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Leading the way in Audio Described Theatre

South Australia is leading the country in making the arts more accessible to blind and visual impaired audiences through relatively new and ever-growing professional live audio description.

The 2012 Adelaide Festival, for instance, included live audio described theatre productions such as the State Theatre Company’s Ham Funeral, The Caretaker and Never Did Me Any Harm. And the award-winning Fringe production Sons and Mothers, by No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability, was audio described as part of a training exercise.

Access consultant Gaelle Mellis, who works with the Disability & Arts Transition Team (DATT), says the goal is to open up all arts and cultural events so that people with disabilities – in this case the blind and visual impaired – can get the most from it.

In just a couple of years “we’ve already made very positive inroads into developing live audio description into a professional service,” Gaelle said. “What I’d like to see is professional audio description, using best practice and innovative techniques, all across Australia.”

Working with DATT, and supported with funding from Arts SA, Gaelle brought a UK-based actor and audio describer Willie Elliott to Adelaide to help train local performers, writers, theatre-makers and arts organizations.

Willie provided professional audio description for selected shows during the 2012 Adelaide Festival. In total, three shows and six performances were audio described. Patrons were sent professional pre-show audio notes, cast and creative production credits were available in large print and braille and touch tours were held before every show.

Renowned in his field, Willie Elliott’s experience as an audio describer for the past nine years spans theatre, opera and dance to circus, visual arts, architecture, live events, TV, film and online.

Audio description is all about capturing the visual elements of a theatre piece; painting or environment that a blind or vision impaired person might otherwise miss, describing them in clear, vivid language. Through a small radio receiver, the patron hears a spoken description of visual elements by a trained audio describer.

Until 2011, the Royal Society for the Blind trained volunteers to provide audio-description but the equipment was available only in two theatres at the Adelaide Festival Centre.

The biggest differences in the service that DATT now offers – since it as purchased audio description receivers and broadcaster that are not tied to a single venue – is that the service can be offered just about anywhere; and the describers are handpicked people who already speak the language of the theatre or the stage or gallery and are primed for intensive professional training.

Potential audio describers are chosen through an application process and ideally are artists or arts workers from a variety of art forms.

“As a visual artist, I found it a fascinating process to find language for describing what you see,” said Lara Torr, an artist and arts worker with a background in disability arts, who trained with Willie in 2011 and already has audio described shows including Ham Funeral.

To be sure, it is harder than you might think to bring alive a performance.

The process typically involves seeing a show, taking copious notes and then, armed with a copy of the script, writing pre-show notes for users of the audio description service to listen to sometime before the show. The pre-show notes focus mostly on the set, the costumes and the characters – setting the scene for the actual performance.

“Prepping the notes and really having to filter down language to a point of describing with clarity can be really challenging,” said Lara, adding that some shows are more challenging than others.

The set for Ham Funeral, for instance, was all gray. “There are only so many ways that you can describe gray,” Lara said. Nevertheless, demand for audio description was at capacity at the audio-described performance of Ham Funeral.About 16 people have had some sort of professional training in audio description in Adelaide but only a handful remain committed to practicing in South Australia.

The training process is intense and it can take about five years of practice and guidance before a new audio describer is equipped to train others.

From Arts SA’s website, www.arts.sa.gov.au