The first Live Description service in Canada was launched by Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture in 2009 at the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre Company’s production of The Miracle Worker. Originally named “EarSighted”, the program was renamed “VocalEye” and became a separate non-profit society in 2012 and a registered Canadian charity in 2017.

From the archive, an early blog post by Kickstart’s Audio Description Coordinator, Meg Towrl:


EarSighted Live Audio Description – a first in Canada!

It was the dream of Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture Artistic Director Geoff McMurchy, and Executive Director Rina Fraticelli to introduce Audio Description to theatres in Vancouver, and Canada. Which has resulted in EarSighted Live Audio Description first full season – 15 shows October 2010 – June 2011 with 6 greater Vancouver theatres.

What is Audio Description?

‘Audio description brings the sets, lighting, costumes, and action of a theatre performance alive for blind and visually impaired audience members. Kickstart has trained a team of professionals who provide key action and other visual information, between the actor’s lines, through a wireless transmitter to a single earpiece worn by the recipient. Description begins 15 minutes prior to curtain, with an introduction to the overall production and design concept, and other programme notes’. Audio Describers preview the show 2-3 times and write succinct yet descriptive notes.

How it all began

Audio Description for live events has been available in the USA for 3 decades, and began in Washington DC, and San Francisco, CA. You can read a brief history at the Audio Description Coalition website. It was one of the co-founders of the coalition, Deborah Lewis who would become the trainer for EarSighted. The Audio Description Coalition provides, training and professional development, guiding principles and codes of conduct throughout the USA, and now also Canada.

In 2009 I was employed by Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture to coordinate audio description and quite a journey it has been for all of us! In the spring of 2009 we put out a call for auditions, and received over 40 applications, from this talented pool we auditioned 15 people, and chose 8 for the training. Auditions were recorded to assess for natural aptitude and feedback was taken not only from those of us conducting the interviews, but also from trainer Deborah Lewis, and a representative from locally based Access for Sight Impaired Consumer, Tamara Tedesco. Tamara and other people who are blind or sight impaired provided feedback to the audio describers throughout our training sessions also.

From the training a dedicated core of 4 Audio Describers has emerged, Khaira Ledeyo, Rick Waines, Teri Snelgrove, and Stephane Kirkland, who are all experienced in delivering live audio description in a variety of settings. At the time of the first training in Vancouver in late spring 2009, while Deborah Lewis was in the city, Kickstart took the opportunity to invite theatres to a meeting to learn more about audio description- from which may developments progressed.

The First Audio Described show in Vancouver

 Kickstart’s first show was a partnership with the Vancouver Playhouse Theatre and the Canadian National Institute for the Blind in the fall of 2009, with a performance of the early life of blind and Deaf person Helen Keller, as told in The Miracle Worker. Feedback from the audience was very positive:

‘I attended the Vancouver Playhouse’s performance of The Miracle Worker. I was extremely impressed with the live AD.  Not only was the service beneficial for me as a blind patron, but it was also beneficial for my sighted companion.  Without the AD, my companion would be trying to provide the description.  This is distracting to him, since he is not able to fully focus on and enjoy the play himself, but it can also be annoying to other patrons sitting nearby.  In addition, my companion would never be able to provide as much detail about the set design, costumes, and physical attributes of the actors. Most importantly, the AD allows me the independence and choice to attend a live theatre production without having to rely on a sighted companion. I would be interested in attending more live theatre presentations that were accompanied by AD, and to pass on information to my sight impaired friends and acquaintances’  Linda Weber – BC CNIB Board Co-Chair.

Audio describer Teri Snelgrove with her script, in the technical booth, with a view of the stage at the Vancouver Playhouse. (Photo Meg Towrl)

