VocalEye brings sights of Gateway Theatre production to life for people with low vision

Catching a beloved holiday classic in a local theatre may be a favourite December tradition for many, but for those who are blind and partially sighted, it could be a discouraging experience.

Hoping to change this is Vancouver-based VocalEye, a non-profit and the first live descriptive arts service for the blind in Canada. In Richmond this month, VocalEye will help the sights of Gateway Theatre’s Christmas production come to life for people with low vision.

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During two productions of It’s a Wonderful Life, a VocalEye “describer” will be on site during the performance. For no additional fee, people with sight loss can go to the theatre — with a free ticket for a companion — pick up an FM receiver in the lobby and enjoy the show.

“We have hundreds of people coming to the theatre every year who wouldn’t have normally come and they’re coming back,” said Steph Kirkland, executive director of VocalEye, adding that the work VocalEye does has a personal significance to her.

“I have a theatre background, so this opportunity to make something that I love more accessible to people who otherwise might not find any value in it or less value or feel they’re not included is incredibly important to me.”

VocalEye has partnered with Gateway off and on since the organization launched in 2009 and works with several other Lower Mainland theatres as well.

Kirkland pointed out that a lot of preparation goes into these shows for each describer. They watch the production at least three times, take notes of important visuals and how they might describe them and then find a way to weave these descriptions between the play’s dialogue.

“When we’re having to describe action in between lines of dialogue, we have to know our cue. We have to know when there’s time to do it,” Kirkland explained. “Then we have to craft that description so that it’s concise and vivid and then it’s edited so that it fits that tiny space.”

Eileen Barrett, the describer for Gateway’s production is an actor herself and has even performed in other productions of It’s a Wonderful Life.

“It’s such a lovely show; it’s one of my favourite holiday stories...about neighbours helping neighbours and a good person who’s not perfect,” Barrett said, who has been a describer for more than five years.

For Barrett, VocalEye’s work plays a crucial role in helping those with sight loss stay connected to the theatre community.

“It’s an important service for the public because there’s so much that, if you don’t have a disability, you take for granted,” she said. “I’m really glad that Richmond Gateway is doing this because we’ve heard so much from people in areas outside of Vancouver who really, really want this service. So anything we can do to support it I think is wonderful.”

It’s a Wonderful Life runs from Dec. 6 to 31. VocalEye will be on site on Dec. 19, at 8 p.m. and on Dec. 23, at 2 p.m. To reserve seats and description equipment, contact the Gateway Theatre box office at 604-270-1812. 

Note: A previous version of this article used the language of "visual impairment" and "visually impaired." Part of VocalEye's work includes sharing language that isn't alienating for people who are blind and partially sighted and this article has been changed to reflect that language. 

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