All about Audio Description

November 10, 2009

By Jennifer Peck, the Arden’s General Manager

As part of our commitment to providing programming for everyone, The Arden offered two accessible performances of The History Boys. C2 Captioning provided open captions for all of our audience members, especially those who are hard of hearing or deaf, and for our low vision and blind patrons, we offered large print programs (which we provide for all of our performances) and audio description.

I audio described my first show in the fall of 2007. It was Assassins and it was the first time the Arden offered audio description. Since then, I’ve described several Arden shows including the several costume changes that Ian Merril Peakes made in the Barrymore-Award winning Something Intangible to our first fully accessible Children’s Theatre performance of A Year With Frog and Toad, made possible by Art-Reach. Audio description is when someone uses the natural pauses in dialogue or narration to insert descriptions of essential visual elements of a production to ensure that people who have blind or low vision enjoy equal access to cultural events. Descriptions are delivered through a wireless earphone to permit people using the service to sit anywhere in the audience. (The Arden is fortunate enough to provide audio description thanks to the equipment lent to us by VSA Arts of Pennsylvania.)

Each show has its particular audio description challenges. With Assassins, it was figuring out where, as an Audio Describer, I should sit. Our seating changes for each show and, if you remember, we flipped the seating in the Haas around for Assasssins. Because of this staging, I couldn’t actually see the stage from the booth and so, I had to describe Assassins while watching a live feed of the show on a television set up in the booth. While History Boys didn’t have the sightline challenges of Assassins – I got to share the booth with the show’s Stage Manager, the lovely and talented Kate Hanley – it was still the hardest show I’ve ever had to audio describe. (And not just because I really like 1980’s British post punk dance music and often found myself trying to figure out which New Order remix was playing when I should have been describing where the boys were putting the desks on stage.)

Here’s two things to know about audio description: You can not talk while the actors are talking and you need to be absolutely unbiased in your describing. Both of these rules, while usually challenging, were especially difficult with History Boys which, if you saw it, you know is a very ‘talk-y’ show. (Up there with David Davalo’s World Premiere of Wittenberg which I described in the spring of 2008, trying to get a word in between Scott Greer’s Faustus and Greg Wood’s Martin Luther.) But while there are a lot – A LOT – of words in History Boys, there’s also a lot going on when characters are not talking. While it is mentioned by actors, it’s very important to know that the boys, or Hector, always locked the door and, in our production, pulled down the blinds, when Hector was teaching. Scripps told the audience that Posner always looked at Dakin and so Dakin knew that Irwin also looked at Dakin but it’s important that you see that in the play, too. And think about how important Alison Robert’s costumes are to the production. Each of the boys in the show wore the same uniform but they each wore it differently. Rudge carried a gym bag and, sometimes, a rugby ball. Lockwood wore sunglasses and black and white tennis shoes. There were subtle and sometimes not so subtle details (like a wheelchair) in Irwin’s character when the story flash forwards. The sighted audience knew that Hector often carried his motorcycle helmet with him and that Dakin was not wearing pants when the Headmaster entered the classroom during the French lesson and so it is necessary that those who can’t see were aware of these details as well.

All of the above needed to be described and, as I said before, it needed to be described when the actors weren’t speaking and with as little personal opinion as possible. “Like a police report,” is the advice that Bill Patterson gives. Bill Patterson is one of the founding members of the Audio Description Coalition and he trained me (as well as Sally Wojcik and Stephanie Borton, others who have described performances at the Arden) in preparation for the Festival of Disability Arts and Culture that took place in Philadelphia in the fall of 2007. (I was also lucky enough to take Bill’s audio description workshop this past summer as part of the Kennedy Center’s LEAD conference.) Bill stresses the importance of being completely unbiased in your description. Mrs. Lintott might have looked frustrated when she called the Headmaster a twat but as a describer, you can’t say that she looks frustrated. What made her look frustrated? How do you, as a sighted patron, know that she was frustrated? It is not fair to say Irwin looked young or Dakin was good looking when describing. These are personal opinions. What drew you to these conclusions?

The example I always give when discussing audio description training is of the movie “Love Actually“. Remember that scene when Sarah, Laura Linney’s character, turns the corner to hide from her crush and freaks out from excitement and then returns composed? That’s the scene we had to audio describe in training. It’s easy to say that Sarah “freaks out” but it’s important to describe, in the most unbiased terms, what that freaking out entails. “Sarah jumped up and down. Sarah shook her head frantically. Sarah’s lip spread across her face in a giant smile.” And you have to say all of this in the time between the dialogue.

I am a writer. I have a graduate degree in writing. I have spent a great deal of my life dedicated to words. This both helps and hurts me as an Audio Describer. It helps because I thrive on the challenge of finding the perfect word to describe someone or something. One of the most beautiful moments, to me, in History Boys, was when Hector collapsed at his desk and broke down. Posner got up and gently put his hand on Hector’s back even though Scripps, as Scripps told us, was closest to Hector and Dakin, and some of the other boys, just looked away. I love being able to describe scenes like this to the audience. The flip side of this however; is that, like I said, I am a writer. And I love words. And I like to use a lot of them. And, as an Audio Describer, I need to find a way to describe Hector’s breakdown moment in a very short amount of time. (Especially since Scripps starts talking about it as it happens. Thank you, Alan Bennett, for making it even more difficult for me.) And I can’t use the words breakdown because that’s a judgement. So how did I describe it? “Hector collapses at his desk, puts his head into his hands, his chest rose and fell, his eyes filled up with water. Posner gets up and gently puts his hand on Hector’s back.”

After the audio described performance of Assassins, I received feedback from a blind audience member who told me that her favorite part of the show was the irony of Zangara reading a newspaper from the electric chair. I knew that she would have never known that Zangara was reading that newspaper had I not been describing it for her. I hope that the audio description provided during History Boys similarly added to patrons experiences while attending the show and I look forward to describing Romeo and Juliet in the spring.

The next audio described performance at the Arden will be Rabbit Hole on Saturday, December 5 at 8:00pm.

You can read more about accessible arts and culture all around Philadelphia in this Inquirer article.

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