Audio description (AD) captures the visual elements of a theatre piece, painting or environment that a blind or partially sighted person might otherwise miss and describes them in clear, vivid language.
Born in London, mother and grandmother Roz Chalmers is a highly experienced nationwide audio describer. Originally active in the Civil Service as a Fraud Officer and an Open University graduate in Classics and English Literature, Roz decided to change her life path to focus on giving the hearing and visually impaired community access to the arts.
Trained by the National Theatre, Roz was, until recently, the Artistic Consultant for VocalEyes, a registered charity working across the nation at a variety of venues and with a range of partner organisations. The heart of the VocalEyes mission is to work with blind and partially sighted people to enhance engagement with the arts, through audio-description. VocalEyes operate nationwide, engaging professional describers and involving partially sighted people in developing services and maintaining standards. The service they provide is comprehensive; it covers access to venues and information, as well as access to the art itself, through high quality audio description, for which they have a strong proven track record.
The heart of the VocalEyes mission is to work with blind and partially sighted people to enhance engagement with the arts, through audio-description.
Roz joins me for a coffee at the National Theatre to talk about her experiences and ambitions to bring the arts closer to all part of the community…
1. How did you become involved with VocalEyes and why did you want to become an audio describer?
I always wanted to work in communication and fit this desire around motherhood. Working as a Fraud Officer was too far removed from positive people interaction for me. My aunt suggested I become a lip reader – with my clear speech pattern I was a strong candidate. From being a lip reader I moved into teaching and training other lip readers and putting together courses for the organisation (now called Signature) and promoting communication between deaf and hearing people. I decided to move on from lip reading to audio description as I wanted to use my voice and so I contacted the National Theatre for advice. In 1999 I successfully auditioned for their training course and a year later joined their in-house company and worked as a freelancer at various theatres like the Old Vic through VocalEyes and captioning for theatre through Stagetext.
2. Take us through the process from start to finish of how an audio described performance is arranged including touch tours etc.
I start by seeing the show, walking the set with the stage manager and gathering information in regards to accessibility. I then sit in the audience to view the show again and write detailed notes about the visual appearance of the play – sets, props, costumes and characters. I also read the programme to inform myself of the background of the show and will pursue further research for specific aspects of the production. A few weeks later I receive a DVD recording of the show and will then view this to create an even more detailed visual report in as concise a wording as possible. It is impossible to describe everything happening on-stage at all times and so I have to be selective but still with the goal of giving as detailed and full a picture as possible. After completing this I look for objects throughout the production which could be used for the touch tour. (This takes place a few hours before the shows and allows our audience to get a good grasp of the set, stage layout, items and costumes before the actual performance). My notes and report are sent off in advance to all attending the audio described performance and are also available in CD and MP3 format on the VocalEyes website.
What happens next after rehearsing my deliver against the DVD, is a dry run where I do the live audio description based on my notes with the theatre’s technical team to make sure that my microphone and headphones are functioning correctly and there are no technical glitches. On the day of the actual audio description performance I lead the touch tour and then sit in a booth (usually backstage) to deliver my description to the audio described audience who receive this through headsets.
3. What makes a great audio describer? Do you need a certain type of voice and how do you become one?
It is most important that they are a great writer, use vivid language, be as expressive in as short a time space as possible, and have a voice that is non-intrusive. They also need what is called scene-sympathy, so someone who can project a lighter voice for comedy and a darker voice for drama for example. The best audio describers are those there the audio description is barely noticed by the listener and just becomes part of the whole process.
In terms of captioning, there are training courses available. For audio descriptive training, it is best to contact the Audio Describer Association. Usually, we are all freelancers (and mostly unpaid volunteers) as most theatres don’t keep permanent audio describers and only hire us in when required. Exceptions here are the National Theatre, the Barbican and the Royal Shakespeare Company. For audio description in Television the job is slightly different because you don’t have the direct audience interaction that exists in a live theatre environment. TV also tends to keep a regular rostra of audio describers in employment.
4. What kind of methods do you use to publicise and market audio described performance to your audience?
Posters in the lobbies of theatre often give details of access performances as does any other printed and e-material that the theatre distributes. VocalEyes send out a newsletter three times per year (also in braille, CD and large print format), as well as regular email alerts. Talking newspapers and now social media are a popular form of communication and we always have a presence at Sight Villages in London and Birmingham, which act as networking and conference events for the partially sighted community. We also personally talk to and meet with specialist groups and clubs, and boarding school for the partially sighted.
5. What kind of problems and issues can you run into before and during the process and how do you help a venue prepare?
Everyone at the theatres gets involved really. We train the box office in awareness and how to collect relevant logistical information from those booking the audio described show, as well as how to handle guide dogs which are sometimes left at box office while their owners attend a performance. Front of house are given tips as how to manage this process and the technical team is given instructions on how to set up and run the relevant equipment. The marketing and PR teams supply us with the relevant show material to publicise to our audience.
The main issues we run into at theatres are technical – sometimes the equipment is simply not suitable or malfunctions during the dry run. Therefore VocalEyes often hires this in when required.
The microphone can be highly important – I was audio describing Circe du Soleil recently and to catch all that was going on I had to literally lean vertically across my backstage desk – so working with a flexible microphone was invaluable!
6. In terms of percentage, how many theatres and producers use audio described performances in the UK and which are the most suitable venues?
About 2,500 theatres UK wide offer audio described performances of which about 40 percent are located in London. Most large theatres have something in place to accommodate us, though London is generally more advanced in this regard compared to the regions. The fringe is very difficult to become involved with for audio description as the budgets are simply not there from producers and venues to offer it.
The most suitable venues are those who can offer good technical equipment, a supportive seating layout (for potential guide dogs, etc.) and a welcome atmosphere to access performances. In terms of programming, commercial shows and a versatile schedule tends to go down best with our audiences.
7. Are there specific types of shows you would like audio describe further?
We cover a large variety of performances from musical theatre to plays, opera, new writing, Shakespeare, Chekov and even street festivals. However dance coverage is still slightly in its infancy so we are working on offering this further. In the future I see audio description branching out into the next big market – live event theatre being broadcast into cinemas.
8. What is the audio description market like internationally? How does it compare to UK?
The UK leads the field here really. I have trained people all over the world including Hungary, Norway and Israel. In the United States some regions offer fantastic audio descriptive access whilst others are not so organised. In 2010 President Obama signed a law, requiring the top four broadcast networks and top five cable networks in the most populated markets in the United States to provide four hours per week of audio description: A big step towards encouraging further development in this area.
9. What are your future ambitions, career and personal?
I would like to work further with smaller theatres and also focus on how audio description can benefit people on a more social front. And I am pursuing a research project through VocalEyes focused on children with visual impairments and how we can bring the visual world closer to them as a medium.
10. Who is your inspiration? What do you think makes an inspirational woman?
Andrew Holland and Dr. Louise Fryer who trained me at the National Theatre all those years ago. Throughout my work I have always thought to myself – what would Andrew or Louise do? I think an inspirational person is someone who takes the responsibility to pass the knowledge on instead of just keeping it to themselves.
To find out more about VocalEyes please see here