For my undergraduate advanced English class in college, I decided to write my final paper about audio description in theater, specifically the use of audio description in amateur/local theater, and the benefits of promoting cast involvement in audio description, and today I’m sharing the paper on my website so that others can read it. While I removed the parenthetical citations to make it easier for users with screen readers to read the content, I have included the original bibliography at the bottom and additional related links from my website.
With the growing population of people that identify as blind or visually impaired, many theaters and productions have been working to find ways to ensure that live theater is accessible to all patrons regardless of sight level. One of the techniques that is most commonly used is audio description, which provides auditory descriptions of the visual information on stage. However, audio description is very expensive and when it is developed by a third party, descriptions fail to reflect the energy of the cast and the vision of the director. To solve this problem, cast members can get involved in writing audio descriptions for their own characters and scenes to ensure that the descriptions best reflect the performance. This will not only help with including theatergoers that are blind or visually impaired, but it will also save money and time since a third party will not have to develop the scripts, and it will encourage cast members to explore and analyze the visual aspects of their roles.
Introduction to Audio Description
Audio description, sometimes referred to as descriptive audio or assisted listening, is a form of audiovisual translation that is primarily used by the blind and visually impaired , though sight level does not impact the ability to use the technology . It allows people to hear what cannot be seen, as the intended meaning of visual information is provided via a narrator and traditionally focuses on what is seen on stage like the lens of a camera. Audio description is used in live theater performances as a narrator describes action on stage, as well as for select movies and TV shows on streaming video platforms, though it can also be found at museums, circuses, rodeos, dance performances, sporting events, historical sites, and many more. Audio description can be pre-recorded in advance or use a live interpreter, and the final description is broadcast using wireless FM transmitters that have headphones plugged into them, though some theaters use open audio descriptions that can be heard by everyone without any special equipment needed.
Benefits of Audio Description
Cognitive and social benefits exist for theatergoers that are blind or visually impaired as well as others involved in the theater. People attend live theater performances to be stimulated visually and aurally, not just informed about what is going on. Audio description can be utilized by anyone, but the primary target is people of all ages that identify as being blind or visually impaired. Most studies on the topic have involved older theatergoers that lost their sight later in life, since they are more likely to request audio descriptions and because they have strong visual references for objects. Quality audio description reflects the director and the tremendous amount of effort that the cast and crew put into the show and by taking the time to understand the blind audience, directors and other cast members can understand more about how a performance is interpreted by theatergoers.
Embracing Unconventional Description
Unlike sign language, audio description does not require precise or exact translations, so audio describers can develop their own styles. Actors have found that audio description can help with developing character roles and understanding how their body language conveys certain meanings and shows how different casts can impact descriptions. Audio description traditionally uses third person, expressive delivery to ensure information is presented as objectively as possible, though more and more theaters are adopting unconventional audio description techniques, such as using a first-person narrator, music, tactile displays, or iambic pentameter for constructing descriptions. Audio description can also embrace using unconventional describers by using amateur voice talent, which can be trained in as little as one hour or having cast members or directors write and produce the audio description scripts to ensure that the blind and visually impaired audience is able to see the vision of the director and energy of the cast members just as well as the sighted audience.
How To Train Describers
Audio description procedures, processes, and techniques were first formalized by researcher G. Frazier in the 1970s, though audio description practices for live theater were not developed until 1985 and still have a lot of flexibility. Describers are often regarded as being storytellers and work under the assumption that verbal commentary can replace visual information in its entirety and that complex concepts can be described with simple sounds. Describers take notes in advance about appearance, movement, and work to understand the director’s vision, while ensuring visual information is presented in an objective way without any commentary added or any sound redundancies. Cast members can begin training as audio describers by watching short videos and scenes and writing down summaries of what is going on during the scene. After writing out a description, cast members will compare it against the script to see if any details were left out and then practice reading their script as the video or scene is played out in real time. After mastering the basic skills, they can begin to break down plays and performances into smaller parts such as acts, scenes, and lines to examine the script in-depth and determine what information the audience would need to understand what is happening on stage. Amateur describers can be trained in as little as three hours, though cast members that have been through professional drama or theater training may be trained even faster since these techniques are often discussed in workshops and classes.
