‘An amazing improvement’: How audio description helps the vision-impaired enjoy live theatre
Next year, the Singapore Repertory Theatre will be the first theatre in Singapore to have audio description in their shows - a service that will allow blind or vision-impaired audience members to fully enjoy the experience of a live theatre performance.
SINGAPORE: “A child’s bedroom, with a turquoise rug in the centre, some toys, a hairbrush, and toilet roll strewn upon it ... Polly prances around her bedroom, looking for clues. She sees something, and creeps along her shelves, turning round, and pouncing.”
The two trainee describers read animatedly from their script, their words flowing seamlessly with the characters’ dialogue on stage. The words they used were carefully chosen and spoken with energy to bring the characters’ actions and mood of the scene alive to those listening.
All this, to give blind or vision-impaired audience members the chance to fully enjoy a live performance with their friends and family without missing out on anything: Each jump and spin by a character, scene change and even what props are being used on the stage.
This commentary is known as audio description, which the Singapore Repertory Theatre (SRT) will be bringing to its performances next year. It is equipping its theatre, the KC Arts Centre, with the necessary technology. SRT says it is the first arts venue in Singapore to make use of audio description for the vision-impaired.
Learning and engagement manager Paul Adams said SRT has been making a greater commitment to making its performances accessible to those with disabilities. This includes sign language interpretation, which is available for all its performances, and sensory-friendly “relaxed performances”, where loud sounds and strobe lights are removed.
But he came to realise there were no audio described performances in Singapore. “It’s such a shame because I’ve listened to the service, worked with audio describers in the UK, and I know how wonderful it is,” he said.
GIVING THEM WHAT THEY NEED TO KNOW
Mr Adams explained that users will need to download an app onto their mobile phone prior to the performance to access the audio description. “So when a user comes into the theatre, they log on to the app, click for SRT’s audio description, put in their own headphones, and off they go,” he said.
“You can control the volume, treble and bass,” he added. “Everyone’s hearing is different and everyone likes a certain sound, so the user has full control.”
But technology aside, it takes no small measure of skill to be able to describe a theatre performance in a way that fits seamlessly with the on-stage dialogue and gives patrons just the right amount of information.
And that is where training comes in: Over six days in December, trainers from Australia were invited to run a course for arts practitioners across the industry. The training, equipment and audio described performances are co-funded by SRT and philanthropic organisation Temasek Foundation Nurtures.
According to Mr Adams, who took part in the training, the course involved some disability awareness training, where participants were tasked to walk around the theatre’s vicinity wearing glasses that gave them a vision impairment and understand what it was like to be guided. But it was also very much focused on picking up the audio description itself - and knowing what to describe and what not to.
“We note down the mapping of elements on the stage, bright colours, lighting, entrances and exits of the actors and times when actors are on stage but don’t say anything,” said Kari Seeley, an audio description trainer and voice professional from Adelaide.
“The thing is with a blind or vision impaired audience, they can hear all the dialogue, all of the sound effects, but they just need the explanation of the visual elements,” she added. “For instance, if you have a murder mystery, they can hear all of the dialogue, they can hear when people walk on the stage, but won’t necessarily know who it is until they speak. Or there might be a flash of a red dress at a window, but it’s not significant until you find out that the person who did the murder was a woman in a red dress.”
“So they need to know all this.”
Using the right vocabulary is also important, added audio description coordinator Jody Holdback.
“So for children’s productions, you’d probably use something a little bit more simplistic than an adult production, so that’s very important … the timing, detail of the production, putting it into words and actually delivering with the right tone, speed and pitch for the production they’re watching,” she said.
AN “AMAZING IMPROVEMENT”
Ms Holdback, who is also vision-impaired, added that having audio description for a theatre performance is an “amazing improvement”. She explained that without the benefit of such a service, the only way she could enjoy a live performance was if a friend or family member leaned over to whisper in her ear.
“Not everyone around you likes that, and it’s distracting for the person you’re with, and unless they’re very descriptive in what they tell you, it really doesn’t provide enough information,” she said.
“It also means that friends who have vision and those without sight can go out after a show and have a chat … and they can engage in the performance on an equal level because the person without vision has received that description,” added Ms Seeley.
Audio description also fills an accessibility gap that is present in the Singapore arts scene, explained Melissa Yeo, who is a member of the Disability Advisory Panel of the Access Arts Hub, a collective of individuals and organisations who hope to make the arts more accessible and appealing for those with disabilities.
“When people talk about arts and accessibility, we are pretty limited to making it accessible in the area of infrastructure,” said Ms Yeo, who is also vision-impaired. “But we also need to make it accessible in terms of the content.”
NO GOOD DOING IT ALONE
As an extension to the audio describing service, SRT also plans to hold touch tours for vision-impaired audience members. These tours, which are typically held prior to the start of a performance, involve audience members being guided on stage to touch and feel the costumes and props being used in the production, in order to give them a more tangible gauge of what they hear in the audio description.
Moving forward, added Mr Adams, the service will be available for six SRT performances next year, and the trainees are free to use their new skills not just for SRT but for other theatre companies as well.
“It’s no good SRT doing this alone,” he said. “We hope that when people come to their first show at SRT, they’re looking at their calendar for the next show at another company.”
There is also the likelihood, he added, of audio describing taking root not just in theatre performances, but in other settings such as art exhibitions and galleries. And this is one reason the training was open to arts practitioners from varied backgrounds.
“The stuff that’s most immediately applicable from the training is the insight into the kind of considerations we need to keep in mind when we have the vision-impaired as our primary audience,” said Seren Chen, an executive in programmes (education) at the Singapore Art Museum. “So we’ll be doing our own research to adapt what I’ve learned from the training.”
Ultimately, Mr Adams stressed the importance of moving the agenda of accessibility forward across the entire arts community.
“We need the industry to grow together for this agenda,” he said. “And it’s been really rewarding and empowering to see the entire arts community coming together … no egos, no competitiveness, we’re all at the table trying to move this agenda.”