A soft-spoken man originally from Bryan, Texas, Jesse Minkert couldn't have guessed that leaving Humboldt State University in 1981 with a master's degree in sculpture would lead to a life of helping to shape art with his voice. He was diagnosed shortly after graduation with diabetic retinopathy, a condition in which the retinas bleed, which is the number one cause of blindness in the U.S. He literally began to see his future quite differently.
"I was looking at some serious blindness," he remembers. "I got laser treatments on both my eyes and started looking for other ways to be involved in the arts."
Those "other ways" eventually led him to form Arts and Visually Impaired Audiences (AVIA), of which he has been the executive director for 16 years. AVIA provides audio descriptions of live performances and is the only such organization in Washington. Minkert tirelessly operates AVIA with the help of three other employees (he's auditioning for others this weekend; call 323-7190 for more information).
In addition to 38 years of diabetes, he continues to fight glaucoma and cataracts. "My vision keeps going away," he mentions casually. "They keep putting it back."
Sitting in a window booth at the back of the Seattle Children's Theater recently for a performance of the raucous, colorful Sideways Stories from Wayside School, the unassuming Minkert explains his job while a preshow tape gives today's headset users—very young, excited school kids—a rundown of the production credits, samples of the main characters' voices, and an in-depth description of the set.
"The main rule of audio description is 'Say what you see,'" he says. From the second the lights begin to dim, he relates the action, armed with his own headset, a microphone, and some notes from when he previously viewed the show. It's painstakingly nonintrusive narration, the briefest of movement and physical descriptions, and an attempt to "keep quiet whenever the show is explaining itself"—a decided challenge with a piece as vibrant as Sideways.
Seattle, King County, and NEA grants, as well as Minkert's fee, sustain AVIA, though Minkert clearly can't be in it for the money.
"Well, I'm not making a fortune," he admits. "I developed this; I have to make the programs work. It's gratifying. I get thanked now and again."
To hear the show via headset is to realize how little he actually gets to say, and how much the listener must imagine is going on beneath and behind the words.
"Hi, I'm Jesse Minkert," he begins. " I'm going to be your audio describer for the morning."