User Characteristics to Remember
Many people who are blind or visually impaired have visual references for things and can follow audio descriptions with ease, though there is a small percentage of people that have experienced total blindness since birth and have poor visual references. It is estimated that at least one out of every five blind and visually impaired people have used some form of audio description, but there has not been enough data collected on this topic to know for sure. Without audio descriptions, theatergoers who are blind or visually impaired miss out on specific and important chunks of information or have to ask a companion what is going on during the performance which can be distracting, though having too much audio description is almost as confusing as having no audio description at all. The human brain can only remember so much short-term information at once, and it may not be the information that the original writers of the audio description want them to remember. For example, if a scene involves someone falling down a flight of stairs and the describer talks about every single stair as the performer falls down, the listener may get bored or start zoning out, though without audio description the listener would wonder what the loud thud noise was on stage. By choosing to share the most relevant and necessary information, theatergoers will find it much easier to follow along during a performance.
Developing a Pre-Show Introduction
Pre-show descriptions have been found to be extremely beneficial for people attending performances with audio description and last for about 6-8 minutes before the beginning of a show. Descriptions typically consist of set and costume elements and helps to showcase the director’s vision that goes beyond just summarizing the plot of the play. They are often the most difficult audio descriptions to create, since theatregoers are provided with lots of detail and must remember a bulk of those details throughout the play, unlike their sighted peers who can look around the stage to remember the setting and costume design. When producing a pre-show description, scripts should consist of a basic summary of the play, set descriptions, physical descriptions of characters and their costumes, and stage layout. Most pre-show descriptions also include information about the building such as emergency exits, ramp locations, restrooms, and locations to buy concessions. Following the pre-show description, information should only be described during pauses so that it does not interrupt the performance and should be communicated as concisely as possible since listeners are constantly referring to the concepts of sets and characters that they created for themselves during the pre-show description- long or complicated descriptions may cause confusion or frustration for audience members.
Pairing Audio Description With Touch Tours
For people with poor visual references, a touch tour that takes place approximately 90 minutes before the show can greatly increase understanding and information retention for the play. A touch tour allows participants to feel props and costumes to get an idea of what they look like. Combining the tactile information from the touch tours with the audio and visual elements that the audio description narrates during the show provides a full picture of what the stage looks like. Cast members can easily organize touch tours for guests by choosing key props from the play as well as putting important costumes on mannequins so that guests can distinguish information such as size, texture, fabric composition, and more. Braille and large print labels can be added to enhance the experience and help guests to retain information.
Creating Audio Description for the Main Performance
Socially accepted norms regarding live theater revolve around having accommodations that will not disrupt anyone else. A single line of audio description during a live performance should last anywhere from two to ten seconds, depending on the amount of time between lines, even though this timing is not always consistent and varies from performance to performance. Descriptions are often thousands of words long- even a ten-minute video can have more than 550 words. It can be difficult to decide what should be described, along with when and how it should be described, though some of the most helpful descriptions include facial expressions/gestures, settings, stage directions, and the use of metaphors to convey meaningful information without any additional commentary or reactions. This is one potential drawback for having cast members or directors write audio description scripts, since they may have trouble distinguishing what parts of the script are important to the audience and not just what parts of the script that they find interesting. This can be mitigated by having a dress rehearsal that utilizes open audio description, meaning that the audio description track can be heard by the entire audience with no additional special equipment needed and feedback can be provided about description quality. Ultimately, audio description should not distract from the performance, but instead allows people that are blind or visually impaired to be fully immersed and included in a performance.