Audio Description is able to use the same technology provided for hearing enhanced performances which many modern theatres already have. After some research Kickstart settled on purchasing a portable FM wireless transmitter and 20 headset and receiver system to give EarSighted the flexibility of being able to audio describe in any setting, indoors or outdoors, and with the option of adding more headsets. With funding from the City of Vancouver, and Canadian Heritage, EarSighted was under way.
Cultural Olympiad
The Cultural Olympiad of the Olympic and Paralympic games in Vancouver in the winter 2010 provided opportunities for partnerships and showcasing EarSighted Live Audio Description, with the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre at SFU Woodwards, and HIVE3. Three intriguing shows provided their own unique challenges. At the Fei and Milton Wong Experimental Theatre, Robert LePage’s The Blue Dragon/ Le Dragon Bleu and SPINE by Kevin Kerr, James Sanders, and Bob Frazer were both very visual shows,  making use of frequent projections, so there was a lot to describe, and much crucial to the show that would have be missed by visually impaired audience members if not for the audio description. The Madama Butterfly-like story of The Blue Dragon set in China included  scenes such as a projection of a giant hand tattooing on to the back of main character Pierre Lamontagne; the sights seen from a bicycle tour, trains; inside a revolving bar lounge; an art gallery show; and paintings of Vincent van Gogh appearing one after the other on blank canvases stacked against a warehouse wall.  With SPINE, there are 12 characters, and at least half of them play their alter egos or  avatar in a online video game.
While with HIVE3, where 12 theatres perform short scenes throughout the night, EarSighted audio described 4 shows the audio describers had prepared, including one with Touchstone Theatre which involved sitting in pairs listening to music  while the actors told stories with pieces of cooking dough on chopping boards on the audiences knees. So enthused were the team and audience we tried a couple of off the cuff shows unprepared, one of which involved been towed around the car park in a bicycle drawn 4 person cart, with actors running beside, and some of the action happening via puppets seen through a periscope in the roof. Now that was a lot of fun for all! Funding to provide audio description for these shows was generously provided by 2010 Legacies Now. You can hear a great CBC interview recorded by Jen Moss, with myself as coordinator, audio describers Rick and Khaira, and audience members, during a performance of SPINE. The interview which was broadcast August 22 on North by North West starts about 30 minutes in to the 60 minute audio file.
Audio Description for Exhibitions
Also during the Cultural Olympiad, Kickstart Disability Arts and Culture partnered with the University of British Columbia and Ryersen University to bring the groundbreaking exhibition Out from Under: Disability, History and Things to Remember, to the heart of the action, UBC Robson Square. right next to the free Zipline across the square. Audio describer Teri Snelgrove, and 2 local actors worked with the exhibition to provide pre-recorded  full audio descriptive, and plain language audio tours of the exhibit. American Sign Language, Touch Displays, and print, large print, and braille formats were also available. All formats are available online with the exhibit under Access, and offer a gold standard in exhibition accessibility. EarSighted plans to develop live and/or pre-recorded audio description tours with major local art galleries. 
Kickstart provided advanced training and certification for the 4 EarSighted audio describers with Deborah Lewis in the spring of 2010, and again met with theatres.  In the fall 2010 we partnered with Access for Sight Impaired Consumers to provided training to theatres on how to appropriately accommodate visually impaired audiences in a theatre setting, the training by Rob Sleath was very well received. ASIC provide on their website homepage a whole range of useful resources including ‘Proper Etiquette when you meet a person who is blind or sight impaired,’ and ‘Proper Etiquette when you meet a guide dog team’. Also providing a consideration of other factors, such as economic – ticket pricing is as much a disability access issue as any other due to the high rate in unemployment and under-employment of people with disabilities. EarSighted has built relationships with ASIC, CNIB and other organizations serving people who are blind and visually impaired and continues outreach in these communities. 

EarSighted Season

In October 2010 EarSighted launched a full season of 15 shows with theatres in the greater Vancouver area. The three theatres who are all offering several shows launched their first shows in October, the Stanley Theatre and Vancouver Playhouse Theatre in Vancouver, and the Gateway Theatre in Richmond. In November the three theatres who are offering single shows will be launching at the Firehall Arts Centre in Vancouver with Touchstone Theatre and Presentation House Theatre in North Vancouver. EarSighted has also partnered with the Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance, offering a workshop on audio description at their fall 2009 Making a Scene conference, and currently in introducing audio description to theatre going audiences through a page on their online theatre guide. I have stepped down from the coordinating role after 2 years and a successful launch to pursue my own writing and artwork. Afuwa Granger has taken on the role of coordinator with EarSighted.

Kickstart Disbility Arts and Culture has been guiding a sister organization in Toronto, Picasso Pro through the process of introducing live audio description which they hope will be launched in 2011. It is our dream that eventually audio description will be offered in all theatres across Canada.

Integrial Media: Meg Towrl New Media (2010)