I am the eyes of the blind spectator - Kateřina Huberová about narrating theater plays for the blind
A group of visually impaired spectators attended a production of The Slanted Church at the Olomouc theatre as part of the Blind Fan Project. Kateřina Huberová, a presenter for Czech Radio, accompanied them, narrating the entire play to them to convey, as comprehensively and deeply as possible, the experience of the performance.
Upon arrival at the theater, the blind fans were given headphones via which they could listen to Kateřina’s commentary. According to her, not many people know about this service for the visually impaired. Read on for an interview with Kateřina in which she introduces us to the service and shares her experience.
Was this your first time narrating this type of thing?
It wasn't. I narrated a theatre performance last year. It was also in Olomouc during the DPB (Theater of Petr Bezruč) performance Transky, body, vteřiny (Trans, scores, seconds). And it was Světluška (Firefly) – a long-term project of the Czech Radio Foundation helping the blind – that gave me the opportunity. But I've been doing audio narration for about 9 years at Czech Television. By law, TV programmes have to be audio described and it is a diverse genre. Journalism, documentary and drama – i.e. films and TV shows. It is a relatively new and distinctive discipline.
Where did you get the inspiration to prepare for such a non-traditional activity?
My television experience helped me with the actual performance, but also with creating the script. Every show actually has a specially crafted script. In television, every line is time-coded. I know exactly what minute and what second I start talking. It's like dubbing, only here we need to fit the text into places where the actors, if possible, aren’t speaking in the original track. With a theater performance it’s a little different. I don't see a timer. I have to know the show well and adapt the script with my notes.
And what did all the preparation entail?
I received a working video from the theater. I first watched the play and made initial notes at points where commentary might be useful or effective. The next viewing was for formulating the descriptions. After that, I did a loud reading with the next viewing to see if the text would fit and sit well with the production. And in moments when it didn’t, I had to reword, shorten, or add text, and then read it aloud again with the video at least twice. It's not necessary to do that on television. If something doesn't fit or is wrong, we simply stop and correct it. For a live performance, it has to be right the first time.
May I ask how long it took you to prepare?
I worked on it intensively for six days. The show itself takes two and a half hours. I've seen it about five times. Writing the text isn't exactly a walk in the park either, because you have to honor several principles that we've honed over the years. For example, you can't imply anything that's yet to happen. You must narrate just the present moment. But sometimes you have to be able to describe a feeling or an implied intention. If the actor shrugs and turns away in refusal, the blind viewer has to understand that too. And then there are things that are superfluous in the commentary. So the wording of the commentary is really crucial.
What do you need to look out for as a narrator of a performance for the blind? For example, trying not to colour the commentary according to your opinion of the play comes to mind.
Exactly. My opinion is completely irrelevant. Rather, I would say that I need to “feel” my way through the commentary and correctly interpret the intent of the creators. And as for the colouring, it’s as you say. It's really about balancing your interference. I'm must not “outplay” the original track, but if I'm a dull and monotonous commentator, I'll soon start to annoy the listener. We try to make sure that the result is actually a radio play, not in the true sense of the word, but so that I don’t stand out, don’t clash with the content, but rather orient and guide the spectator. I am the eyes.
Where do you actually sit in the theatre so that you can see the stage clearly and at the same time not disrupt the other audience members with your narration?
It’s funny to picture, actually. The conditions in the Olomouc theatre were quite difficult, even outlandish. There was a camera in the theatre, I was sitting in the space behind the stage, actually in the hallway. So I saw what was happening on stage on the monitor and had audio in my ears. Last year, the monitor was up near the ceiling with very poor resolution. So in order to see it, I sat on a chair that was on a table. You say I have to see – well, when the lights go out and the spotlights come on and maybe the smoke machines turn on, guess how well the camera relays that. You just see a blurry image. Last year, a few minutes before the show, we discovered that I had the stage manager’s PA system right across from me. We were disconnecting the wires a minute before the show started so he wouldn't talk into my lines during the show. I don’t disrupt anyone. On the contrary, there’s usually a lot of commotion around me. And this year I didn't have to sit on a table because the monitor was set up on a desk.
What happens if the actors start improvising? Can it take you by surprise or do you have a plan and a strategy for it?
That's obviously something you have to take into account. I had a rehearsed version and lo and behold, they suddenly played it much faster. So, suddenly, prepared formulations didn't fit. Or at one point an actress pulled out a completely different prop than I had seen on the rehearsal video, and therefore I had to immediately react and describe what I see. Sometimes I had to promptly cut sometime, other times I had to add something when the action on stage was suddenly different.
Do you think that as a radio presenter you have an advantage over, say, a friend who would accompany a blind friend to the theatre and try to convey the action on stage?
Without a doubt. And the almost ten seasons that I once spent acting in the then emerging, wonderful Aréna theatre are also very useful. Twenty years ago, I was an actress as well as a presenter. Then I defected completely to the media, which equipped me with skills that only challenging situations like live broadcasting, complicated transmissions, and thousands of hours spent in the studio, in addition to the hundreds on stage, entail.
How is doing a report on location and relaying it to the radio different from narrating a play in real time?
I'm not a reporter. I've spent most of my radio life in the studio, being a liaison between the reporters and the listener. The end player who hands the editor's job over to the listener. The one who gives it atmosphere and interacts with the listener. So being exposed “live” all the time and conveying something to somebody, that's what I’ve done for 28 years. Live narrating a theatrical performance is actually something similar.
Do you get feedback from blind audiences?
Yes. I mentioned the audio description that we do at CT – at the beginning, we thought that we were probably “talking to a brick wall”. We doubted that anyone knew about the service and that anyone was even listening. Shortly after the launch, we started getting emails. Amazing! The audience went to the trouble of writing quite analytical letters and that helped us tremendously. They had insightful comments – what's important to them, what's not necessary in the description. And after the play in Olomouc just now, I had tears in my eyes. The audience recognized me by my voice outside after the performance, they were thrilled with the experience and it was the absolute best to shake their hands.
And what about you, how did you like the experience? Would you like to do it again?
The person responsible for both experiences is Gabriela Drastichová, the director of Světluška. She was the one who got me into the Blind Fan Project and I have to say that it was her enthusiasm, charisma and she herself that made me dare to try. And it worked. If she ever comes up with a similar, crazier idea, I won't hesitate to do it.
Can you try to write a few sentences that you used to narrate the performance for our readers, so they can imagine what the blind heard?
Well, I'll try. I have bracketed notes for myself with either an important action or an ending of the text that is a cue for me. This is one of the opening scenes of The Slanted Church:
...the scene goes dark, spot lights shining in the back, like the windows of a house in the dark. The girls run away.......then slowly return. Now there are three.....and more and more women are coming. They're carrying baskets on their backs.
It is still rather dark. The women are helping the pregnant Barbara.
(action on stage)
She falls to the floor in exhaustion.
(speaking from script:...by the woods we'll stop, let's go)
It's getting light and the women move on. One of them, in a pretty dress – Julka – firmly sets her basket down on the ground.
(...Julka speaks from script...)