Audio description helps to make the arts accessible through speech to blind and partially sighted people. Audio described events take place in theatres, cinemas, art galleries, museums and some sports arenas. Many venues welcome people to come and familiarize themselves with the space before an event takes place. Guide dogs are usually welcomed.
Most venues allow blind and partially sighted people to bring a companion but some require you to be registered with the venue beforehand.
In live performing arts, audio description consists of three important parts.
1. Production Notes
These notes provide a description of the set, the characters and the costumes. They give blind and partially sighted audiences vital information about the play itself, the set, the costumes as well as any physical attributes the characters may have. Sometimes, these are recorded and sent out to those who have booked, or they may be uploaded onto the theatre website. They are always delivered live shortly before the performance starts. The timing of the Production Notes needs to be checked with the Box Office.
2. Touch Tours – Theatre
Touch tours are normally part of the theatre experience for blind or partially sighted people. These tours allow customers to go onto the stage and explore the space and setting. This provides important details to help people engage with the show. There is usually an opportunity to examine key costumes and props as well as occasionally meeting members of the cast. Touch tours usually take place between an hour and an hour and a half before the curtain goes up on an audio described performance. They last up to half an hour. Most venues would expect people to book a place on the touch tour when booking tickets for the show.
3. The Audio Description
The RNIB sum this up neatly: “Like a narrator telling a story, audio description is an additional commentary that describes body language, expressions and movements – allowing you to hear what you might not be able to see so you don’t miss a thing”.
The audio describer prepares a special script which is delivered live through a microphone in into personal headphones during the live show. This explains to blind and partially sighted people what is actually happening on the stage at that moment. Important facial expressions and body language are also described. Any visual jokes are also explained. The description is carefully fitted in, around the actors’ voices so that none of the dialogue is missed. Most theatres provide headphones but sometimes you are able to use your own if you prefer. It is advisable to let box office know your requirements when you book your tickets.
Audio description in other arenas
Touch Tours – Museums and Art Galleries
Touch tours give blind and partially sighted people access to museums and galleries, and provide an opportunity for you to enjoy a variety of artworks. Many art museums and galleries offer visitors the opportunity to touch original artworks, displayed either in the galleries or in an alternative space.
The touch tours engage with the ideas, materials and techniques of the particular gallery or museum. Tours typically include pieces that can be explored through direct handling while an audio describer, well versed in the work of the organisation, will describe other works of interest. Tours normally take place on specific days and usually need to be booked in advance.
Some galleries also employ Audio Describers for these specific days. The audio describer will be well prepared and will help bring artifacts and paintings to life, in words.
Many cinemas offer an audio description service. Similar to audio description in the theatre, the normal soundtrack comes through the cinemas surround sound speakers in the usual way, and a recorded narrator explains what’s happening on screen – in gaps in the dialogue – through personal headphones which only the blind person can hear. All the action is described to you, but with added surround sound, which places you in the middle of the action.