April 16, 1984 page A 18

An Article from the New York Times
April 16, 1984 page A 18


special to the New York Times

Washington, April 15 -- When the curtain went up at a recent performance here of the hit musical "42 Street," Ed Walker saw in his mind's eye the flashy sets, the stylish costumes and the high-kicking dance routines.

Mr. Walker, a local radio personality, is blind. But, like dozens of sightless Washingtonians, he is taking advantage of a free narration service that tries to describe what the viewer cannot see.

The recently renovated National Theatre; where "42d Street" is playing, has in the last few weeks become the seventh theater in the Washington area to offer live dramatic broadcasts to blind and near-blind theatergoers.

Washington is the only city in the country where the service is offered on a regular basis, according to groups who work with the blind.

Commentary Over Headphones

At least twice a month at each theater, blind and low-vision people can reserve headphones, similar to those on commercial airliners, that are wired to radio receivers the size of a cigarette pack. Trained volunteers transmit a commentary of the production from another part of the theater.

Before the show starts, a taped version of the program is transmitted. The narrators then guide their audience through the production, quickly describing new scenes, actors' costumes and body language and alerting listeners to any impending sight gags. All this must be slipped in between the actors dialogue or songs.

"Its a tool for the blind to get on an equal footing with their sighted neighbors," said Mr. Walker, who no longer depends on whispered accounts from friends to know what is happening on stage.

Cody and Margaret Pfanstiehl, who for years have pioneered community activities in Washington, started the narration service two and a half years ago. For l20 years Mr. Pfanstiehl was director of public affairs for Metro, the mass transit system. Mrs. Pfanstiehl founded The Washington Ear, a volunteer organization that reads newspaper and magazine articles over the radio to the blind.

Grants and Cooperation

To bring their show to the stage, the Pfanstiehls capitalized on a combination of private grants, the cooperation of Washington theaters and the large number of blind people in the area.

Because of the large number of Federal job opportunities, Washington is one of the foremost employment centers for the blind, according to Dr. Kenneth Jernigan, president of the National Federation of the Blind in Baltimore.

About 40 blind or near blind theatergoers use the service regularly, Mrs. Pfanstiehl said.

The dramatic commentary has been a boon, especially to elderly theater lovers whose vision has failed but whose enthusiasm for the stage has never waned. Mrs. Pfanstiehl said a clear, concise narration could sharpen by as much as 50 percent the images that have gone dim with age.

Narrators learn quickly to avoid qualitative judgments and to let the listener deduce from the commentary. "You don't say, 'He's angry,'" Mr. Pfanstiehl said. "You say, 'He's clenching his fist.'

"It goes beyond just broadcasting," he said, "in that the narrators have to convey the emotions the actors convey through their body language."

Mr. Pfanstiehl said the most difficult shows to broadcast were George Bernard Shaw plays. with their constant dialogue, and slapstick comedy routines with the multitude of pratfalls to be anticipated.

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