Melbourne Theatre Company offers Audio Description (AD) for visually impaired theatre-goers in selected performances. Visually impaired members of the audience are provided with a radio receiver and small ear-piece that allow them to hear live descriptions of the show without disturbing other audience members nearby. Highly-trained audio describers from Vision Australia provide a detailed account of what can be seen onstage including scenery, costume and gesture.
Suzie Hill, a trained audio describer since 1990, has provided the service of AD for a large variety of shows including plays, operas, ballets, musicals and exhibitions.
Can you explain the process of describing a show?
Usually, we Audio Description (AD) in pairs and we view the production three times before describing it. This gives us time to digest all that is happening, make notes and to discuss the show with our partner. In the lead up to the AD’d show we also do some research for background information to include in the pre-show notes.
AD starts about 15 mins before the show and includes information for the first half: synopsis, description of sets, costumes & characters, cast list and other useful information. During the performance, a succinct live word picture is given while taking care not to speak over dialogue or music and not to interpret the action. During interval information relating to the second half is provided.
Melbourne Theatre Company always provides a tactile stage tour where clients with sighted companions are escorted to the stage before the show. Sometimes actors make themselves available for clients to ‘see’ them, often in costume. Many clients have some sight, so having the opportunity to get up close and personal is an absolute bonus and adds dimension to the theatrical outing.
How do these services assist those with vision impairments?
An easy way for a sighted person to understand what AD provides is to just listen to something on TV, or at a show, with their eyes shut for a few minutes. A lot of what is happening is lost. The purpose of AD is to fill in the missing visual cues without interpretation. This enables them to have a sense of independence because there is no need for a companion to describe what is going on, which usually disturbs those seated close by anyway. What we do will never compensate completely for impaired vision but it does help enrich the experience.
What are some of the challenges involved?
All clients are individuals with personal preferences so the challenge is finding the middle ground that pleases everyone. Out of all that is going on, what are the most important things to convey? What might I need to describe ahead of time due to time constraints? Should I mention the time that the tape of a TV series we were doing was missing the last segment? The solution is to Audio Describe on the fly.
Are there any highlights?
A couple attended Billy Elliott with their teenage son who was vision-impaired and afflicted with an autism spectrum disorder. Within the show, Billy’s dead mother appears and strokes Billy’s hair. While this was happening onstage, the young client who normally didn’t react to much reached out and stroked his mother’s hair. She was astounded. So was I.
AD is definitely a team effort and we owe a lot to Marjorie Lane and Marjorie West. They were responsible for getting it all started. We are also fortunate to have wonderful support from the management and Front of House at MTC, Arts Centre Melbourne, Marriner Theatres and Her Majesty’s Theatre, where most of our AD happens.