,’” Downey said. “We don’t want to trample the dialogue if we can help it.”

Downey said she and her fellow audio descriptionrs get nervous before a performance, just as when she was on stage herself. During the first show she described, “Cats,” a man who was blind came with his wife and young daughter to check out the receiver. After the show, Downey asked him how he enjoyed the performance.

He said, ‘Your pre-show script was awesome. When you said the name of the cat, I knew exactly who you were talking about,’” she recalled. “He was so excited because he said he’d never been able to attend a theatrical performance with his wife and daughter before. They were going to go out to lunch after and he would be able to participate in their conversations. He was so excited because it was a new experience for their family.”

She said she knew then that this would turn into so much more than just a “side gig.”

Scott Myers, marketing director for Broadway in Detroit, said offering the service is a way they can reach more people.

“A lot of the Broadway shows are doing outreach to those communities to make Broadway more inclusive, and I think that this is one way we can make the shows more inclusive,” he said.

Downey’s two descriptionrs — Anna Imesch Reid, of St. Clair Shores, and Anthony Coats, of Detroit — act with her at The Dinner Detective murder mystery dinner theater twice per month at Embassy Suites in Troy.

“I choose actors and improvers because we’re doing theater and you need to be able to be sensitive to the material. You have to be able to emote the same emotion that’s onstage in our presentation,” she said.

She will be holding auditions soon to train new audio describers for the upcoming season of Broadway in Detroit.

“This is another way that actors are able to make money using their craft,” she said.

Like the rest of the theater, Audio Description Services Midwest went dark in March 2020. Downey said their first production back was “Rent” in October 2021. Since then, her company has described about a dozen shows for Broadway in Detroit and has a contract for 17 shows for the 2022/2023 season. She is also working with Broadway in Grand Rapids and has described three shows for them so far.

“Part of what my job is, is education. Most of these theaters don’t even know they’re supposed to be providing this,” she said. “Not only am I bringing this service to the blind community, but I’m also trying to educate the theatrical community that this is supposed to be provided.”

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