Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Voice In Your Ear - Musings and Facts About Audio Description

It's been a while since I've posted here.  But I think it's high time I produced at least a couple of articles regarding Audio Description and Described Video.

For some time now, especially in the last couple of years, I have been working as an audio describer full time.

Me at work, wearing headphones, sitting in front of a mic.

I am the voice in your ear.  whether it's a live event - such as a play - an accessible gallery exhibit, or a film: even that hokey reality show you were always curious about, but never really got before. Chances are, here in Canada anyway, that you have heard me at some point providing audio description for these things.

What is audio description? (one might ask who is unfamiliar with the techniques)

Audio Description (video description) (AD\DV) provides narration of the visual elements— action, costumes, settings, and the like—of theatre, television/film, museums exhibitions, and other events.
The technique allows those who are blind or have low-vision the opportunity to experience arts events more completely—the visual is made verbal.

A describer speaks in the silences between dialogue and must be concise and accurate with their words.

Just to dispel any confusion - this is not the same thing as Captioning or ASL,  which is are devices unto themselves with their own rules and techniques.  I often get calls asking me to do ASL for shows.  Sadly, this is not a skill I possess.  Those callers  (yes, the produces of the shows) have no clue what the difference is.  They're just looking for someone to do the work because someone decided to make the show accessible.  Having no idea about accommodation, or the needs of disabled people, they get terribly confused when I try to 'splain the difference. They have a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that not seeing is very different from not hearing.

While the process of describing each of these examples is a bit different respectively, it serves the same overall purpose: to open up a world that has remained closed to many for so long.

So, now that I have a good deal of experience under my belt I feel that I am more than qualified to speak up about some things - a reality check as it were - on the state of the practive, and where, I personally, think it should go in future.

Just a note of interest: I am probably the only vision impaired describer in Canada, if not in the entire world.  I can't confirm that, but I'm fairly confident of it. I'd love to know if there is anyone else. I'm used to that.  In all my years of working in the arts, not a whole lot of blind folks have been involved in the arts on a professional level - at least not in Canada.   This is due to isolation, non inclusive practices, and a whole plethora of reasons and excuses.  The silence of blind people in this country is deafening when it comes to the arts, and participation in inclusion issues in general. But this is a different subject.  I've only met a handful of blind people who have made the arts their calling, sadly. And I speak purely from a Canadian perspective. I know situations differ in other countries.

You may think this is a pretty weird profession for someone who is legally blind.  Admittedly, yes, it is a bit strange.  But I absolutely love it - and I have a very unique perspective.  I understand intimately what is required regarding the information I need to convey to the audience.   And now it has become a passion - and, may the gods help me, a mission. I have become an advocate.

In this post I will start by explaining how the AD\DV process works breaking it down into three categories: Live Describe (live events such as sports, theatre and presentations). Described Video (Film and Television) and finally pre-recorded events such as guided tours and gallery and museum exhibits.

Let's clear something up.  Live audio description is NOT done on the fly - unless it is a sports event or something unscripted and is happening in real time.  Not to be confused with colour commentary, which is something completely different.

Live performance: a band on stage in a large concert venue.  

Generally, the describer follows a script that has been developed along with, in the case of theatre, the script of the show being performed.  They are usually out of view of the audience, and speak through an FM headset.   Those using the service are seated in the house and listen through headphones to the describer.

The AD script is developed (usually) by the describer who attends several rehearsals and previews of the show.  This script not only contains descriptions of the show but has Pre Show Notes read by the describer prior to curtain.  These notes describe characters, costumes, set, program notes, etc.  Visual elements of the show that time does note permit describing during the action. These start about 15 minutes before curtain.  So, it is important to arrive nice and early so that you don't miss out.

Other live events, such as sports (especially) require a different kind of prep.  IMHO sports is an entire entity unto itself.  I don't think it would be my strong point.  You would have to know and understand the rules of the sport, the players, the venue and a whole myriad of things.   When describing, since it's on the fly, you'd have to be very careful not to editorialize like a commentator - that's not your job.  It's what is literally happening that is conveyed.

This is a rather enjoyable process - depending on the exhibit our tour.  With information provided by the organization or artist a audio tour of the installation is built.  This usually includes pertinent information about the facility as well as the exhibit itself and relevant information about the ehibiters, artist statements etc.

