When my brother and I went to New York City, we received discounted tickets to see the popular Broadway musical Dear Evan Hansen with audio description services for theatergoers with vision impairment. I didn’t know anything about the play going into the performance since I wanted to do a fair accessibility evaluation, and I was blown away by the talent of the cast, the music, and the message to people struggling to find a place in this world that “you will be found.” Today I will be sharing my review of Dear Evan Hansen with audio description. I’m not writing a review of the play, I’m writing a review of the assistive technology that allowed me to watch it.
What is audio description?
Audio description, sometimes referred to as descriptive audio or described video, is an additional narrator track that provides visual information for people who otherwise would not be able to see it. Audio description may be provided live by a narrator or pre-recorded ahead of time. Assistive listening devices (ALDs), which are about the size of a cell phone, play audio description tracks and are provided by the places that use them at no charge. Audio description apps can also be used on a personal device such as a smartphone or tablet.
It was very easy to operate the ALD. I just had to turn the volume up and down when needed, which was done by pressing the raised volume keys on the front of the device.
There was one in-ear earbud attached to the device, but I see no reason why someone can’t use their own headphones with it if they wanted to.
Dear Evan Hansen audio description can also be accessed with the GalaPro app, which I used at a different play.
How to request a device
After our tickets were scanned, I was directed to the accessibility kiosk which provides captioning and audio description devices. Once we got to the kiosk, I requested audio description for vision impairment. I had to give them a form of ID, which I could get back once I returned the device. Before walking away, we confirmed the battery level was adequate for the performance and that it was set up correctly. According to the audio description desk, there are 8 of these devices at each play. They have never run out of devices before.
The ALD provided to me at Music Box Theater is used for audio description as well as captioning for people with hearing impairments. Make sure to confirm with the audio description desk that the device was configured for audio description and not captioning. This happened to me at another play and they were unable to correct the issue until it was too late.
Audio description devices are free to use. It is illegal to be charged to use under Title III of the Americans With Disabilities Act, which allows people with disabilities to be able to access public spaces. Since the audio description for the play is pre-recorded, people with vision impairments do not have to attend a special performance in order to receive audio description and cannot be charged extra for accessible seating if needed.
Prior to the beginning of Dear Evan Hansen, a pre-performance description is provided. This allows the theatergoer to form their own mental models of the stage and the characters. The pre-performance description automatically starts from the beginning when the device is turned on, and loops until the beginning of the performance. Then, the pre-performance description cuts off right as the play begins.
The pre-performance description includes the following information, in no particular order:
- Layout of the Music Box Theater with information about restrooms and emergency exits
- Summary of the play
- Layout of the stage
- What’s on the screens on the side of the stage
- Props that are currently onstage
- Names of characters and their physical descriptions
What is described during the play
While there is a lot of music in Dear Evan Hansen, there isn’t a whole lot of dancing or other complex movement. This is a good thing, as descriptions are very easy to follow and use familiar terminology.
Here are some examples of things that are described that don’t give away any details about the play:
- Evan sits in his room
- Evan and his mom sit in the living room talking. His mom sits next to him on the couch
- Evan buries his face in his hands
- The screens show Evan on the phone
- Evan’s mom walks to the other side of the couch
- Evan goes from his bedroom to his school
A note on adjusting volume
There are several moments in the play where characters are yelling or singing loudly. This affected my ability to hear audio description. Users may have to adjust their audio levels frequently during different scenes, though this may not be as much of a problem if users have their own headphones.
For two of the songs, I wasn’t able to hear my audio description and the play at the same time. This was true no matter how loud I had the description playing. The two songs were the second half of “Waving Through a Window” and almost all of “You Will Be Found.” Even though I couldn’t hear the description, these were still two of my favorite songs in the entire play and I enjoyed listening to them immensely.
How audio description helped me
While the plot of Dear Evan Hansen is pretty easy to follow just by listening, I know that I would have missed a lot of details if I didn’t have the audio description. For example, Evan often says things that make it sound like everything is okay, but his facial expressions suggest that isn’t the case. In other times, it can be hard to figure out who is on the stage and how they are reacting to what is going on. Theatergoers with vision impairments should definitely get audio description when seeing Dear Evan Hansen because facial expressions and body language are a large aspect of the play.
I have not stopped talking about how amazing Dear Evan Hansen is, even though it has been several months since I saw the play. The audio description helped to bring the characters to life for me, as I was able to imagine their emotions, the way they moved, and how they interacted with the people around them. I highly recommend seeing Dear Evan Hansen with audio description- I hope you love it as much as I do!