On 14 March, Birmingham Hippodrome played host to the Audio Description Association’s national conference, ‘Growing Audiences’. Liz Porter reports on the key findings from the event.
Vidar Hjardeng MBE, Chair of the Audio Description Association (ADA) and diversity consultant for ITV News warmly welcomed the 100+ delegates (venue managers, describers and BPS users) encouraging lively debate and interaction. This was a day to consider the current situation of audio description (AD) and question the role of marketing, technology and customer involvement.
It was many years since their last conference, but Hjardeng set the tone with messages of support from The Right Honourable Lord Blunkett and Lord Holmes of Richmond MBE. This was swiftly followed by a passionate keynote speech from Colin Low (Lord Low of Dalston CBE Vice Chairman RNIB) extoling the virtues of quality AD, reminding us of its potted 25-year-plus history, and the impact it’s had on Blind and partially sighted people in the world of Theatre, TV/Film and the wider cultural and heritage sector.
A panel of ‘AD users’ (members of ADA), some of whom sit on access advisory groups, told us why they enjoyed AD and what they were doing to support their local venues in audience development. These were proactive and positive stories, with extremely active venues in areas such as Milton Keynes. However, most were connected to the conventional literal AD experience or touch tour. Disappointingly, none came from the creative inclusive approach to AD that theatre companies such as Extant, Face Front, Graeae, Birds Of Paradise and Taking Flight are exploring. This was a missed opportunity to flag up the creative potential of AD artistically; in which blind or partially sighted people are more actively involved in co-curation with professional describers.
Having been around AD for pretty much all of its 25 years, I wondered how far have we really come?
Certainly, in the conversations I had with familiar describers and BPS (blind and partially sighted) colleagues, many of the ‘same’ questions, frustrations and barriers still remain, particularly around audience development and the need for producers and funders to take on board AD provision seriously (disappointingly only one or two Producers attended the event).
Much of the conversation centred around traditional approaches to AD. Yet there was an optimistic atmosphere with many younger new people attending too, for whom the whole conversation around AD was a new journey and this presents an opportunity for new energy. Despite no opportunity to debate the creative approach, I was pleased to see two representatives from The Ramps on the Moon Project from New Wolsey and Birmingham Rep. During workshops both were flagging up their work, with the Government Inspector on tour and Extant’s production of The Chairs returning in April. They were encouraging people to go and see these two productions to get a different take on how AD might be included.
It was good to reflect upon AD achievements in theatre and museums and particularly in the worlds of TV and cinema, where the increase in new technology creates possibilities. We didn’t have mobile phones, iPads or 3D printers in the late 80s and now new devices have potential to open up access in an incredible way. It was also excellent that ADA are actively working to encourage positive collaboration between VI (visual impairment) organisations and advocates for AD. This came across in a way I haven’t seen for a while: Audience Agency, Vocaleyes, Scene & Sound, Sightlines, Minds Eye and RNIB working collectively to make this conference happen, supported through Arts Council England (ACE) funding.
Sharing information was a key theme in CEO of Vocaleyes, Matthew Cock’s presentation on a recent survey they have conducted amongst 140 UK theatres – to ascertain the current picture. Although a good percentage involved VI audiences in considering programming and had good mailing lists, the average visually impaired audience was around 11 people per show. Their findings and report will be available soon.
Delegates were offered the opportunity to take part in 3 workshops: ‘Marketing and Communication’, ‘New Technologies’ and ‘The visitor Experience’.
Collaboration, communication, preparation and user involvement was seen as crucial across all workshops. A summary of the main points from the individual sessions I attended:
- The need to involve BPS in programming and to consider scheduling as far as possible.
- The need for communication across all producers, venues/stage managers and companies to ensure the right people know about AD and touch tour delivery – to look for ways to share resources for touring productions.
- Make the access offer easy and simplify process for audiences to give feedback.
- The need for regional venues to look at diaries to prevent ‘clash’ dates, and maximise opportunity of AD on offer.
- Look at ticket pricing for individuals as well as companions – need for a conversation around consistency of ticket pricing.
- Encourage young people – use social media in marketing.
- The need for venues and AD providers to get to grips with new technology, but not to forget those who don’t use it.
There was a call for a ‘one stop’ site to place all information and opportunities, as well as the need to encourage younger people to come through to become audio describers. I got the feeling those organising the day and venues attending would do their best to collaborate and work together, but it’s not easy with many competitive and sometimes compromising restraints currently imposed.
It was good that ACE supported the event, yet I was slightly thrown when Sara Bond, their Senior Relationship manager for Equality and Diversity told us she knew little about AD until the conference and now was looking forward to experiencing an audio-described show. This was a reality check – we’ve still got a long way to go and perhaps all funders such as ACE need to start with some in-house training so they have a real understanding of how to access diverse audiences. Because if the funders don’t understand the process, how can they advocate effectively for its inclusion?