Audio describing helps make your performance accessible to those with visual impairments but how can a small theatre company go about incorporating Audio Description into their production?
We asked Julia Grundy, who has been an Audio describer for over fifteen years. She started her training and work with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Julia still describes for the RSC, but her work has expanded to include all kinds of drama, from Shakespeare to pantomime and musicals, opera and ballet.
To adapt a definition from the Audio Description Association, audio description provides an additional voiceover for the audience member, allowing greater access for blind and partially sighted people. The effect has been described as ‘painting pictures’ with words, not only describing actions but where possible, illuminating the performance as a whole.
What does Audio Description do?
In performing arts such as theatre, opera or dance, audio description describes body language, expressions, movements and lighting effects. The describers will time the description so that it does not overlap the actors’ lines. A good describer will be able to prioritise and insert description that will convey the work most effectively (it’s often not the most obvious physical action on stage, such as an entrance or exit; sometimes it’s a shared glance, or a facial expression that is most important for that moment in the narrative). Timing is crucial too, particularly in comedy; there is nothing worse for the visually impaired audience member than to hear a burst of laughter without knowing why.
Although the pandemic has bought an almost complete halt to live theatre performances, the ability to make recordings of various productions online means that audio description is still just as important as it is in a live setting. There are several software programmes that make it possible to add an audio description track to works streamed online. Sometimes an audio description script may already exist and it is not difficult to adapt that for use when a production is screened digitally. The same basic elements apply as with a live performance; introductory notes form an integral part of a description, framing the staging and characters in advance. It’s good to retain the theatricality; for instance, having described the staging strategy in the introduction, and set up how different locations are suggested, the describer can then use the particular location for a scene instead of describing the mechanics of the set, which can take the listener out of the story as they try and work out how the roof of a rusting box for example, has become Juliet’s bedchamber!
What is an Audio Introduction?
Sometimes, however, a full audio description is not possible, either through time, cost, or because the production does not require it. In this case, a good audio introduction is indispensable. Although the introduction cannot ever replace the live experience, the describer will be able to set the scene by describing the staging strategy, and also characters and their costumes. As with the audio description, when describing the characters, it’s not really a question of providing a photofit style description, but picking out important characteristics, the way someone moves for example, the statement their clothes make, or specific gestures that might express their personality or relationships with others.
If possible too it’s a good thing to have a colleague who can check your description, to proof read, and also to discuss themes and ideas. That is especially important when describing dance or physical theatre, which is much more subjective. In the case of dance it’s great to have some contact with a director or choreographer, who can share ideas and narrative threads in abstract works. If necessary, include a bit of the narrative, especially if there are complex storylines, or numbers of characters, without spoiling any plot twists. In dance or movement, describe the style, and signature moves that might recur throughout the piece. It’s often worth signposting big moments in advance, such as spectacular dance feats or vivid physical images that get reactions from the audience.
Match the introduction to the piece; there is no point having a very weighty introduction to a short piece of work. Most introductions last between five to ten minutes. It’s unrealistic to expect the audience to take on board and retain too much information in advance of a production, and a surprisingly large amount of information can be contained in five minutes. It is also possible to make the introductions available to users independently and in advance of the streamed recording.
There are plenty of examples of introductions around; check out the VocalEyes website, and websites such as the Royal Shakespeare Company, where introductions to their audio described performances are available to listen or download. Of course these were written to accompany specific audio described shows, but they give a very good pointer as to what, and how much, to include.
Watch Audio Described performances on Scenesaver.