Audio description for theatre

 3 February 2011

Theatre audio describer Pauline Brandt discusses working backstage in 'a cross between poetry and live broadcast'.

What is audio description?

"I'm an audio describer in the theatre. Basically, that is scripting between dialogue of a play, all the physicality that happens on the stage. So you are creating a little sketch for blind and visually impaired audiences.

"People are very, very pleased that this service exists. I've heard people say it's actually been quite transformative."

"I'd never heard of it. My background was in broadcasting, I was an arts news reporter. So my heart was always in the arts, but I was very used to scripting and producing material.

"I did an intensive three-month course where I completed the certificate in audio description skills, and it was run by a charity called See A Voice."

"I think you have to have:

  • a good sense of timing
  • good editorial skills
  • good communication skills.

Providing audio description

"The first thing I need to do is to see the play, to get a feel for the characters and the set. I sit very quietly with a notebook and sketch people from top to toe.

"How tall are they? What's their hair like? Is it short, is it long, is it crimped? What's their eyeline like? What's their nose like, their mouth? And not only that, expressions and nuances. Do they fidget? Do they slouch? You start to look at people in a lot more detail, and it's the little things that say a lot more about a character.

"The job is about precision, and it's also about a lightness of touch as well, because you don't want to be talking in a person's ear."

The benefits of audio description

"People are very, very pleased that this service exists. I've heard people say it's actually been quite transformative.

"The idea is to increase access. Not just to tick a box which says 'Disability and Discrimination Act', visually impaired people need to feel welcome in the theatre. The onus is on audio describers to produce something of high quality.

"It seems like a very good marrying of my skills in broadcasting with a love for the theatre and the arts. Journalism skills are actually a good background, but people have come from all sorts of backgrounds for this.

"Increasingly, it could be used in more and more contexts, and for more and more people: paintings, sculpture, architecture and dance. Something like a hundred people a day are diagnosed with some kind of sight problem, and there's macular degeneration which happens as people get older."

Skills for audio description

"The job is about precision, and it's also about a lightness of touch as well, because you don't want to be talking in a person's ear."

Roz Chalmers, from The National Theatre, emphasised that audio description is, "a real profession, not just for people who 'love the theatre' or want to 'help blind people.'"

"You need to have a wide vocabulary, an understanding of how theatre works, good writing skills and a good voice with excellent mic skills.

"In addition, you need an understanding of the way blind and partially sighted people like to receive information and must be prepared to work with technical equipment.


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