How do you watch a play when you're blind or vision impaired?

You may be able to listen to the actors but, like life, so much of what happens on stage is communicated without words - facial expressions, gestures and actions can tell a completely different story.

But Daelani Marsters, 7, Madeleine Christiansen, 8, and Jasper Todd, 9, all blind or vision impaired, know exactly how to "watch" theatre.

Technology this week allowed the youngsters - part of the Blind and Low Vision Education Network New Zealand - to enjoy a special preview of Spike Milligan's Badjelly the Witch, the July school holiday show staged by Tim Bray Productions.


Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, the company has made theatre accessible to children, providing a sign language interpreter for special performances since 2004.

Thanks to funding from Auckland Council's Creative Communities scheme, it started the audio-described performances for children with vision issues last year.

The children get headsets through which they hear the show and also a verbal commentary describing the action. Now demand from the wider blind and vision-impaired community means the initiative has been extended to performances for them in addition to schools.

Artistic director Tim Bray said when word got out about the idea of audio-described performances of Badjelly the Witch, many more people wanted to come.

The wacky story, written by legendary British comedian Spike Milligan, was made phenomenally popular with New Zealanders thanks to regular readings on Newstalk ZB's children's show in the 1970s.

"All of us know Badjelly the Witch and no one wanted to miss out on the chance to experience it live on stage," he said.

The company hired Audio Describers Aotearoa to devise its enhanced performances.

Audio Describes Aotearoa has been in increasing demand from the likes of Auckland Theatre Company, New Zealand Opera and Chamber Music NZ to make their shows accessible to blind and vision-impaired audiences.

Tim Bray introduces Madeleine Christiansen to the witch's broom. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Tim Bray introduces Madeleine Christiansen to the witch's broom. Photo / Jason Oxenham

The Herald on Sunday this week joined Daelani, Madeleine and Jasper for the special Badjelly the Witch performance.

Each audio-described performance starts before a show begins, with audience members getting on stage to touch and feel the props and costumes and hear from actors or musicians about their roles.

Actor Tim Raby, playing a number of roles including Badjelly, demonstrates how he uses his voice to portray different characters.

Jasper says the last show he went to was hilarious, but Badjelly will be funnier because they have to describe fluffy bum and the bit when Dulboot the Giant loses his trousers and flees to bare-bottom land.

The show is 50 minutes long, but narrator Kevin Keys has spent about 10 hours reading the script, watching rehearsals and writing his own script so he can describe what's going on - the actors' gestures and actions, set changes and the way the lighting is used to create special effects.

He thoroughly enjoys it because it teaches him new skills and opens up theatre to a group of people who might otherwise miss out.

• The public audio-described performance of Badjelly the Witch is on Saturday, July 16 and bookings are essential: