I have a wonderful wife. For Christmas, she treated me to the hottest ticket in Chicago—Hamilton. As we settled into our seats, a perky theatre rep said, “Sir, would you like to use the audio description headphones for today’s performance? I’ll demonstrate how the system works. This part is like a transistor radio, but you look much too young to remember transistor radios.” I mumbled humble thanks to this innocent while my wife won a Tony for eye rolling.
“Miss,” floated the voice of the woman seated on my opposite side, “What shall I do if the noise from the headphones bothers me? This has happened before and it’s very annoying.”
A pall descended on our party. While I brainstormed an equitable solution, the theatre rep gamely offered, “Well, uh, if that happens, uh, just tell the usher and, well, we’ll do, uh, something.” That ‘something,’ I surmised, would be improvised. Meanwhile, I whispered to my wife, “I could always hold my hands over her ears.” But I had whispered the wrong thing too loudly and the theatre rep gasped, “Oh, my God” and I then whispered that I was only kidding, that I had never, and would never, do such a thing. The theatre rep expressed dubious belief then excused herself, doubtless to warn Security to “Keep an eye on that guy in Row P, Seat 4.”
I had heard of this theatrical phenomenon: the audio descriptive headphones inadvertently disrupting neighboring patrons because of the bleed out of sound. As the orchestra tuned, I pondered a few ethical questions. What if meeting the needs of one patron compromises the experience of others? Who, if anyone, takes precedence? Should the user lower the volume to compensate? Should their neighbors be more tolerant? Then I heard the opening bars and ethical dilemmas gave way to the joy of sound and music.
In the end, I chose not to wear the headphones. I preferred the sound of voices in space, the sense of place. Plus, the headphones clamped my noggin like a nutcracker. Besides, I had prepared: I had listened to the Ron Chernow biography of Hamilton—all 38 hours and 22 minutes of it. My wife and I had virtually memorized the Broadway Cast recording. So, without prompting, I knew who was talking to whom about what. And, at intermission, my wife described what I couldn’t learn from my homework—the costumes, the choreography, the look.
But I learned nothing of the woman on my opposite side. I did not speak to her nor she to me. I resented her for making my blindness an issue and I defaulted to expressing displeasure through silence. I regret we did not connect, that she remained a shadow and I an object. We might have better understood one another. Had we engaged, I would have provided my back story with only a hint of self-pity to attest to my imperfect humanness. I would have said, “The book gave me the context of it. The recording gave me the emotion of it. I am thrilled to witness it. Now, I just wish I could see it.”