It Shall Seem to Signify: Audio Description and The Merchant of Venice
David Bellwood July 20, 2016
It Shall Seem to Signify: Audio Description and The Merchant of Venice
Each year during Lincoln Center Festival, Accessibility at Lincoln Center selects an outstanding play to present with audio description to make theater accessible for people who are blind or have low vision. A trained audio describer prepared pre-show notes on costumes, scenery and staging to provide a mental image of the key visual elements of the performance so that audiences who are blind or have low vision can receive all the same information as sighted audience members. During the performance, the audience receives live description via a single earpiece to describe physical and visual elements of the action, delivered between dialogue so that listeners can be fully immersed in the sounds on stage.
Lincoln Center invited David Bellwood, Senior Marketing & Access Officer for Shakespeare’s Globe, to share knowledge of the production along with context for their accessibility strides.
The Merchant of Venice has a complicated relationship with visual impairment and sight, far more so than many early modern plays. Instead of scenery, Shakespeare used language to create the landscapes of his plays. The audience is frequently given the instruction to "look" or "see," from the very beginning of the play (Salarino gives examples of the things he would or would not see if he were as preoccupied as Antonio). This instruction to look isn’t always implicit, it is included as we travel with the characters and they discuss their own actions. When the Prince of Morocco is tasked with choosing one of three caskets (gold, silver, or lead) to win over Portia, his love interest, he takes the audience through the full description of each. "Let me see," he says, "I will survey th’inscriptions back again." But this is not just the prince looking on the cases: He is the eyes of the audience who cannot see the inscriptions. In speaking to the audience (or listeners), Morocco removes the barrier which would otherwise make the story inaccessible. Is it irony, then, that Morocco loses the casket challenge? He looks carefully, but does not see, a notion which is underlined by what he discovers in the golden casket: "a carrion Death, within whose empty eye / There is a written scroll." The empty eye has failed Morocco. “Tell me where is fancy bred?” asks one of Portia’s musicians, “it is engendered in the eye.” The only triumph is when Bassiano chooses the lead and, because he chooses "not by the view," he wins Portia.
Shakespeare offers us a blind character in the form of Old Gobbo (removed from the Globe’s production), father to Launcelot Gobbo and presented as the dupe to the clown. Why do we laugh at the blind character when the other characters are fooled by what they see? Acquisitive princes can’t see beyond the value of the caskets, men don’t recognise their own fiancées after the latter change costumes, and characters fail to see the shared, anatomical humanity between Christians and Jews. As heretofore mentioned, the eye is not accurate, and often misinforms or reflects one’s own interest. When Portia returns triumphant to Bellmont, Lorenzo recognises her by her voice, "as a blind man knows a cuckoo." It is Bassiano who doesn’t recognise the lawyer, and when he swears by Portia’s fair eye he sees himself reflected therein. Shakespeare makes clear the division between those who hear and understand compared to those who look and miss vital truths: Vision is a secondary resource to comprehension in this writing.
It is difficult for a modern audience to abide the mocking of Old Gobbo. It is often seen as an archaic ridicule of a disabled man. However, it isn’t clear if Shakespeare is simply playing this for laughs (he seldom is), especially when the morals of the mockers are as nebulous as in The Merchant of Venice. It is worth considering how Gloucester is blinded, misled but, through misdirection, comes upon truth. It would be reductive to view such characters as a wider early modern attitude toward visual impairment, but it is useful to remember that disability on any level is socially constructed, and just as it is Launcelot’s actions that set Old Gobbo in the wrong direction, we can all work to point people in the right one.
At the Globe, we hope that all people feel welcome to enjoy our productions, and understanding the requirements of all audience members helps us facilitate this. Shakespeare does not describe absolutely everything, and for our visually impaired patrons we support performances with audio description to remove barriers. Audio description is a mode of assistance we offer to patrons who are blind or visually impaired in order that they may enter the world of the play more fully. Describers explain the action on the stage between the actors’ lines. Their description is transmitted to headsets worn by patrons who need this assistance, which means no one need miss out on a visual joke, or on understanding who is on stage and what props are with them. The preparation is extensive, with the describer’s script having to be absolutely precise in the terminology it uses and in the cues it takes from the performers. Vocabulary often translates certain visual details into other sensory terms such as describing colours or lighting states as "warm" or "cold." Audio describers are particular about the names of garments, instruments and other objects to ensure that audiences can create the most perfect mental image of a play possible. Blind patrons are guided around the stage before the show on a "touch tour" so that they may feel the costumes, set and props in order to build a haptic mental map of the production.
There is a special sympathy between early modern dramatic writing and audio description. It is through words, after all, that Shakespeare conjures. However, he pulls on all parts of our understanding to create a scene. For example, at the top of Act 5, Lorenzo and Jessica exchange classical tales in order to describe the quality of the moonlight. Simply by discussing moonlight we know that the pair are outside in the night. "How sweet," exclaims Lorenzo, "the moonlight sleeps upon this bank," underpinning their location. "Look how the floor of heaven," he continues, "is thick with patens of bright gold." Lorenzo is describing for the audience the stars which theatre is not technically advanced enough to create. Sighted, visually impaired and blind audience members are all drawn into the scene by the connection between words and the imagination.
Modern theatre practice can learn a lot about inclusivity and social justice from such writing. It is the starting point for all our access work at Shakespeare’s Globe. We have a wider access model which provides sign language and captioning for audience members who are Deaf or have hearing loss. We also hold relaxed performances for those who become anxious due to the social rules of theatre attendance. This includes people on the Autism spectrum, those living with dementia, people with Tourette’s syndrome and those with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. We are dedicated to giving everyone the opportunity to engage with the worlds Shakespeare summons before us, and in understanding that such worlds are constructed socially, we hope we move towards providing the best possible experience for everyone.
While the performance is nearly sold out, there is limited availability for audio description seats on July 21 at 7:30 pm and July 24 at 1:30 pm. For patrons attending those performances, audio description receivers are available in any area of the house at no additional cost. For tickets, or to reserve receivers, contact [email protected] or 212-875-5375.