Cost Benefits of Using Amateur Describers
Audio description can be expensive or difficult to acquire due to cost and availability of trained describers. People who rely on audio description tend to be very picky about the narrator’s voice characteristics, speech patterns, and speed of narration, preferring natural sounding voices without any accents that use rich, descriptive words that allow the listener to be fully immersed. Cast members receive hours of voice training when preparing for roles and are very conscious of line delivery, so having them prepare descriptions for their own characters would be a great use of their training. To save time, scripts written by cast members can be performed using synthetic voices, such as those found in screen readers. This would make audio description services more cost-effective and accessible to patrons, since productions can save money by writing and performing their own audio description scripts and only hiring a third party developer to manage the assisted listening devices, as opposed to having the company write and develop the description which takes up most of their time. Cast members can write out audio descriptions for each of their characters and work with each other to ensure that the production makes sense and concepts could be understood by someone who has their eyes turned away from the stage.
The Future of Audio Description
As more laws regarding audio description are created, such as the 21st Century Communications and Video Accessibility Act, the technology will continue to expand and improve over the next several years. Amateur audio description programs are being developed so that describers as young as thirteen years old will be able to create and perform audio descriptions for theatergoers that are blind or visually impaired. As theaters have begun to embrace the concepts of universal design/universal accessibility, productions have more resources to create multi-sensory performances that combine haptic feedback with existing audio description so that information can be communicated much more quickly and with fewer words than before. By including cast members and directors in the creative process, they can add their own unique touches and perspectives to descriptions and help make the live theater experience more human for everyone involved. By encouraging creativity and innovation in the world of audio description, live theater can continue to be made accessible for the blind and visually impaired for generations to come.
- Audio Description Resource Guide. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.loc.gov/nls/about/services/reference-publications/guides/audio-description-resource-guide/
- Calderazzo, D. (2010). The “Stage in the Head”: A Cognitive Approach to Understanding Audio Description in the Theatre. Theatre Topics,20(2), 171-180. doi:10.1353/tt.2010.0103
- Di Giovanni, E. (2018). Audio description for live performances and audience participation. The Journal of Specialised Translation,(29), 189-211.
- Fryer, L., & Freeman, J. (2013). Cinematic language and the description of film: Keeping AD users in the frame. Perspectives,21(3), 412-426. doi:10.1080/0907676x.2012.693108
- Matamala, A., & Orero, P. (2016). Researching audio description: New approaches. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Swindells, C., Pietarinen, S., & Viitanen, A. (2014). Medium fidelity rapid prototyping of vibrotactile haptic, audio and video effects. 2014 IEEE Haptics Symposium (HAPTICS). doi:10.1109/haptics.2014.6775509
- Udo, J. P., & Fels, D. I. (2009). The development of a new theatrical tradition: Sighted students audio describe school play for a blind and low-vision audience. International Journal of Education & the Arts, 10(20). Retrieved from http://www.ijea.org/v10n20/.
- Udo, J., Acevedo, B., & Fels, D. (2010). Horatio audio-describes Shakespeare’s Hamlet. British Journal of Visual Impairment,28(2), 139-156. doi:10.1177/0264619609359753
- Walczak, A., & Fryer, L. (2017). Vocal delivery of audio description by genre: Measuring users’ presence. Perspectives,26(1), 69-83. doi:10.1080/0907676x.2017.1298634
- Whitfield, M., & Fels, D. I. (2013). Inclusive Design, Audio Description and Diversity of Theatre Experiences. The Design Journal,16(2), 219-238. doi:10.2752/175630613×13584367984983
Related links from Veronica With Four Eyes
- Fast Facts About Audio Description
- 8 Myths About Audio Description
- How To Create Audio Description For YouTube With YouDescribe
- Watching Twelfth Night With Audio Description From The National Theatre
- Using Audio Description at Dear Evan Hansen
- Using GalaPro Audio Description at Chicago
- YouDescribe: Audio Description For YouTube
- Watching Mischief Movie Night In With Audio Description