A portrait from the Butternut series.  In a dimly light room
 a romantic,  gothic, red nosed clown stares at her reflection in an
oval gold framed mirror.
                                                     Before here on  a small cake pedestal is a decorated cupcake. On the top of the cupcake is a lit
 birthday candle.  Painting by Wanda Fitzgerald, acrylic on canvas, 

Using this information, a logical progression through the exhibit is scripted, directing the listener on how to move through the exhibit, and providing descriptions of the works or items as they go through the tour.

Often times these tours can be a bit more creative, as music, sound clips and other audio features can be added.

Once the script is complete, it is recorded, and any additional audio features are added.

The final recoding is delivered to the patron on listening device, which could be their own cell phone, or an "audio tour guide" player.

This includes film, TV, commercials, and documentaries.

A screenshot of a Described Video recording session using ProTools.

Traditionally, I guess, what has been done here is to have someone write a described script with dialogue marked in and out with time codes. Then the script is passed to a recordist, who (usually with the help of an audio engineer) records the timed script.  Then the DV track is given to sound for mixing.

HOWEVER this is grossly inefficient.  It costs way more to produce DV this way and takes a great deal longer.  This "process" is one of the reasons so much goes un described.  The excuse is that it's time consuming and expensive.  And as we all know, money is everything in this business. This is how I was taught that it works.

BUT WAIT! There's another way.  And it's way quicker and cheeper.

One person can do all of this if they have the right skill set.  Well, almost all of it.

As a DV recordist, I am a one woman show.

I receive the finished picture, and using a recording software (in my case Pro Tools) I record the DV track myself.  I follow along with the show, adding in appropriate DV as I go.  With this method I can do 2-3 half hour shows in one day.  1, sometimes two 44 minute shows and it usually takes 2 days to do a feature (90 minutes). Once I'm done, the sound person mixes the finished product.

This is far cheeper, faster, and with a good describer, the finished product can be quite brilliant.

In my next post, I will cover the nuances of these process in more detail, specifically dealing with Described Video..

For now - keep listening.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Process Of The Process

Let me begin this post by saying that it is soooooo refreshing to be working on a live show again!  I have been doing a great deal of photography, film making and descriptive video these days, and have scarcely been involved in anything connected with my true love - THEATRE!   I get a little rush of excitement thinking about it.  I'm excited to go to rehearsals (yes it's true) and it's great to work with theatre people I've never met, and have the pleasure of reacquainting with those I've worked with in the past.

It's also kind of cool to watch the evolution of the cast (who are athletes, not actors) as the director whips them into shape and gets them ready for performance.

We are now into the second week of rehearsals for PUSH!  I must say it is great being included - and welcome to join in on the rehearsal process.  In my own personal experience this rarely happens, if at all.  You usually have to fly by the seat of your pants and do all your prep during dress rehearsal or previews.  In Canada at least, and Toronto in particular in my case, this is due to lack of awareness of the needs of the process, and in general, awareness that this work even exists in the first place.  And sometimes it's just |well, "we have to do this." and accommodation is an intrusion on the "creative " process - and generally a big pain in the ass.

For the most part, when audio description is included in a live event or show - especially in theatre - there is a sort of territorial thing that happens and one is often made to feel as if providing AD and ASL is a big inconvenience to cast and crew.  I don't think this is intentional in most cases, but change is hard - especially in theatre where things have been done a certain way forever.  Although you think it would be just the opposite.

Here I have a unique opportunity to develop the AD script and my own process while the show itself evolves.  Very refreshing.

Although, this still has it's issues.  Mainly as a describer I cannot interfere in the actual development of the performance - ie, timing of the delivery of lines, use of audio visual material etc. Generally, with an existing show or script that does not involve a lot of development this is pretty standard.  The audio describer is an invisible entity hidden away in the booth; unseen, uncredited,  heard by those few with a headset who need to be told what is happening visually on stage.  Thus, the audience, crew and performers are blissfully unaware of the of the poor sod who is trying to insert concise descriptive words into the rapid fire dialogue and action on stage.

