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Making theatre more accessible: audio-description

Published 29 June 2016

Audio-description is an essential part of making theatre more accessible, as it offers those with visual impairments to experience shows in a unique and enjoyable way. Audio-described performances take place regularly in theatres across the UK, organised in-house or by external companies such as VocalEyes. Many of us may not even notice that a description is taking place, and aren’t aware of what’s involved. Kirstin Smith frequently describes London productions and has helpfully explained exactly what goes into these unique and vital performances. 

What is audio-description?

Audio description is verbal description of visuals aspects of theatre, dance, art and architecture for blind and partially sighted audience members. For theatre, audio description means describing the set, characters, costumes, movement style, facial expressions, action and visual gags that might otherwise to be missed. The aim is to give that information without detracting from the dialogue, music and rhythm of the production. There is also a ‘touch tour’ before the show, when audience members can explore the set, handle props and often meet members of the company to get a clear sense of the physical space and style of the production.

Why is it important?

Audience members often tell us that without audio description theatre can be frustrating — there are long silences when it’s not clear what’s taking place, and visual jokes are missed. Sometimes people say they had given up going to the theatre since their vision changed. Description enables people to come to a show knowing that their needs will be met, and they’ll have the information they need to access and hopefully enjoy it.

What exactly is your role?

Just before the show, the audio describer will give a short introduction describing the set, characters and costumes. This is broadcast over an infrared or radio system in the auditorium, and audience members listen via a small headset. When the show begins, the audio describer narrates the important points of action, speaking between the dialogue. As it’s live theatre it is inevitable that the action may change slightly and that we’ll make mistakes, but we aim for the description to give enough information not to leave the listener in doubt, while being as minimal and unobtrusive as possible, and maintain the flow of the rhythm, language and style of the performance.

What goes into an audio-description?

Usually two audio describers work on one show. We see the production a few weeks in advance of the audio description and write an introduction describing the set, costumes and characters. This is recorded and sent out to audience members along with access information for the theatre. The production team gives us a film of the production and a script, and we then write our description into the main script, describing from the DVD. One or two nights before the described performance, we’ll practise the description. We each take a half, and the other describer listens in the auditorium, making notes on things that have changed, and additional details that couldn’t be picked up from the recording. We work these changes into the script.

On the day of the description, we’ll arrive early to sound check and meet the stage management and front of house teams. We’ll discuss the touch tour and sometimes we do some quick training in guiding for front of house staff. Then we greet audience members and head onto the stage for the touch tour. Afterwards, we’ll hand out headsets and make sure everyone is familiar with them, and check that arrangements have been made for people with guide dogs. Then it’s time for the description!

What does a typical day involve?

It can take quite a lot of time to write description, particularly for dance productions. One of the interesting challenges is that each production asks for a slightly different vocabulary and description style; what works for a Greek tragedy won’t necessarily work for a hip-hop musical. So we spend a lot of time squinting over production shots wondering if someone is stalking, striding or gliding, and if that fall is more of a swoon or a collapse…

Why and how did you get your role?

I trained as an audio describer as part of a brilliant scheme called See-a-Voice in 2010. Previously I had worked in theatres in various roles, as well as for disability access organisations. It takes a surprising amount of training to describe; something like describing a room sounds simple but you can get yourself and your listener in a confusing tangle.

What’s the best part of your job?

Meeting audience members. Touch tours can be a lot of fun, especially when cast members get involved. It’s a chance for people to ask questions and follow their curiosity, depending on what piques their interest, be it costumes, set or props. After the performance it’s great to have a chance to talk to the people who listened to the description and hear their feedback. Description is quite a fine balance; certain things make sense for some people but not others, so we’re always interested to hear people’s thoughts and take them forward to the next show. And of course when audience members enjoy it, that’s very satisfying!


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