Should we applaud audio description services in theatres?

Post date: 
Friday, 13 March 2015

Toby Davy, Deputy Director of VocalEyes, talks about the benefits of theatre audio description in the UK.

I heard recently that more people in the UK went to see a show at a theatre last year than those who went to see a football match. This made me wonder as an avid theatre-goer and as Deputy Director of VocalEyes whether this is the same for the state of audio description around the UK. We at VocalEyes have been describing shows at theatres in London and around the country since 1998. The National Theatre has been providing description for a bit longer along with many other theatres across the country.

Share the AD experience

My first experience of theatre audio description was of a play called “Take Me Out” at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002. It was a revelation as I had been going to the theatre for many years trying to follow what was going on with the limited vision I have, but I had not fully realised what I had been missing. Receiving the introductory audio notes for the show in advance, going on to the stage for a touch tour of the set and listening to the live description during the play certainly opened up my eyes – excuse the pun!
 
The first date I went on with my wife Sara, who is sighted, was to a described performance of Phantom of the Opera. At the beginning of Phantom when the chandelier comes to life, it lights up and is drawn up into the roof of the theatre. Sara nudged me to let me know and I was able to say: “I know, isn’t it amazing as it is being described to me.” With audio description, I am just as well informed and able to enjoy the show as my sighted friends and family, and being able to share that experience is what audio description in the theatre really means to me.
 
Do you know about theatre audio description?
 
But do people with sight loss know about theatre audio description? I don’t think so and I don’t think there is enough marketing and promotion of audio description in the theatre, which may be the reason that there is low uptake by blind and partially sighted people. At VocalEyes, our website and newsletter lists all the audio described shows we are involved with, but sadly we can’t at the moment list every described show in the UK. Some theatres are excellent at promoting their described performances to their local blind and partially sighted community, some have a dedicated access officer looking after their described performances and some are good at having details highly visible on their websites in both the show and access pages.  

What role can technology play for theatre audio description?

For blind and partially sighted people, getting your fingers on a computer, tablet or smartphone that is accessible and to be able to find information online about described performances, reading theatre reviews, downloading audio and text introductory notes for a show is all helping to open up access. Technology is also coming into theatres too. For years, the only way to listen to the live description was via headphones that can pick up the infrared or radio signal, but now some theatres are trialling wifi within the theatre to transmit the description which is then picked up on a smartphone app and can be listened to with your own earphones.

What VocalEyes are going to be doing in the future 

We are planning a full UK-wide theatre audio description survey to find out the state of description across the whole country. We will produce a map of provision and we will offer our services to help theatres to develop their description service and help them to make contact with their local blind and partially sighted community. 
 
What you can do to increase the awareness of theatre audio description
If you have never been to an audio described performance, you must give it a go as there is nothing better than going to see a great show live on stage whether you are a fan of musicals, comedy, drama, dance or opera, and to share that experience with friends and family, whether they are sighted or not. As blind and partially sighted people, we should be doing as much as we can to support audio description in theatre. If we don’t go to audio described performances or bang on the door of the theatre to ask why they are not putting on a described performance, how will they know that we are out there and that there is an audience for audio description in theatres up and down the land?      
 

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