In this instance, PUSH! is a staged reading.  The actors sit in a semicircle on stage and read from a script on a stand in front of them.  There is no movement other than a few gestures and facial expressions. There are no set changes.

There is however a HUGE amount of dialogue which conveys six different stories and in order to facilitate the understanding of who is telling what story it is necessary to identify the respective speakers in a succinct manner.

There are also 5 separate video montages.  These are made up of many, many rapid fire clips that only,  last a split second.  In addition to this, there is dialogue from the stage while the video is playing.  So,   often one word descriptions must be fitted in between the performers talking.

As I do this professionally for film and television, I am used to this - except that with live people on stage no two performances are the same.  I don't like to speak over someone, but I also don't like to generalize my description.  What is seen by the general audience MUST be conveyed properly to those who cannot see it.

So when I ask the director if he can modify what the performers are saying, (especially when they aren't conveying any useful info) just a tad, and he says something to the effect of  "Can't you just say something like, "WWII footage and let them imagine what's happening."  I get pissed off.  Not much I can do though, but try to work with  and around it though.  That's the process of the process.  It's hard, and often frustrating.  Especially when there is a perfect opportunity to provide a very high level of access.

Another hurtle here is getting the actual finished visual material in a timely manner.  I need to watch this stuff, identify what exactly it is (this material is very specific, photos of events, specific people etc) and figure out what I can include or omit in the description to best suit the needs of my listeners.

Then there are the performers themselves.  And I have to say they are pretty great.  While they are all athletes, used to being watched by thousands of people from all over the world, they are not actors.  They do not have the experience of stagecraft, or the many years it takes an actor to develop the improvisational, connective and performance skills one usually sees on stage - so that can be a bit daunting. Especially when something like a gesture is different every time it is executed. 

There is also the knowledge - or lack there of of theatre edicate.  Those of us who have worked in the performing arts all our lives just know this stuff instinctively - but newcomers often have no idea what we are talking about when we use theatre terms, or of the processes that have to happen in order for a show to come together.  Or even just the professional conduct one exhibits while working.  But then, the theatre is world unto itself, isn't it?

The dialogue itself is often delivered very quickly.  To me it seems too quickly.  Theatre is about being in the moment and living and  reliving that moment as the story is told.  It's not a race - although, these guys have owned the podium, so I'm sure they are just naturally inclined to go fast :)  There are times when a pause here and there would greatly aid me in my work.

All in all it's shaping up to be a pretty good show though.  We have added music and live percussionist Luis Orbegoso who is absolutely amazing.  His addition has greatly changed the energy of the show and it has become a living thing.

That's the magic of theatre.  The process is fascinating.

Next week will be the final week of rehearsals and then we move into the theatre.  It will be even more fascinating to watch the show morph and get right up on it's feet.  And as I said, I am thrilled to be a part of it.

So, if you are in the Toronto Area during the ParapanAm games, come see the show!

Details are as follows;

AUGUST 11-14 2015 7:30 PM

OR CALL 416.866.8666
(if you wish to use the Live Audio Description Service you have to callthe above numer as there is no option for this type of ticket reservation on the website).


Thursday, July 16, 2015

Not Just A Flash In The Pan

Hello World!

It's been quite some time since my last post, but I assure you, I haven't been idle.
I've worked on a number of projects since last I wrote, and had a whole lot of life happening in between.  Including the birth of my adorable grand daughter Paisley last September.  I've also co-wrote and produced a short film - complete with audio description and captioning - with fellow artist Mark Brose, entitled "29,200"  More on that in future posts.

If you want to check out some of my creative endeavours you can visit my Vimeo channel at:

Or check out the oodles of photography I've been doing lately:

In August I'll be starting a great new job and then who knows?

Right now I'm working on a couple of fantastic projects during the TO2015 Parapan Am Games.

Let me tell you about them.

It had been my intention to "get out of Dodge" during all this Pandemonium stuff that's going on in the city right now - maybe go home for a couple of weeks - which would have been really nice, since I had the time.  I'm not really one for all this big cooperate machine that runs these things. However, the Universe had other plans for me it seems.  So I'm here in Toronto embracing the some of the awesomeness that's happening around me - and strictly speaking, there really are some pretty cool things going on locally besides all the other hoopla..

