Chloe Phillips is an Associate Artist with Taking Flight Theatre, based in Cardiff. Earlier this year she received an Unlimited R&D award to work with the company to produce The Importance of Being Described…Earnestly? – a pilot for a production experimenting with new ideas about audio description. She talks to Colin Hambrook about her motivation and the way the project is shaping up.
Phillips’s passion is to raise awareness of audio description (AD) and to get theatre companies to consider it as a creative tool. Access for visually impaired people to theatre performance is overlooked generally, aside from a few notable companies like Extant, Graeae, Birds of Paradise and Fittings, who have pioneered creative ways of using audio description; embedding it into the process of devising theatre at its inception. Phillips recalls:
“For years I opted out of using audio description. I would rather sit there with a friend whispering essential bits of information that I needed describing to understand the performance. What I hate most is that with a headset I feel segregated and isolated from the rest of the audience.”
“I feel strongly that for a theatre piece to give a visually impaired person equal access it’s important that all the performers are aware of the AD – and for that to happen it needs to be integrated from the start. There is almost no point in producing AD over the top of a predesigned show. For me at least, it just doesn’t work.”
Phillips is going on a journey, researching visually impaired peoples’ responses to theatre. She wants to find out what is preventing VI (visually impaired) audiences from coming to the theatre. Is it because people don’t know about AD? Or is it that they feel the type of AD that’s being offered doesn’t cater for their needs?
“The fundamental element for me is about providing choice for a VI audience. There are probably lots of VIPs who don’t go to the theatre, not because they’re not interested, but because they presume there won’t be access. There is potentially a large market that is not being tapped into. I want to find out what the barriers are and how to get people engaged.”
“A friend of mine who is an audio-describer recently tried hard to find an audience for the show he was describing. He managed to encourage a group of young VIPs to come to the show, but they opted out of using the headsets on offer. Later he found out the reason was because they were being encouraged not to identify as disabled people or even as VIPs. When you’ve got a community to tap into but they’re being discouraged it is very frustrating. Reinforcing disability as something negative and wrong adds yet another barrier to access.”
“It is subtle, and can be very tricky choosing what information to reveal. So often AD provides information that isn’t relevant at the expense of providing description that is. So often you’ll hear something on stage like a door slamming and the describer will tell you ‘the door has been slammed shut’. Less is more. Often you just need a sound effect or one word to know what is unfolding. An audio-file, synopsis or programme notes sent prior to the show, can be vital ways of augmenting AD.”
“There are myriad issues because what stands for good access can depend very much on the individual and what their needs are. One of the best examples of AD recently was with the Fittings production of Edmund the Learned Pig. The company supplied earpieces rather than headsets, which didn’t block out everything around you. Also, Norman Pickles was a fantastic describer. His comic character enhanced the piece and made me feel more a part of it – more included than excluded.”
The research Phillips is undertaking will inform a series of improvisation workshops being run with four disabled and non-disabled actors. Having secured Jimmy Whiteaker – whose writing credits include You’re Not Doing It Right and I Could’ve Been Better (both Idiot Child), Nostalgia (Alma Theatre) and Choking Hazard (Bristol Old Vic) – as the writer for the team, the next step is a series of open sessions during R&D where ‘practice’ audiences will be brought into rehearsals to act as a steering group.
“A key premise for the project is the aim to create a polyphonic style of AD – so there are multiple interpretations going on but all working together to give a rounded picture. It’s going to be a lot of fun, largely based on improvisation, observational comedy and ensemble work.”
“We are developing props to work with to create sound. And the plan is to play with music and different sounds as a way of getting the audience involved. It’s important to me that there’s no fourth wall; that there is an informal relationship between the cast and the audience. The cast are going to be audio-describing live and we want the audience to feel comfortable enough to contribute if they want to.”
“Finally, it will be Jimmy’s job to pick out the best bits from the series of improvisations and to put them together into one fantastic script.”
To aid the research Phillips plans to start a blog about the process and put it out through different outlets. She hopes to reach a range of VIPs to find out their views on theatre and AD and to build a case for the style of presentation The Importance of Being Described… Earnestly? will be experimenting with. The plan is that two development weeks will take place at a venue in Cardiff at the beginning of March 2016. A showing of a few select scenes for an invited audience will happen on Friday 18th March 2016.
Feel free to get in touch with Chloe Phillips via email: chloephillips[at]gmail.com
Have a read through Chloe Phillips’s case study for her project ‘The Importance of being Described… Earnestly?’ on the Unlimited Impact website.
Tweet her! @CeejClarke