Live audio feed helps visually impaired enjoy Broadway performances at Overture Center

MADISON, Wis. — When theater lovers with limited or no vision come to a Broadway show at the Overture Center in Madison, they have a new way to enrich their experience.

It’s called audio description. Think of it as sign language for the visually impaired.

The evening for season ticket holder Jo Ann Gustavson starts out at the Patron Services Center. She picks up a pair of wireless headphones. She’s here, along with thousands of others for the Broadway musical, “The Color Purple.” Gustavson explained her visual impairment: “So what you see at 400 feet I need to see at 20 feet, so you can see movement on the stage sometimes. If somebody is walking across the stage I can definitely see that, but if they’re just waving or something I might not to be able to.”

But now with a service called audio description, she is able to see the show through words.

Hidden in a soundproof projection booth with a good view of the stage is Kelly Warren, a Madison-based audio producer who runs Mind’s Eye Audio Productions.
Warren attends the show a day or two before, makes notes and follows the 100-page long script. Then, show night, visually impaired theater goers put on their headsets and Warren describes what’s going on. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

“The action that’s not part of the dialogue and this case in terms of musicals, the dialogue is in the songs, so I can’t talk over the songs, so what I try to do, is I kind of get in and out quickly,” said Warren.

There are some 90,000 visually impaired people in Wisconsin, many of whom would never consider attending a Broadway show. This program changes that. It changed Gustavson and the other sight impaired patrons’ lives. Gustavson says the service helps her see the show.

“It enhances it immensely,” said Gustavson. “I get more out of the story, I can laugh when the other people laugh, clap when the other people clap.”

Users of the audio description service have to buy their tickets for the show, but the service is free. Overture provides the service for one performance during a show’s run. Just request the headsets when you order tickets for the show. The center is hoping more people take advantage of the service as word gets out.