Firstly we have Ring Of Fire (disclaimer - I had nothing to do with this website or any accessibility issues connected with it)

Ring of Fire is a 300-person strong street procession, staged at the Parapan American Games
on Sunday, 9 August 2015 University Avenue from Queens Park to City Hall, Toronto Canada

My role here is to lead an entourage as one of the Sentinels of the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation. I am Minaadendamowin (Respect) Sentinel.  Ring of Fire is organized around the Anishinaabe Seven Grandfather Teachings:Wisdom, Courage, Respect, Honesty, Humility, Truth, and Love

The Sentinel is the largest, most elaborately costumed character in the procession. Each teaching is dramatized by one of these large-scale totemic figures.Respect symbolizes the Buffalo; the costume a graphic abstraction of this animal’s horns and is a symbol of survival.

While I am but a simple player in this project (and that is really nice sometimes) I have to say, I'm really honoured to have this role.  I can't wait to see and wear my costume.  I just hope it isn't blisteringly hot that day.

Please check out my fellow sentinels on the website.  They are equally impressive.

Ring of Fire is a procession by Trinidadian artist Marlon Griffith
in collaboration with Picasso PRO, Equal Grounds, Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nation, Capoeira AngĂ´la, and Spoken Word poets from Jane-Finch, Malvern, and Regent Park.
Ring of Fire is commissioned by the Art Gallery of York University (AGYU)
and produced in partnership with Art Starts, SKETCH, The Malvern S.P.O.T., Success Beyond Limits, COBA and School of Arts, Media, Performance & Design, York University.

Curated by Emelie Chhangur

My second project this summer is PUSH!  a theatrical production presented by Tangled Art + Disability

I had the pleasure of attending the first reading of PUSH yesterday - a show that is part of the TO215 Panamainia presentation running Aug 10 - 14. PUSH! traces the history of Paralympic competition from 1944 to the present day, weaving together six athletes’ individual journeys to paint an exceptionally diverse picture of what it is to be a world-class athlete.

I will be developing the Audio Description for this show.  And I must say, I'm pretty excited about that.  It is so rare in Toronto, let alone Canada to have the opportunity to have this service with a production, let alone be able to develop it in the normal course of rehearsals. (Usually they want you to throw it together a couple of days before the show if at all).  So I really hope people come out.  It does get tiresom doing this for empty seats. (This of course is due to people's low expectation and just not being used to having theatre made properly accessible to them.)

(From the Tangled website) "as part of the TORONTO 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games arts and culture festival, PANAMANIA presented by CIBC, Tangled will present a brand new original production featuring Canadian artists from the disability community, including media creator Murray Siple and an original live score to be written and performed by Latin percussionist Luis Orbegoso. PUSH! weaves together six diverse stories of personal struggle and astonishing accomplishments performed by a team of world class Parasport athletes: Sarai Demers, Jenna Lambert, Victoria Nolan, Paul Rosen, Martha Sandoval Gustafson, and Jody Schloss. Developed and directed by New York City’s Ping Chong + Company,"

I felt somewhat nostalgic watching the athletes tell their stories, as I too had once been one of them.  A million years ago, I was very much into track and field.  I was a distance runner.  We would have gone to the Moscow Para Olympics in 1980 - but well, that never happened.  By 1984 life had happened and I never looked back.  Until yesterday.

When I first read the call for PUSH a little part of me wanted to share that story...but a bigger part of me wanted to just leave it behind.  It was such a disappointment.

Rowing, skiing, equestrian, swimming, sledge hockey, shot put and discus - all the cool sports :)

I am especially fascinated with Jody Schloss is a Grade 1 Para-Equestrian - as I am a horse person.  I would love to do competitive dressage but have always been discouraged from doing so by teachers and coaches because of the vision thing.  Even when I enquired about such a thing at CARD, a place that specialized in teaching disabled people to ride horses, I sort of got the brush off.  At the time, it was just too much to deal with, so I just paid for some basic formal English lessons and ride whenever I can - which isn't nearly enough.  How I envy your experience Jody :)

If you plan to attend any event this summer, I recommend this one (and not just because I'm working on it) The passionate energy with which the 6 athletes approach this presentation is infectious. Their stories are engaging and heartfelt - they really mean it.

