This week, the National Theatre in London is featuring the Shakespeare play Twelfth Night on their YouTube channel as part of their National Theatre At Home series. I was beyond excited to learn that in addition to streaming the play for free, Twelfth Night would also be available with audio description so that viewers who are blind or that have low vision would be able to fully enjoy the play as well. Here are my tips for watching Twelfth Night with audio description from the National Theatre, and how audio description is used. Please note that this is not a review of the play or the production itself, rather the technology that allows me to be able to watch it.
What is audio description?
Audio description, sometimes referred to as descriptive audio or described video, is an additional narrator track that provides visual information for people who otherwise would not be able to see it. Audio description may be provided live by a narrator or pre-recorded ahead of time using either a professional narrator or synthesized voice. In live theater, audio description is typically played on an assistive listening device (ALD), which is about the size of a cell phone, or on an app such as GalaPro.
For online videos, open audio description is used, meaning that the audio description automatically plays and does not require a special device to be used.
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How to access Twelfth Night with audio description
Users can access the full performance of Twelfth Night with audio description through April 30th, 2020 on the National Theatre’s YouTube channel, which is linked below. Within the video description, users can click on the links to listen to information about the background of the play as well as the settings, scenes, and characters of the production (also known as a pre-performance description). This information is also available on the National Theater website. I strongly recommend listening to the pre-performance description prior to playing the performance, as it provides a lot of important information.
Why I use audio description when watching plays
While Twelfth Night can be watched online without audio description, I chose to watch it with audio description for the following reasons:
- I have low vision so I have trouble seeing scenes with dim lighting and following along with movement on the screen, even if the screen is close to my face
- There are several scene changes within Twelfth Night that happen quickly, and it helps for me to know when the changes are happening, and where people are going
- Strobe/flashing lights can be a migraine trigger for me, so getting a warning about lightning or similar effects gives me time to hide my eyes
- I already use audio description for a variety of other media, including movies, TV shows, online videos, live theater, and others. I specifically look for content that has audio description available and consider it a major factor when choosing whether I should watch something or not
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Listening to the pre-performance descriptions
The audio description for the background of the play provides information about the plot of Twelfth Night that is quoted from the play’s program, and the entire track is about one minute long. For viewers who are not familiar with the plot of Twelfth Night or who have questions about the specific content of the play, I recommend searching online for additional information.
The pre-performance description (which is linked below) is about fifteen minutes long provides information about the settings, scenes, and characters that are specific to the National Theatre production. This is especially important to listen to, as some of the characters from the classic Twelfth Night play have different genders in this specific production, and the production features a multicultural cast.
Examples of information described in the pre-performance description include:
- Character names and physical descriptions, and how they change through the play
- Costumes that are worn by each character, i.e black overcoats
- Descriptions of the theatre and structures that are used to create different sets
- How characters are referred to throughout the play (for example, Viola’s name is used throughout even though she goes by a different name)
- Places where scenes take place, i.e the hospital and the street
- Descriptions of sets, furniture, and props that appear on stage
For users who prefer to read the description in advance, the pre-performance notes can be downloaded as a Word document from the National Theatre website.
- Background information about the play (audio)
- Pre-performance description for Twelfth Night (audio)
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What is described during the play
Audio description is read fairly consistently throughout the play by a professional narrator, with descriptions playing during natural pauses in dialogue. Some examples of audio description from the Twelfth Night play that does not contain any spoilers include:
- Lightning flashes in the distance
- He floors her with an uppercut, she recovers
- Malvolio’s face doesn’t crack
- The fountain erupts to life, spouting water
- They steal his bag and run away
How audio description helped me understand the play
While I had read parts of the Twelfth Night play for one of my classes, I found that the notes for the original play written by Shakespeare himself were not overly helpful for me when watching the National Theatre production, because they had modernized the play and incorporated many unique features into their sets. This is far from being a bad thing, as this means that audio description was able to help me follow along much better than I would have otherwise, especially since there is lots of movement and different sight gags that are used throughout the play. Without audio description, I would have missed out on a lot of details and had trouble distinguishing characters and set changes.
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I am extremely grateful that the National Theatre is streaming plays with audio description for audiences who are blind or that have low vision, and I hope they will continue to do this for future productions as well. I love getting to watch live theater with audio description, and I hope that more theaters will invest in making audio description services available when broadcasting online performances of their plays. For fans of Shakespeare or live theater, I highly recommend watching Twelfth Night with audio description and donating to the National Theatre if possible, as the play is a lot of fun to watch!