This month we have a guest post from Christopher McKiddie
who provides Audio Description in theatres around Scotland.
Hello. My name is Christopher and I am an audio describer. I was pleased to be asked to contribute to the SAST newsletter by telling you a little about what audio description involves. Why? Firstly because it is such a very enjoyable/challenging/maddening way to make a (partial) living. I have by now described more than 150 separate productions and it is always different, always new. One week Pinter, the next a west end musical, the next a film documentary. Last night I was describing a BSL stand-up comedian demonstrate the sign language for muff-diving.
And secondly, because audio description is something that so many people have heard of but know very little about.
I’m sure you’ve all watched television or gone to the theatre and observed a BSL Interpreter, for the benefit of hearing-impaired people.
However, unless you were visually-impaired, you could attend an audio described performance and not know it. VI patrons (or VIPs) access the service either through a button on their remote control or, in the case of theatre, via a headset. As a result, it remains a mystery to many. My own Dad still thinks I’m a BSL interpreter.
So what is audio description, or AD? AD is a narrative track designed to assist blind and visually-impaired consumers of television, film, theatre, dance, opera and visual art. The audio describer talks through the performance, exhibition or presentation, describing what is happening on the screen or stage during the natural pauses in the audio. In the case of theatre, this is usually done via a microphone and headseat, delivered live from a specially-designed box (or broom cupboard).
AD is a supplementary commentary that describes body language, expressions, movements and actions, hopefully making the story clear and filling in any gaps not made explicitly clear by the dialogue. Where possible, and often as part of a pre-show introduction, the audio describer will also offer details regarding props, scenery and costume which might a.) be crucial to the unfolding plot, and b.) help enrich the atmosphere.
We are commissioned by a theatre, film company, museum or other venue to audio describe an event, play, film etc. We receive a script, if there is one, or if the show is a long-running touring production, we might receive a DVD. We then view the production, sometimes with a colleague, decide who will describe which act (or acts), then begin to prepare our scripts.
Beneath is an excerpt from one of my scripts from a recent production of Cyrano de Bergerac:
Blackout. We are now in The Poet’s Patisserie, owned by Ragueneau and her wife Lise. The name Ragueneau is emblazoned in yellow neon above the door. In the centre of the cafe is a table laden with cakes and pastries. Ragueneau is sitting at another table, tapping a typewriter.
LIGNIERE Nougat! Flan! Peacock! Gateau! Stew!
RAGUENEAU Ma copper pots, dawn-silvered, gleamin new!
Her apprentice enters with a tray of his own pastries.
- C’moan, Ragueneau, gie yer auld Muse a by!
The lyre’s fur later. Gie the furnace a try!
APPRENTICE Ah’ve baked this in yer honour, sir – weel-fired! Ah hope ye like it, sir!
RAGUENEAU Oh, it’s a lyre!
APPRENTICE Best Dough, sir.
RAGUENEAU And is that crystalized fruit?
APPRENTICE Aye, and the strings is pure sugar tae boot!
RAGUENEAU Go drink ma health! Oh Fuck. Ma wife! Vamoose. And hide that money!
- It’s nice?
LISE Whit’s the use?
RAGUENEAU Ye’ve broat some paper bags?... Good. Thanks.
Essentially, where possible, we describe what’s in front of us. Simple? Not quite, and I’ll try to explain why.
Code of Practice
, a UK-based audio description charity, have established a Code of Practice. 2.1 states that a describer should: only accept work where they have appropriate qualifications, skill, experience, and competence. Individual Audio Describers are expected to know their own limitations and act within the spirit of the Code in deciding which assignments to accept.
In short, if you feel out of your depth, either don’t accept the job, or ask for help.
I know nothing nothing about fashion, and so describing costumes is tricky. A dress is a dress is a dress. If I’m not sure, I ask. Family, friends, colleagues, social media. I use all the resources available to me to be as accurate and clear as I can about exactly what someone is wearing. Don’t guess. Find out.