This show will be audio described as well, which makes it even better. If you wish to use the AD service, don't forget to mention it when you book your tickets - lets show this city - and the theatre community - that investing in AD is worth it!

So, I will post here with my insights and progress on my contribution to the show.  It should prove very interesting.

Come on out and see the Ring Of Fire procession - and come see PUSH - these are not just a "Flash In The Pan" but history being mad, and it will be time well spent!


Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Digital Story Telling

It's been some time since I've posted anything.  Pure laziness on my part.  That and sitting in front of a computer all day leaves little motivation for continuing to do so after I leave the office.  But, I have been busy.

This past weekend (May 17 - 19) while others were out enjoying the great weather of the 2013 Victoria Day long weekend,  I was fortunate enough to attend a Project Re-vision Digital Story Telling Workshop in association with Abilities.  The project is dedicated to creating "real life" stories about disabilities and differences that challenge stereotypes and advance social inclusion.

Digital stories are short videos that look like “movies,” but are made with still photographs combined with video footage. These are created in intensive workshops where people learn the fundamentals of representation, storytelling and filmmaking. Digital stories about disabilities and differences ask viewers to explore their responses to physical or mental difference.

It was a very interesting experience.  Over the course of three days we produced nine amazing short films.  Our group was diverse and infused with a HUGE amount of creative spirit, and varying levels of technical skill.  Although it didn't seem to some of us that we would be able to accomplish our goal of producing a 3 to 5 minute film, some how, magically, we all were able to accomplish this with astounding results.

At 11:00 a.m. on Sunday morning, the final day of the workshop, I had grown frustrated with my project and decided to scap it and start anew.  A scary decision considering I had to put the whole thing together before 2:00 p.m.  But I managed to do it.  While not as perfect as I would like it to be, I think I came up with a nice entertaining piece.  It's a departure from my usual dark material.  I think the gift of the background musical track composed by Ryan Fitzgerald is mainly responsible for this.

I think I love this type of work and I am hoping to explore it more fully and perhaps produce a few more of these on my own using material I have had lying around un-purposed for a while now.  I'd like to thank the facilitators of the workshop for introducing me to this medium.  We shall see.  In the mean time, take a boo at what came of this project. Hope you enjoy it.

Note: There is a flaw in the vocal track that time did not permit adjusting.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Audio Description At Luminato in Toronto

Hi everyone,
Here is some news on a project I've been fortunate enough to have been involved with .  Check it out if you are in Toronto between June 8th and June 24th!  It promises to be quite interesting.  As with last year, I commend The Luminato Festival for their forward and inclusive thinking regarding accessibility and arts events.   Sorry, I could not get the logos for Theatre Local, Picasso Pro and Luminato to appear correctly in this post, so I did not include them.

Picasso PRO will post extra information to help you plan your visits so please check our website for updates.
Log on as well to access this release in fully accessible format. Valuable script creation feedback was provided by expert audience advisors Wanda Fitzgerald and Durelle Harford McAllister.
For immediate rease: May 29th, 2012


TORONTO, ON The Visual Arts Program of this years Luminato Festival, June 8th 17th, 2012, includes three extraordinary installations equipped with recorded audio descriptions created by Theatre Local and Picasso PRO for blind and low vision patrons.

Audio description, the art of talking pictorially, acts as a verbal lens making exhibits, theatre, film and other art events more accessible to patrons who are blind or partially sighted. Patrons use audio devices to hear trained describers talk about visual aspects that are vital to experiencing the works in their totality. Luminato’s recorded descriptions will be available through on the Accessibility page under Visitor Info and Luminato’s mobile app on June 4. Directions to the exhibit sites and background on the works can be found on TELUS, Luminato’s Innovation Partner, is Presenting Partner of the Audio Description, mobile application and offers engagement through technology across the Festival.

The Encampment by artists Thom Sokoloski and Jenny-Anne McCowanJune 8th -24th, at Fort York National Historic Site and co-commissioned with the City of Toronto, is a large scale installation comprised of 200 A-frame tents pitched on the grounds of Fort York. Conceived as a temporal village, each tent will contain an installation by one of 100 creative collaborators to represent an intimate aspect of the War of 1812’s civilian history. In this way the site becomes a metaphorical archeological dig, unearthing long-buried shards of human experience. The audio description will provide a description of the sites pathways and features, plus a small sampling of tent installations.

