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VocalEye Described Performance - Noises Off

Kristy and Shawn during intermission with the stage behind themPerhaps I should have read the Wikipedia article on Noises Off before attending the Arts Club Theatre production on February 16, 2020. Maybe then, as I do much to my relief now, I wouldn't have sat through the three acts feeling woefully gauche over not being able to discern some sort of deeper meaning out of what, to my eyes and ears, looked and sounded like a troupe of grade-schoolers driving their schoolmaster mad.

As the play progressed, I blamed my increasing obtuseness on sensory overload. This was, after all, my fourth theatre visit in three weeks. Add to that a sixteenth-century posset mill converted to a guest house with, what seemed like, a million doors, and harried characters with trilling British accents slamming in and out of them from all directions.

I should take this opportunity to explain that I am partially-sighted, with light perception in my left eye and tunnel vision in my right. Let's just say that, with Noises Off, the infamous disappearing and reappearing sardines were the least of my worries.

Why even attend such a play then, you ask?

Well because it's a described performance. And because I'd heard one describer hail Noises Off as the "holy grail of live description".

Live description makes theatre productions, and other visual performance arts, accessible to people with vision loss by providing patrons with pre-show and integrated narration of characters, costumes and action. VocalEye Descriptive Arts Society is Canada's leader in making the performing arts accessible to the blind. 2020 marks their tenth season of describing live theatre.

"So I'll tell you now even though it's in the pre-show notes," Eileen said to me and my boyfriend, Shawn, as we stood in the lobby waiting for the theatre doors to open. She would be our live describer that afternoon. "Act two is half an hour of me talking. I mean, there's a lot going on in the play but it's taking place backstage and the actors have to be as quiet as possible. So it's all done in gestures and mime."

"That would have been annoying," Shawn laughed. "Sitting there, not being able to see what's going on for thirty minutes."

Annoying, unfortunate and, before ten years ago, unavoidable.

As it is, Noises Off is a play-within-a-play, meaning onstage and backstage dramas are occurring simultaneously. Add pantomime to such a situation and you have a script for entertainment rendered completely inaccessible to the blind. It is truly disorienting, let me tell you, when the set revolves 180 degrees to the view backstage and the cacophony of Nothing On is superimposed over the pantomime of Noises Off.

Had I read the Wikipedia article before the show, or had my usually nerdy English major mind been working at full power, the ironic interplay and innuendo of both those titles would have been a lightbulb moment.

Let's raise a glass to live description, shall we?

The full effect of this British farce would have been diluted for those of us with vision loss had it not been for Eileen's well-timed, appropriately inflected description of the backstage drama. Misdirected flower deliveries, first aid mistaken for fellatio, clandestine swigs of whiskey, flared tempers and hurt feelings all tumbling and tangling backstage while, onstage, a resolute cast attempts to relate a simple tale of, well, no one knows exactly what.

There's one more described performance of Noises Off at the Arts Club Stanley on February 21, 2020.

My advice?

Don't read the Wikipedia article. Don't feel yourself cheated for reading this review. Just go see the show and don't drive yourself crazy overthinking things as you watch it. There's enough in this world over which to ruminate. Just take some time out and simply be entertained.

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