Several years back I described Black Watch. For those of you that have seen the play, there is a scene which takes the form of a fashion show catwalk, where a soldier marches up and down modelling the various military uniforms worn by the Black Watch regiment through the years. I went straight to the costume department, who were only too happy to advise me of the correct terminology.
It is equally important not to be overly technical. This might sound odd, but there is little point meticulously describing every detail, when the audience don’t have the first clue what the terms mean. For example, in Spamalot the French Guards wore cocked Bicorne plumed hats. That’s useless unless the audience know what that actually looks like. It’s useful sometimes to offer a comparison. You could say “a black, plumed Bicorne hat, the kind worn by Napoleon Boneparte”. A bit of a mouthful but it at least conjures a mental image.
There’s also a limit to the amount of detail a person can absorb, particularly when they are also having to focus on a plot they may not be familiar with. I like to think of my (usually) ten-minute pre-show introduction as like the Generation Game conveyor belt
. There’s only so much information people can take in one go before they start to forget the first things you told them.
We should also be completely familiar with the play in order to be able to pick out the key visual clues which a visually impaired viewer may miss. If, for example, a candlestick is sitting on a kitchen table and is used later as a murder weapon, it should be mentioned but in an off-hand way, because that is how the sighted viewer will see it. However, any obvious spoilers should be avoided.
Audio describers are trained to always be objective. They should never voice a personal opinion or interpret events. This is harder than you might think.
The description is there to clarify what is going on but value judgements should be avoided. It is patronising and potentially misleading. We as describers cannot always assume to know the meaning behind the actor’s movements, the director’s vision, or the writer’s words.
Rather we must use language creatively and study body language to allow the VIP to understand what is happening, without spelling it out. For example, we would avoid saying that a character ‘looked angry’. We would instead look for evidence that they looked angry, and say that he or she ‘narrowed her eyes’ or ‘bared her teeth’. We would avoid saying that she ‘looked surprised’, we would instead say that she ‘raised her eyebrows’. Describing physical movements can be an effective way of expressing emotion. For example, she did not ‘move dejectedly’, she ‘trudged’.
The other key rule is that we must never speak when there is dialogue taking place. It’s the one major bugbear of VIPs. However, often information which is crucial to the plot may be revealed during a period of heavy speech.
So, where even the briefest of descriptive words is impossible, a describer will use a technique known as ‘signposting’. For example, during a blackout, or scene change, we might introduce a character by saying “When Charlie enters, he grabs a beer from the fridge and swigs from it. He is wearing only his underpants”. Now, it may be several moments before Charlie enters and for audience members who are partially-sighted this can be potentially confusing, and some will notice that the words do not co-ordinate with the actions. However, at least they will be able to understand why the audience is laughing.
It’s an uncomfortable compromise and should only be used when the information provided is, a. crucial to the plot or b. likely to provoke a strong audience response i.e. a laugh or a gasp. For a VIP there is nothing so frustrating as to be surrounded by people laughing, and you aren’t in on the joke. In fact, this is one of the key areas where audio description is crucial. In slapstick comedy like One Man, Two Guvnors, or What the Butler Saw, much of the humour may be completely lost on the VIP without the assistance of audio description. In a dialogue-heavy production like Blackbird or The Rivals, less so.
Visually-impaired comedian, actor and audio description user Jamie Cuthbertson
once addressed the ADA Scotland AGM. He referred to a conversation with Marjorie, a long-serving audio describer, who was adamant that the language we use should reflect what happens on stage, both in tone and in content.
When describing pantomime or children’s theatre we are encouraging to ‘enter into the spirit’ by using language and adopting a tone which is more appropriate for a younger audience. When appropriate, it should be fun, light and responsive to the content.
That said, we shouldn’t take ‘’entering into the spirit’ to extremes. Humiliatingly, on one occasion I burst into song during a performance of Wicked and am guilty of the occasional LOL, particularly during panto season.
