Audio Description

Audio Description (AD) is a relatively new service being provided in Singapore – the first two known instances were at theatre shows 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 have written this journal in order to give you an understanding of what audio description involves, in the hope that:

  1. It will encourage more theatre companies/event producers to consider offering audio-described performances as part of their programming;
  2. It will help people understand why our AD training period was an intensive six-day programme (with an additional two days for participants to write their own AD script based on a live children’s show).

Audio description is not something that you can just walk into a theatre and do off-the-cuff!

 

What is Audio Description?

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 AD 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

A few days later we  receive a video of the performance, plus a soft copy of the script & the programme. We have 3 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 HD 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

The Touch Tour

The Touch Tour is a 30 minute pre-show treat for anyone using the AD service

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, to get a sense of its geography and possible explain the mechanics of any fast changes which we won't have time to describe during the performance, 

We'll feel the texture of some costumes (you can imagine what fun this is in many children’s shows!) and perhaps 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 (the actors) and our description throughout the show. 

Afterwards she gives us feedback – when we said too much or 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.

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.

I note that the play’s Director is there with his family observing, and I think: Great! Now he’s on board, the next time he directs a show, he’ll be aware of, open to – and hopefully, a champion for - having an AD performance.

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.

15 minutes before the show begins, we start the pre-show description – see Step 2/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!)

Grace and I are delighted to have been a part of it, and we thank the SRT staff and production team for their excellent support and enthusiasm.

What does it take to be an Audio Describer?

  • Good observation skills.
  • An ability to write concise and precise description that is appropriate for the play and the audience.
  • Patience and persistence as you go through the script/performance line-by-line writing your text.
  • A good speaking voice that is both pleasant to listen to and expressive.
  • Training to sharpen all of the above skills and an understanding of the audio describers craft.

If you'd like to find out more, do contact me