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"Lion" Eyes Audio Described! helps students with low vision and blindness imagine the visual storytelling of "The Lion King."
A group of young people gathers in a circle to do acting exercises and try on some costumes. A rehearsal for the high school play? Not exactly—it’s more like a rehearsal for going to the theatre, as teaching artist Andrea Day prepares students with low vision or blindness for a visit to Broadway’s The Lion King.

“It’s a folk tale—can anyone tell me what a folk tale is?” Day asks a group of students in the Schermerhorn Program of the New York Institute for Special Education, one of about four schools that participate in Audio Described!, an offering of TDF Accessibility Programs.

“It’s fake!” volunteers one student.

Another corrects his peer: “It’s not so much fake as, like, legendary.”

Teaching artist Day has little trouble outlining the story and characters to these young people, most of whom have some familiarity with the Disney movie. But she has her work cut out for her in describing the innovative puppet designs used by director Julie Taymor, in which actors’ faces and bodies are as important and as visible as the puppets and masks they use.

A little exercise can help them understand, as Day gets the students on their feet to imitate some of the movements of the puppeteer/actors. But there’s nothing like direct contact with the costume and puppet pieces themselves, which Disney Theatricals generously provided to two recent Audio Described! groups: one at Schermerhorn in the Bronx, and another at St. Joseph’s School for the Blind in Jersey City, NJ.

Students marveled as they felt the imposing shape and size of Simba’s headdress/mask, with its ring of hair creating the look of a mane. One excited student, dubbing this halo of hair “an Afro,” eagerly tried the mask on and declared, “I’m Simba!”

Other students had fun operating the head of the Timon puppet by inserting their hand in a hole in its back. “Timon bit me!” cried one nearby student with mock horror, joking about a friend’s overzealous application of Timon’s mouth to her thigh.

Speaking afterward, Day—a seasoned audio describer who recently described Grease for Audio Described!, and who has seen the Broadway production of Lion King twice—says she thinks the students understand the show’s visual concepts, and are now ready to sit back and experience the show more directly.

The special challenge of describing Lion King is its element of meta-theatricality; while sighted audience members can simply delight in the fact that they are seeing an actor play Zazu as well as a puppet Zazu he operates, theatregoers with low or no vision may take a little longer to understand this doubled level of expression—and by the time an audio describer got through explaining this multileveled theatrical effect, the story would have moved several steps ahead.

“You can’t say during the show, ‘The actor playing Zazu does this,’ you have to just say ‘Zazu does this,’ ” Day explains. “It’s going to be tricky.”

To prepare students to see Grease, Audio Described! was able to get some of Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes so that students could feel the leather jackets and fuzzy sweaters of the 1950s. But since Lion King conjures such an exotic, one-of-a-kind world, the cooperation of Disney Theatricals was essential. Using proprietary costume and puppet elements from touring productions of Lion King, TDF’s Audio Described! was able to give students a firsthand experience of The Lion King before they even attended the show.

It’s safe to say that to put on a Simba mask and try on a beaded corset from The Lion King would be the dream of many a young Disney fan. For these kids with low vision and blindness, it was a dream come true, and something more—a kindling of their imagination that would make their experience at the Broadway show even more meaningful, memorable and fun.

Click here for more information about TDF Accessibility Programs and Audio Described!