With regard to describing sex scenes, Jamie quoted Marjorie as saying 'if they're making love, they're making love, if they're f***ing, they're f***ing.’ In a profession where being concise is key, such an undeniably evocative word can say so much.
However. Many describers are reluctant to cause offence, or overstep boundaries. Others, like myself, are just plain prudish.
One of the first plays I described was a production of The Libertine. During a scene in a brothel, a prostitute performs oral sex on Rochester. When comparing notes, my colleague suggested that ‘she sucked his c**k’ would be more ‘in the spirit’ of the production, and more effective in conveying the mood and nature of the liaison.
Sex scenes are not all the same - they can be romantic/tender/rough/violent etc. The VIP needs to know who is in control, initiates, body position and perhaps facial expression. Who is dominant? These are all questions we have to answer.
It is also crucial to avoid being prudish in more general physical descriptions. If someone is greatly overweight, or has a larger than normal nose or ears, we should not flinch from describing that, for fear from sounding unkind. What matters ultimately is the VIP, and their ability to enjoy the performance on an equal footing.
Some of you may be aware of Birds of Paradise Theatre Company
. Many of their productions, such as Tell Me What Giving Up Looks Like? and Wendy Hoose, featured what is known as integrated audio description, as well as integrated captioning and BSL interpreting. Put simply, this is audio description which the entire audience can hear, which features in every single performance, not just one or two.
While this approach may not be suitable for every type of production, it has many positive consequences. First is in terms of accessibility. In an ordinary theatrical run, only one performance may be audio described. If the visually-impaired person is not available on that Thursday evening or Saturday matinee, then tough.
So integrated description benefits visually-impaired people by improving accessibility. But it also benefits the service by raising the profile of audio description in general, removing it from its somewhat ghetto-ised status. Almost all creative output are sighted productions for sighted people.
Audio describers have to work within the constraints of a culture that creates television, film and theatre for a sighted audience, while audio describers/BSL interpreters/captioners must work around those constraints to make them accessible, with varying degrees of success. Integrated productions like these are important because they seek to put the interests of a visually or hearing-impaired audience at the heart of the creative process, not merely a well-meaning afterthought. It removes the need for a VIP to announce themselves at the box office and fiddle with headsets. They can enjoy the magic of the theatre like anyone else.
A few years ago I collaborated with Claire Cunningham
, a multi-disciplinary performer and choreographer from Glasgow, on her fascinating work Guide Gods, which explored attitudes of religions towards disability. It stemmed from a visit to Cambodia where she met a Buddhist monk who told her that her own disability was certainly the result of karma, being punished for sins in a former life.
“Do you ever think of yourself as being like God”, she asked me? She was interested in the notion of having someone in your ear, acting as your eyes out into the world. What I believe she was trying to get at was the notion of power and trust in the audio describer/visually-impaired patron relationship. It was a reminder not to be blase about this responsibility or abuse that position of trust, and to always strive to be 100% professional and accurate.
This description too was integrated, although on this occasion it was pre-recorded. My voice has been to Belfast, London and Sydney, without me. We played around with the idea of audio description as the voice of God by writing the introduction in the style of the book of Genesis, as if I was not only describing the set, but creating it with my words.
This idea was explored further during a dance sequence involving tea-cups, where Claire quite deliberately moved only after I spoke, giving the impression that I as the describer, or God, was driving her actions and that she was responding to me, rather than the other way round.
I hope that has given you a little insight into the world of the audio describer. There is always another artist/writer/director/performer willing and able to push the next boundary, throwing up another challenge for the describer. However, by sticking to one basic principle we can’t go too far wrong: Say what you see (or what you think you see).
If you’d like to know more about audio description, or which audio described performances are available in Scotland, there’s lots of information and listings on the ADA Scotland website
, and also on Access Scottish Theatre
. Or just ask me
. If you’ve made it to the end of these dribblings, you’ll know that it something I like to talk about. A lot.