Monday, January 18, 2010

Audio Description: Part II - A first hand experience

On a crisp fall afternoon, I settle into my seat at The Arden Theater for a production of The History Boys.  I’ve just finished speaking with Jenn Peck, General Manager at the Arden, who will be the audio describer for the performance.  Audio description allows people who are blind or have low vision to enjoy equal access to cultural events by providing descriptive information.  Peck audio describes three to five shows per year, believing strongly that the arts should be equally accessible to all.  In addition, she says, “Audio description gives me an artistic turn at things and an opportunity to be part of the performance.”
Prior to the start of the show, the House Manager provides listeners who are blind or have low vision with a wireless earpiece.  Peck begins with pre-show notes, preparing listeners with any essential descriptions she will not have time to give during the performance.  She provides a description of the stage, key characteristics of the main characters (e.g., skin color, what they are wearing), and an overview of two pivotal scenes happening in the first act.  As the performance begins, she gives listeners cues to what is happening on stage, such as “Stage manager exits” and “Blackout.” 

During the performance, Peck provides brief descriptions to give listeners only the most essential information, such as “Hector enters,” “Felix shakes his head,” and “She puts her hand on his shoulder.”  Succinct descriptions are particularly important for a show like The History Boys, which is heavy in dialogue.  When deciding what to describe, Peck says that the audio describer chooses “whatever moves the story forward,” rather than providing a running commentary.  Audio describers avoid interrupting dialogue unless absolutely necessary to convey key information.  As I listen, I realize that there are often several minutes during which there is no description at all, allowing listeners to fully hear every aspect of the performance. 
After the show, I have the opportunity to talk with several consumers of audio description.  Each of them describes the ways in which the description was helpful to them, gave them a better idea of what was happening on stage, and made the performance more interesting.  As one listener says, “I can’t always recognize voices, so [audio description] is helpful to help me identify people.”  When asked why audio description is important, another listener describes a time when he attended a performance without audio description.  “There was a ballet sequence, and I was so lost that I ended up going to sleep because I didn’t know what was going on.”  With the benefit of audio description, he says, “I can use my imagination” to know what is happening on stage.  “It helps me to follow the program and get more understanding of the program.”
For more information about audio description, visit the Audio Description Coalition’s website at

-By Jennifer Oglesbee