Empowerment. Engagement. Authenticity.

VocalEye Review - 'Pinocchio' at the East Van Panto

Shawn and Kristy with a Panto actor and his puppet

From the Austrian mountainside, to Neverland to…East Van?

Yes, the first half of December 2019 had definitely been an entertaining trip. Theatre-hopping through more rain than shine had kept my social calendar packed. The shine eked through on December 14, thank goodness, and my boyfriend, Shawn, and I were on a bus to the York Theatre.

There were four of us with vision loss in our group, accompanied by two sighted guides. VocalEye Descriptive Arts Society, a nonprofit in its tenth season of providing live description of the performing arts to the blind and low vision community, offers what they call theatre buddies to escort patrons to and from selected theatres upon request.

Yes, I was going to see the East Van Panto's production of Pinocchio at the York Theatre but I'd never been to that particular theatre before.

Ergo…meeting up with sighted theatre buddies.

Turns out I needed only to trust my boyfriend Shawn's GPS app – one he had designed specifically for those who are blind – and his penchant for investigating a route whether we had sighted assistance or not.

Anyway, we were quagmired in an impatient bog of humanity when a woman took it upon herself to order the front seats be given to the blind. A couple people across from me, suitably shamed or sensible enough not to escalate the tirade, scuttled to the back.

One man stood, or rather sat, his ground. "There's lots of seats," he snapped. "I ain't movin'."

Well, the woman's self-righteous tone - aiming for disapproving teacher but hitting closer to the mark of beleaguered city clerk – degenerated into querrelous hag.

I decided not to play the part of resigned disabled person. Or tolerant self-advocate.

At least Justin Trudeau apologized for his rudeness when he interrupted the kids dancing with Jimminy Pattison. Doug Ford, with all the well-meaning bluster of the querrelous hag, just roared up and manhandled Pinocchio into his yellow Hummer.

Still with me?

Shawn And I made it off the contentious bus and into our front row seats.

When we'd purchased tickets to the East Van Panto, we just thought we'd be entertained by a fairytale tweaked to include some Vancouver-centric details.

Then, just before sitting down to write this review, I looked up the definition of 'panto': jokes, exaggerated characters and lots of audience participation. A comic, larger than life character as its centerpiece.

Have I regressed to the bus ride, you ask? No. We're safely in panto territory now.

I may not have known the exact nature of a pantomime upon my ticket purchase but I had read the production's catchy synopsis. I'd suspected that the Pinocchio of my childhood was in for quite the transformation, what with a father-figure named Gelato and Hastings Race Course promoting truancy and caffeine highs to children.

The song parodies were my favourite. Gelato, my man, you pulled off an excellent Andrea Bocelli.

And, mama mia, did I need a pee break at intermission!

For those of you who have read my previous reviews, you might be thinking this one comes off more than a bit frenetic. Lots of information and details squashed together, jostling for attention while readers scramble to keep up. More than a few uncertain pauses where readers wonder in what direction I'll lurch next.

You're not wrong.

See, I experienced this feeling while watching the panto and found it hilarious and exhilarating. Just let the performance take you on its psychedelic trip, I told myself. There was so much commotion on stage that I turned off my receiver delivering live description and just absorbed the action. It was difficult to hear the audio describer as it was.

What I couldn't tolerate was the awkward clustering and uncoordinated jostling of bodies on stage during the touch tour. There was so much to touch, so much to listen to as the actors chimed in with insights and behind-the-scenes tidbits but I feel much of it was lost as a result of not enough guidance.

Here's the thing – touch tours are awesome. For people who are blind or partially-sighted, being able to touch a prop or try on a costume enhances the experience tenfold. Just the week before, a group of us had been on stage at the Waterfront Theatre after a production of Peter Pan. That group had included a large number of kids. The actors had stood in a circle, holding a prop or describing their costumes, and we had moved from one to the other in an orderly fashion.

On the stage after Pinocchio, I felt that we were let loose with a vague description of what was around us and left to roam. I have some usable vision, so I was able to zoom in on a particular object or puppet and guide Shawn in that direction. More than often, we were hampered by knots of people just standing in space.

Perhaps it was due to a lack of planning. Perhaps there was a need for more sighted guides. Perhaps I was having a particularly short-tempered day.

Who knows? I don't want to sully a memorable experience by casting blame.

What I will say is that VocalEye is adept at listening to, and addressing, the feedback of its members – blind or sighted. What I will say is that the arts community is extremely receptive to building accessibility into its programming.

Constructive criticism greases the wheels of progress, right?


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