Audio Description: the Art of Access


On 21 October 2016, Young Vic hosted a one-day conference entitled ‘Audio Description: the Art of Access’. Leading professionals, academics, service providers and users came together to explore the current role of audio description in the arts, Liz Porter was among them.

Tim Montague, PerspecTim Productions

Photograph from the conference. Tim Montague, PerspecTim Productions

‘Audio Description: The Art of Access’ was a well-coordinated day of presentations and discussions, from some of the team who’d put together last year’s Blind Creations conference, including Dr Hannah Thompson (Royal Holloway University), Kirsten Smith (East Anglia University) and Eleanor Margolies (University of the Arts, London).

Louise Fryer, a leading light in the development of Audio Description (AD) stimulated us with a passionate and thought-provoking keynote speech which questioned if describers have the right to consider themselves as artists concerned with quality control. Fryer encouraged us to go beyond what’s basically expected, and to consider the word vision, and what it means to everyone – a running theme for the day.

“It’s not enough to just say what you see. We all see differently”.

She provoked discussion around objective description versus subjective, the influence of vocal intention to convey mood and the need to consider choice of active words in sentence constructions.

Fryer was an excellent choice to get us going. Her recent book An Introduction to Audio Description published by Routledge was launched after the morning session. Fryer’s work is testament to my belief that audio describers are artists. The skill they deploy in the creative choices they make around use of language in scripts, and vocal intention behind words, varies in style; as does their ability to relate in imaginative ways to interpret visual image. But it’s certainly a creative process. The book seeks to be a toolkit for those wanting to be audio describers and provides the history of AD alongside practical advice and discussion.

In continuing the theme around vision, Social Anthropologist Harshadha Balasubramanian provoked us to consider how blind and partially sighted people’s identity is formed in relationship to location, spatial awareness, interaction with other senses and mechanisms to take information in. Harshadha argues visual experience is lived and is interpreted differently by everyone, and therefore needs to be considered in multi-layered ways. I’d agree.

‘The Aesthetics of Access’ delivered by Maria Oshodi, Artistic Director of Extant Theatre and Amelia Cavallo, talked about the role of creative description as led by blind and partially sighted creative practitioners. Extant’s ‘potted’ history of their innovation in generating exploratory projects with a ‘research’ strand, demonstrated just how much they have contributed to the evolution of audio description.

Highlights included their tour of Zero and Nils by blind Croatian company Novi Zovit, which explored AD and simultaneous translation, and Sheer, a project in which the company delivered live self-description from the stage and encouraged their audience to describe semi-lit scenes. In their most recent production, The Chairs, Extant delved into using pre-recorded description using the on-stage characters’ thoughts from their heads to narrate.

Workshop delivery from Art of Access

Workshop being delivered. Photograph: Tim Montague, PerspecTim Productions

In their next show, Flight Paths, a collaboration with Yellow Earth, they will explore how live soundscapes can enhance on-stage orientation for both performers and audience members – in a piece of work that will incorporate theatrical storytelling, aerial work and live music.

This segued nicely on to Marian Lopez’s (University of York) presentation on her project Enhancing Description, which is exploring the role of creative soundscapes to enhance description in digital technology for film and TV. It also looks at the role of surround sound and spatial sound experiences and the accessibility of ‘audio games’

It’s an important project. More cinemas have audio description facilities now, but there is a need to encourage production teams to consider the creative use of spatial soundscapes at the beginning of the process. Lopez touched on work that had been done on the recent Notes on Blindness film in which different audio description options have been made available to deliberately enhance the experience for blind and partially sighted audiences.

In a short participatory workshop, experienced describer and former dancer, Bridget Crowley talked about her work with Northern Ballet. The language of dance is specific, so how do you explain this to a visually impaired audience? One way is through interactive workshops and touch tours – including dancers demonstrating ballet positions.

Crowley explained that pre-show notes with clear explanations of terminology such as a ‘pas de deux’ (dance with two usually male/female characters) makes a difference. Also, showing people literally how a dancer puts themselves into position. She welcomed us all to try out the ‘swan wing’ positions dancers get into for Swan Lake. This provides people with not only the shape of a movement but the feeling behind it, enabling describers to use the language of dance in their script, knowing their audience will understand the terminology used.

The final part of the day looked at AD within the Museum sector. Christopher Taylor presented his and Elisa Perego’s research on Audio Description and linguistics. This led to a discussion around sentence construction, the use of adjectives and exactly how many words people can retain in their heads.

All in all, it was an invigorating day with excellent presentations and ample networking opportunities.

Audio Description: The Art of Access was recorded and you can listen to the podcasts here.