Revered street artist Dan Bergeron explores themes of location, transformation, public space and its reclamation by those whom it excludes and ignores. ///RE-PLY\\\June 8th -17th, is the artist’s latest response to these issues through a series of temporary site-specific sculptural installations situated along Parliament Street between St. Jamestown (Wellesley) and Regent Park (Dundas).  Both abstract and concrete, the pieces will reference the overabundance of condo development throughout the city with a sly and playful eye.       
S/N the third installation, located at Toronto Pearson Airports Terminal One, June 8-30th and created by Belgian artists LAb[au], is constructed from a large assortment of discarded technology and salvaged split-flaps; components from information displays that pre-date LED monitors in public spaces like airports and train stations. Arranged in a circular grid that allows visitors to stand in the centre, the flaps randomly rotate until the system identifies words which create auto-poetic sequences, inviting viewers to interpret their meaning.

Luminato’s new Festival website,, has been redesigned with accessibility in mind, and underwent an Accessibility Review by the Inclusive Design Research Centre at OCAD University. The Festivals mobile app can be made accessible through settings on a users mobile phone, and is now available for download. Toronto based arts pioneer, Theatre Local teams up once again with Picasso PRO, a collective dedicated to bridging disability and the performance /media arts to create and provide the audio description. In 2011 they first partnered with Luminato on the pilot description of Sargasso, a large-scale suspended sculpture by Philip Beesley at Allen Lambert Galleria inBrookfield Place. Audio description is one of Luminato’s latest commitments to making the Festival accessible, inclusive and inviting to all audiences.

Theatre Local is a leading arts innovator in Canada and challenges the norm to make spaces better for people. With 20 years of experience, project leader Rebecca Singh looks for and creates viable initiatives to influence and shape cultural dialogue that impacts Toronto and all its citizens. Rebecca was the Luminato Festival fellow in 2010-11 and was the driving force behind in establishing the Audio Description Pilot Program in 2011, with the landmark audio description of Philip Beesleys Sargasso.

Picasso PRO was formed to facilitate genuine opportunity and integration for artists with disabilities and Deaf artists in the performing and media arts. It springs from the passionate conviction that artists with disabilities and Deaf artists belong on Canada’s stages and screens, among our audiences, professional staffs, teachers and cultural leaders. They partner with individual artists and companies to create innovative, accessible work in all facets of live performance and media creation. Audience access for patrons who are Deaf and live with disabilities is a key aspect of Picasso PROs work.

Luminato is Toronto's fifth season when the festival stages the best of our city and invites the world to celebrate and transform it with us. Luminato is an annual multi-disciplinary celebration of theatre, dance, music, literature, food, visual arts, film, magic, and more. The sixth edition of Luminato takes place from June 817, 2012.

Media Contacts:
Rebecca Singh                                             
Theatre Local                                                 

Rose Jacobson  
Picasso PRO 

Danyel McLachlan
416-368-3100 x242

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Bullying - Might Never Makes It Right

The recent media coverage of the suicide of an 11 year old Pickering Ontario boy with muscular dystrophy after being bullied has left me feeling very disturbed.  It has evoked a profound empathy in me and has left me to wonder just what kind of people this world is producing that such a thing could befall an otherwise normal, happy child.  Rick Mercer is absolutely right about speaking out.  But this doesn't just apply to gays.  It applies to everyone.

Last November, while on one of his prescribed daily walks, Mitchell Wilson was jumped by a 12-year-old boy he knew from his elementary school. The older child, who was after the iPhone Mitchell borrowed from his father to listen to music while he walked, smashed Mitchell’s face into the pavement so hard he broke some of the boy’s teeth.

The alleged mugger was arrested the day after the attack, charged with assault and removed from Westcreek Public School.  However, this did not solve the bullying issue. The older boy’s friends remained. They blamed Mitchell for getting their friend in trouble and followed him home from school teasing him about his disability.
When Mitchell was subpoenaed to appear in court to testify against his attacker, he took his own life.


