What is Audio Description?     


Audio Description (AD)
is a relatively new service being provided in Singapore
– the first two instances were in  April 2019
.

The aim of audio description
is to provide a live commentary of the visual aspects
of a performance to enable blind and vision-impaired patrons
to visualise the non-verbal action as it happens on stage, as this is often critical to a full understanding of the drama.

As one of 11 describers trained by Access2Arts (Adelaide) in Singapore in 2018,
I wrote this journal in order to give readers an understanding of what audio description involves, in the hope that:

A)   It encourages more theatre companies/event producers to consider offering audio-described performances;

B)   It will help anyone interested in becoming an audio-describer to understand why our AD training period was an intensive six-day programme (with an additional two days for us to write an AD script based on a live children’s show).    See the side-bar!


The Audio Description Process

STEP 1  I watched the final dress rehearsal of Gretel and Hansel together with my audio-describing partner, Grace Lee-Khoo.  We have divided our responsibilities: she’s focusing on characters and costumes, while I am attending to the settings and props.  I’m lucky as the curtain is open when we enter the theatre – it’s not a public performance – so I am able to make lots of notes about the set as the house lights are still up. Once the show begins, we’re both furiously scribbling notes in the darkened auditorium about what we’re seeing on stage.

 We work as a team because the audio describing experience during the actual performance is intense. It requires tremendous concentration – and adaptability too because, as it’s a live performance, the text and its delivery won’t be exactly the same as in the shows we have observed. (Being a team is also best practice, in case one of us falls sick on the day.)

Our challenge is to say all that we need to say (in order to help our end-users - the blind and vision-impaired - understand what is happening onstage) but only to speak in the brief gaps between lines of dialogue! Our mantra: be precise, be concise. And try not to interpret – we are there to describe (she slumps on the sofa) rather than interpreting for the audience (she sits in despair).

 After the show, Grace shares a couple of exciting ideas for the touch tour (another good reason for working in a team!)  We want to give these vision-impaired kids an exciting experience that will motivate them to attend another audio-described show – hopefully with their families, so that they can all share in the same experience at the same time (without feeling excluded or having to tug repeatedly at Daddy’s arm and ask plaintively, ‘what’s happening, Dad? What’s going on?’)

               

STEP 2:    We receive a video of the performance, plus a soft copy of the script.

We have three tasks:

            Task 1: to prepare a pre-show introduction to the cast, characters, costumes, settings and props. I must remember that, while in the theatre we always speak of ‘stage left’ (meaning the actor’s left when they face the audience) when describing, we always speak of what the audience sees so left is . . left!

Task 2: to audio record this introduction, together with details of the production team and the venue (highlighting booking, travel and access options for our AD patrons). This audio-recording will be uploaded on the theatre website for blind/vision-impaired patrons to access before coming to the theatre.

Task 3:  to write our script for the actual audio description, using our notes and minute-by minute study of the video. This is seriously time-consuming – about an hour for every five minutes of on-stage action!  Incidentally, the video is nothing fancy – simply an archival recording made by a camera stuck somewhere in the auditorium with no zooms or cuts. That’s why we need our notes from the live observation to help flesh out the details. Subsequently we also receive high-def photos of the production – though these mostly show the costumes in glorious detail, but little of the set (all artistically blurred by shallow depth-of-field!)  Note to self: ask future Stage Manager to prompt the photographer to take some shots of each setting!!


STEP 3:      We go to see another performance of the play.

            Why? Partly to become familiar with the show (and to hear audience reactions!) and partly because performances evolve. Sometimes there are changes in the script, pacing is picked up or ‘business’ is added or cut.  We know which moments in the play are difficult for us to describe and we pay close attention to them.  

We take this opportunity to meet and befriend the Stage Manager. We need the SM’s whole-hearted support in order to create an exciting, experiential touch tour, which is a highlight of the visit. We outline what we’d like to include in the tour for the SM’s approval (bearing in mind safety, fragility of specific props, timing of set up etc.)

What happens on a touch-tour? If we’re lucky we’ll meet the key actors – not to touch them(!) but to hear them speak so we can easily identify them, and get used to their accent (especially if they play more than one character.)  We will explore the set, feel the texture of some costume material (you can imagine what fun this is in many children’s shows!) and even manipulate some props, such as a puppet, or at least get a sense of its size, shape and movement.


STEP 4:      The Dry Run.

Now Grace and I are in a room where we can see the stage, but we are not in the Auditorium, so we can speak without distracting the rest of the audience. We have a volunteer end-user sat in the audience. She has downloaded the app and listens to the performance and our description throughout the show.  Afterwards she gives us feedback – when we said too much, too little, and what she found confusing. (“you said he wore stripes but did they go across or up-down?”)   We go away and re-write.


STEP 5:        The Actual performance.

Our call is 90 minutes before showtime.  We meet those who have signed up for the Audio Description service (it’s free for patrons) and 75 minutes before showtime we bring them into the theatre and onto stage for the touch tour.

THE TOUCH TOUR is a highlight of the AD experience. It usually takes about 30 minutes.  We explore the geography of the set, learn why there are magnets sewn into the Fedora hat (and feel the distinctive shape of a fedora!) and, very exciting for our young tour group, get to meet the two actors who star in the show (and learn they are adults playing children!)  They demonstrate their character voices.

Once the tour is over, Grace and I go to the booth where we’ll deliver the description, while the Front-of-house staff check that patrons have successfully downloaded the app and know how to use it. I make sure everyone can hear me via their earpiece. (Hands up if you can hear me!)

15 minutes before the show begins, we start the pre-show description – see Task 1. This is to give those listening a clear idea of the characters, what they are wearing and what the stage looks like.  It takes about 10 minutes.

The show begins and we describe, describe, describe.

When the show is over, the last thing we do is to thank the patrons for their support of the service and encourage them to give their feedback, as we believe it is an essential part of helping us to improve.

In the lobby, we get some real feedback. A blind mother who came with her family is thrilled, as the description meant she could enjoy the show at the same time with her family. Two kids animatedly discuss which was the best bit of the play. The touch tour has really made their visit special in a very positive way (other audience members don’t get to learn stage secrets or meet the actors!)


What does it take to be an effective  
Audio Describer?


If you think you can just walk in to the performance and start describing what you are seeing happening on stage, think again !  


Read my journal and you’ll see why the extensive preparation is required.


In my experience, I’d say the following criteria are important:



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© Roger Jenkins Pte Ltd 2020  |  Feedback: rogerstoryteller@gmail.com

My next Audio Described Performance:


LIFE SPAN
OF FACT

7 March 7pm

SRT

Interested to find out more about future AD training?