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Quite a while ago now, I received the following article from Kelly Pierce of Chicago on the topic of live audio description for theatre. He said I could publish it as I see fit, and now, perhaps a tad late in the game, I am.

Reflections on Live Audio Description

by Kelly Pierce

The Bodies of Work Festival held here in Chicago in April [2006] was the first time I experienced live audio description. I have accessed audio-described movies on videotape before. However, I rarely watch them, even though Illinois has one of the largest libraries of audio-described videos in the world. Most of the audio-described movies are of big-budget Hollywood fare and I’m more of an independent-film and documentary kind of guy. I was looking forward to taking in a fully accessible cultural experience of something that I really wanted to access and was meaningful to me rather than something that I could access but had little relevance to my life.

I attended two events with audio description. The first was the festival’s opening performance at Preston Bradley Hall in the Chicago Cultural Center on April 20[, 2006]. It was a truly entertaining and innovative performance that totally exceeded my expectations. The second experience was Mat Fraser performing Sealboy: Freak at Victory Gardens Theater on April 23. This was a culturally and intellectually challenging piece for me that helped me contemplate many beliefs and assumptions ever since.

I appreciated the audio description offerings very much. However, the craft of live audio description seems underdeveloped and fraught with unrefined techniques and misassumptions.

Both audio describers seemed to feel uncomfortable working largely unscripted and unrehearsed. For example, the audio describer at the Cultural Center laid his script of the performance down in a place accessible to the public. It disappeared and consequently, he did not voice the places spoken by a person with a speech impairment and other sections on which he had taken notes. This was despite the real-time captioning occurring during the performance, which could have been read in lieu of reading the scripted portions. The lack of improvisation seemed to stem from a training inadequacy. It is no different from actors being trained on adjusting to unexpected events such as other performers misstating lines, sound effects or visual cues occurring at the wrong times, or missing props. All of these things can and do happen during live performances and dealing with them easily is part of an actor’s craft.

Another example of the difficulty of live audio description in working without a script is in describing people themselves. People come in all different shapes, sizes, statures, ages, genders, colors, and demeanors. They appear standing, sitting in wheelchairs, with canes, missing limbs, shortened limbs, beards, and sometimes with scarves over their faces. People may have unique styles of dress, hair, jewelry, and tattoos. This visual information is unique to each person, making one individual distinctive to another. Yet this kind of visual information was never described.

At the Cultural Center, the audio describer failed to describe a speaker who self-identified himself to the audience as having a facial disfigurement. At Victory Gardens, Mat Fraser’s unique arms were not described, nor was his alternative techniques for doing various tasks with his shortened arms. It seems there is a hypersensitivity to identifying and describing unique characteristics as being judgemental, critical, biased, and prejudicial. Researchers tell us that more than half of the input of forming an impression is based on visual appearance. Our society does not hold those in high regard who have green hair and a nose ring, a facial disfigurement, a neck tattoo, or an amputated limb. Impressions are immediate for many of those who use a wheelchair, stand four feet tall, of a particular race, have a beard or a certain hairstyle. Yet, for those who cannot see this information are faced with a blessing and a curse. They can consider someone’s personality without external distraction. At the same time, they lack the ability to absorb the world as other people see it.

It is unclear if the failure in providing appearance information is part of the looksism craze. If it is, the decision is highly questionable. In fact, I would suggest that such a decision goes against the grain of the Bodies of Work festival, which I believe was intended to celebrate the lives, culture, and experiences of people with disabilities. For users of audio description, highly visible disabilities were invisible, turning the notion of disability pride on its head. Appearance information is important to understanding a situation. It is up to the receiver of the information to process it as he wishes.

An additional issue with the live audio description was that a fair number of visuals were not described. Audience members would laugh or applaud something on stage, yet the compelling visual happening on stage producing such emotion remained undescribed. Unfortunately, the describers apparently felt no interest in veering from a rehearsed script so the blind person could relate to the experience that his family and friends just enjoyed.

One basic but perhaps overlooked part of any endeavor using amplified audio is microphone handling. Describers typically wear a headset microphone to speak to their listeners. Unfortunately, if the headset boom is not placed well, audio description can turn into a gigantic distraction rather than a discrete support. At the Cultural Center, the describer had his microphone placed so close to his mouth and nose that every inhalation and exhalation was amplified and could clearly and distinctly be heard.

Another technical issue concerns volume. The two live audio description experiences were at significantly different volume levels. At the Cultural Center, the volume level was good and effective. At Victory Gardens, the volume level was significantly lower than that of the performer, even when the receiving unit was turned to its highest volume level. Further, the audio description could not be heard over music that played during scene changes or over laughter and applause from the audience. It seems there is no standardization or best practice in providing adequate volume. All audio receiving units have a volume-control wheel. If the volume is too loud, the end user can easily reduce the level heard in the headphone. If it is too quiet, the end user can do nothing short of disrupting the performance to change the volume.

A practice taken for granted is that of delivery. Actors are trained to have good diction, speaking words clearly and distinctly at an even rate, pitch, and volume level. Many audio describers are actors, including those who worked during the Bodies of Work festival. Yet, the audio describer at Victory Gardens spoke very quickly in a highly stressed tone of voice. The rapid speech rate, the low volume level, and her stressful voice resulted in a listener being able to understand very little to none of the audio description. The dynamic and fluid nature of live events makes them quite different from television or film description, where audio describers jump in an out offering a few seconds of narration. Those describers have the benefit of working with a preproduced item in a recording studio where the description is matched exactly to the time. Description should be provided in a relaxed, conversational tone similar to the delivery of many radio announcers.

Live audio description should include a description of the performance area, scenery, wardrobe, and items on the stage. This orientation may need to occur a few minutes before the performance to adequately describe and explain these elements to the audio description audience. The describer at the Cultural Center did a good job in providing most of this information, although the quantity of described information was uneven with more description of these details being provided at certain times and less at others. At Victory Gardens, little of this information was provided. Further, the describer said next to nothing to the end users about the production regarding these details to orient them to the production they will soon experience. The orientation would be similar to that delivered by WFMT during its Lyric Opera broadcasts. While touch tours are an excellent innovation that could provide many of these details, an orientation to the performance should still be provided. Some cannot come early to the theater. Some live events may not offer touch tours. Those who have received a touch tour will likely find the performance orientation helpful in reinforcing the basic visual elements of the performance.

Summary

The craft of live audio description needs further development to offer blind audience members a consistently fully accessible experience. It is as different as the craft of live theater is to film and television. This writer has been informed that many of the audio describers at the Bodies of Work festival were recently trained. If the two events attended were with such describers, an inadequacy in the training and development of audio describers is apparent. More than a daylong workshop may be needed to understand the needs of the blind and to learn to effectively and spontaneously orally communicate to meet those needs fully. Additional learnings could include attending live events with sleepshades to gain an understanding of what is missed visually, apprenticing with a seasoned describer, and practice description with someone familiar with the best practices of audio description. Live audio description could be an accessibility boost to the blind, opening up cultural experiences like never before, if developed to its full potential.

The foregoing posting appeared on Joe Clark’s personal Weblog on 2007.03.12 14:20. This presentation was designed for printing and omits components that make sense only onscreen. (If you are seeing this on a screen, then the page stylesheet was not loaded or not loaded properly.) The permanent link is:
https://blog.fawny.org/2007/03/12/pierce/

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