I find this story disturbing on a personal level as bullying is one of the issues I have been wrestling to address in my work on the script for Butternut.  I started writing the play several years ago, and have been sorely unable to express the way this issue in an appropriate dramatic treatment.  It bothers me that much.  Usually I have no trouble expressing that which disturbs me creatively; quite the opposite.

I can only speak from my own experience, as I too suffered bullying at different times in my own life.  Unlike Mitchell though, I learned to, and was well able to fight back.  Most of the time.

When I started a new school in grade one, after moving from Sudbury to a small town in Southern Ontario I realized for the first time that I was different from the other kids.  I was small, had a funny French accent, although I'm Caucasian my skin is olive coloured and much darker than kids of mainly British and European stock that populated the area.  As if this wasn't enough, I wore big thick glasses, had to use special enormous large print books, had to sit at the front of the class to read the board, use a telescope...and on it goes.

In my first week of school I encountered a boy named Randy.  I was 6 he was 9 or 10.  He began to tease and harass me on the playground.  I told on him of course.  So, the teacher enlisted the help of "The Two Steve’s" who were charged with being my "body guards".  To their credit, they were great kids who took this appointment to heart, and from grade one through grade 8 they kept the evil Randy at bay.  Yes, Randy was in grade school a very long time!  The Steve’s taught me how to fight like a boy.  Yay Steve’s! 

But at the time, I felt humiliated and inferior.  The sort of feeling that really sticks to you forever.

In grade three we had a new student, Josephine I think her name was.  She was from Paris France.  I was pretty much the only kid in the school who could speak French well, so my teacher assigned me the task of being a good-will ambassador.  Yay me! 

I was very excited.  I never got to talk to anyone in French, and I really loved my French.  Josephine was in grade six, and didn't appreciate having this little four-eyed kid trying to be her friend.  I had special permission to go to the big kids’ side of the playground, but the Steve’s couldn't come.  Who would have thought this new kid - a nice girl from France who didn't know anyone yet - would have been such a little creep.

She had befriended some of the meaner older girls and I will never forget that cold winter day on the playground when she, with their help, expressed her displeasure, and how much she hated the sound of a little Canadian kid speaking northern Ontario French to her.  I really don't remember much about what happened, other than being really scared.  I've tried to recreate the scene for the play, but can't find it in my head.  I must have blocked it out or something.  Let's just say I spent that lunch hour in mid-January 1973 buried in the deep Ontario snow, and have since had some pretty hard core confidence issues with my French and social advances.  I also had to explain to my parents how my glasses got broken.

She did get in a lot of trouble for what her deeds, but it was too late for me. The damage was done. 

Of course adults can be just as cruel as kids --even those who should no better. 

We had a supply teacher in grade 7 who was a complete git.  I had to use a telescope to read the black board.  I was very self-conscious about the thing.  I hated it.  Back in the day access tech wasn't as advanced, or as invisible as it is now.  It was big, ugly and stigmatizing.  

So, I pull out the scope to use and Mr. Spanno, grabs it away from me, stuffs it in his drawer, and berates me in front of the class for playing with toys.  To their credit, my entire grade seven class came to my defense telling him why I used it.  They were awesome!  Yay them!

But that was in a different time when you basically went to school with the same kids your entire life, so they really know you.  I don't think it's quite that way today.  Especially in urban schools.

Of course, Mr. S. didn't believe anyone and gave us all a detention for being disruptive. My parents had to get the principal involved.  As a result though, Mr. Spanno lost the respect and control of the class for the rest of his stay with us. This had a sort of positive outcome, but it was still scarring to have an adult --a teacher no less-- treat you in such a manner.

There were some other minor incidents in high school.  Oh yeah, puberty was lots of fun!  Along with all the other things, I changed schools and had big boobs to boot.   But by then I'd  developed a thick skin and become quite a good fighter, so, ahem, I was sometimes the one in the principal's office because I didn't take crap from anyone anymore.

Others, like Mitchell Wilson, aren't as resilient.

I also had taken refuge for years in nerdy pursuits; reading, drawing, writing, plays, science stuff.  I was by then a full-fledged geek.  Hurray!  It was soooo much fun.

