Audio Describer Jenni Elbourne reflects on two theatre projects that have explored accessibility for visually impaired audiences as part of their Research and Development – and reaped the creative rewards of this.
From the minute I walked into the room with BLINK Dance Theatre I knew that I’d been invited into something wonderful. I was greeted outside the rehearsal room with a huge smile and a hug from two of the co-directors who were taking a break during the research and development phase of their latest show Girls Meets Boy.
It’s unusual for an audio describer to be made to feel so welcome, but BLINK is an unusual company. Two of its five directors have learning disabilities, and their commitment to working inclusively as an ensemble of co-directors shines through when observing their process.
Last year Delson, who is non-verbal, directed a live show; this year, he is performing alongside Kat, Vicki, Frances and Rachel, with each of them stepping out to observe and offer direction on the scenes they are not in. Feedback is given in words or gestures, or by choosing options from an iPad, ensuring that each of the creators’ opinions is heard.
Girls Meets Boy distinctively and deliberately does not have a linear narrative. Instead it explores its subject matter – dating, sex and relationships – through a series of vignettes that both stand alone and link together, while leaving the nature of those links open to interpretations as diverse as the five unique minds that created it. There is an infectious sense of both playfulness and teamwork in the room; a gift to an audio describer who has been invited in to help the company explore ways in which they might make the production accessible to visually impaired people.
Within a few hours we are trying things out: could Francesca the drag queen refer to her own gold mini-dress in her opening monologue? Could Delson’s wordless entrance as a Game Show contestant be preceded by a voiceover that introduces him? Can we use sound effects to signify recurring locations, such as birdsong for the park?
Many of the ideas we come up with together enhance the production for everyone, while simultaneously providing accessibility for those who can’t see everything. It’s refreshing to work in an environment where access is not something that gets added after the work is complete, but a creative tool in itself; another valued voice in the rich landscape of this devising ensemble.
The Noises seems entirely different at first glance. It is a text and narrative-driven piece of new writing, for starters. It just so happens to have a simple visual setup (a locked room with a single character in it) and a script packed with sounds that come from beyond a closed door.
Director Tamar Saphra noticed early on that the play might lend itself to the inclusion of visually impaired audiences, but she recognized that achieving true accessibility would require a commitment from the whole creative team to making this part of the show’s aesthetic.
Like BLINK, she began to explore integrated audio description in the R&D phase, and involved writer Jacqueline Saphra who, with my guidance, took up the challenge of writing new sections of script. The main character, Luna, also happens to be a dog, who verbalizes her own thoughts throughout the play and has a distinctive poetic voice, so the addition of self-description using this same voice feels entirely natural. Many writers and directors would have missed the opportunity to discover this, but, like BLINK, The Noises’ team have found creative rewards in their own commitment to accessibility.
Conversations about integrating audio description are never completely free of challenges. Delivery style is a matter of personal preference and no doubt some people would prefer a traditional headset-based description.
Crucially, both Girls Meets Boy and The Noises involved visually impaired consultants in their process to advise and give feedback during their development phases. BLINK will move towards their next stage of production with some perplexing questions to consider: at what point does integrated description begin to interfere with the artistic essence of something that is highly spontaneous and frequently wordless? They may yet decide that the best way to achieve a comprehensive description is to ‘go traditional’ after all. But this doesn’t mean they’ll go back and erase every trace of description that was weaved into the fabric of the work they shared in their R&D.
Meanwhile, Luna the dog is on stage in The Noises at the Old Red Lion from 2-20 April, her unique voice enriched by the process of reflecting on, and embracing, creative access.
BLINK Dance Theatre’s production Girls Meets Boy will go on a national tour in Spring 2020.
Jenni Elbourne: www.jennielbourne.wordpress.com