In grade 9 the infamous Randy reappeared in my Informatics class.  It was a different school, and I hadn't seen him for a couple of years.  His family had moved or something.  He was several years behind now.  Indeed.  Being the class geek, I got asked to tutor him.  I absolutely refused.  Don't think he ever finished high school.

I have developed a profound hatred of bullies.

One day my daughter ran home from the park near our house to tell me that some big boys were picking on my oldest son who was five or six at the time.  I had just returned from a fundraising event and was dressed in the full regalia of a Klingon Warrior.  I hadn't had time to become human again.  My son has the same eye condition as me.  It is true; there is nothing meaner than an enraged mom.  

I flew over to the park and caught them in the act.  They were teasing him and throwing sand in his face.  These boys were about 12 years old; twice his age.  I knew the two boys, and I knew their parents.  One of the kids' dads was an outspoken Christian type who lived across the street from us.  My first instinct was to kick their asses.  But I exercised great restraint.  I was around 30 years old.  There are laws. . .

Instead, I charged at them as a Klingon.  They were freaked and started to run.  I'm pretty awesome when I lose it!  I grabbed them both, resisted the urge to bang their heads together, and dragged them off to the closest parents’ house to present them to the father.  He was a bit freaked himself to see me costumed as I was.  I had quite forgotten about what I was wearing.  

To make a long story short, I had scared to crap out of those boys.  The next day they came to apologize with a pie from their mom.  This is an incident that we can look back on and laugh at, because it was pretty outrageous, and having a crazy mom helped in that instance.  The two brothers remember it and say that all the kids in the neighbourhood were terrified of me.  L'il ole me.

But not everyone's story can have that outcome. 

Even complete strangers can be a party to a type of passive bullying.  One day a few years ago I was in the grocery store.  There was a guy with Down syndrome counting his money out to pay for something; a lot of coins he carried in a bag.  Some inconsiderate person bumped into him and all the change went flying.  This person didn't apologize or stop to help the guy pick them up.  They just continued on their merry way.  As if this wasn't bad enough, some kids started collecting the coins for themselves. There were loonies and twonies among the fallout.  This poor soul was crawling around on the floor of the store crying and trying to collect his hard won cash.  No staff were in sight to help.  

This took place over a matter of seconds of course, and my heart really goes out to someone in such a scene.  I felt the old rage well up in me and chased all the kids away and proceeded to help the guy collect his change.  It was everywhere.  No staff ever did show up to help him.  He was very grateful and tried to give me a couple of loonies for helping him. 

It still really bothers me that in a store full of people, only I did anything to help this man, while others just stared or went about their business.  I can't help but wonder if the same was true for Mitchell, but there was no one like me about to come to his aide.

Most of my experiences took place in a small town.  I see all kinds of nasty injustices here in Toronto though.  Like the above mentioned incident. 

Despite the fact that Toronto is growing more and more mannerless and uncaring, I do, occasionally, see some truly moving acts of kindness.  One slippery day in January a couple of years ago I was on the packed Eglinton bus.  There was this very old and frail lady riding.  She was completely lost.  I believe she may have had Alzheimer’s.  She was lost and scared and very frightened.  I thought of my own grandmother who was still with us at the time.  That could be her (not that she would ever come to Toronto, but, theoretically speaking).  I was about to try to help her, when a very kind woman offered to take her home.  The woman was a stranger of course.  But she offered to get off the bus with her and help her get home.  I don't know how that turned out. The woman looked like an honest person.    One can only hope.

Wanda Fitzgerald as Butternut the Clown at Night of Dread
The underlying theme of the play Butternut is that of being different and having to live in a society where, despite all of our progress, different is still not a good thing to be.  Gay, geek, disabled, female, ethnic, or all of the above; if you don't comply with what the bullies think is normal, you can be a victim.  I don't know that the world will ever change, but at least some, by sharing our experience through our art, may make an effort to contribute to enlightenment and.  Different can be good, and it's damn well time they knew it!   

Sunday, September 18, 2011

The Gravyboat

The Gravyboat by Daxcat
The Gravyboat, a photo by Daxcat on Flickr.

The Ford Brothers and the Captains of Industry sail along the shores of Toronto.