Claire sits on the left and Chloe on the right. They both have their arms crossed and they are smiling. They both have microphones in front of them.
Panelists Claire Cunningham and Chloe Phillips. Photographed at Southbank Centre's Unlimited Festival 2016. Image for Unlimited by Rachel Cherry.

Creative Approaches to Audio Description

A group of artists, performers and consultants with experience of making, creating and being on the receiving end of audio description (AD) gave audiences food for thought at an Unlimited public platform at the Southbank Centre in September 2016. Sara Pickthall gives us an overview.

‘Audio description, put very simply, is an idea that’s been around for decades. It’s where an art form, a piece of art, a theatre show, a dance piece, is described using words verbally for a visually impaired audience, involving a commentary coming over the headset worn by audience members.’ explained Tim Gebbells, who is blind and has many years experience of audio description as a performer and consumer.

Tim was joined by artists Chloe Phillips, Claire Cunningham, Khairani Barokka and Equality and Access advisor from the V&A, Barry Ginley.

The panel took turns to explore the potential of, and practice beyond, this standard access tool, challenging the use of audio description as a bolt-on, placing it at the inception of work as a creative component, discussing how this might lead to new forms of artistic expression and understanding for everyone.

There was consensus that moving the form away from just being about those who cannot see, takes away the ‘visibility’ of blindness and the separation that comes from being an audience member stuck inside a headset.

Visually impaired actor and director Chloe Phillips shared her Unlimited-funded R&D through a short film of her development work The Importance of Being Described Earnestly (read her interview with Disability Arts Online about the project here). This showed her desire to explore audio description built-in from the start of the making process, with the aim of enhancing the piece for every audience member.

“My main aim was to take a description to the extremes of subjectivity; a sort of polyphonic style. We discovered very early on that character-driven AD was the most effective way of doing this, from people’s comments about each other and about what was happening to them. We called this ‘stealth AD’,” explained Chloe.

With this work, Chloe was clear that she didn’t wish to replace the standard form, which some people do still prefer, but to create a different experience, in the round, with the audience close to the action, with the potential to involve audiences in the description process too.

This chimed well with disabled writer, poet and PhD researcher Khairani Barokka, who is also visually impaired and who spoke about how serious audio description can be in its delivery style and the need to employ lighter, more humorous touches and a broader diversity of voices too.

“I think intersectionality is about making something palpable for the people you are addressing. A lot of disability cultures in the UK still have a very non-inclusive approach to audio description. Where are the Black, Asian, Middle Eastern and Latino voices?” she cried.

Throughout the discussion, the panel stressed the importance of involving those who the provision is designed to serve, whatever the audio descriptive measure.

Artist Claire Cunningham spoke about the development of her Unlimited commission The Way You Look (at me) Tonight with co-collaborator Jess Curtis, in which both perform. As two sighted practitioners, the need to involve blind and visually impaired artists and audiences, as part of the process to shape the content and the staging of the work, was felt by them to be paramount.

“What would make the experience relevant to somebody who is visually impaired? How do we open up this idea of perception, and the fact that it is your entire physical sensory experience and not just what you see in a show? I think what Unlimited gave us was the support and the time to really engage with people all the way through the process, and not to just bolt it on,” explained Claire.

As one of her artist collaborators, Chloe Phillips referenced an exercise used by Claire and Jess to drive past and present work together. ‘Say what you sense, do what you say,’ Chloe exclaimed. This intriguing directive allowed their work to have more sensory emphasis, reflecting not only the performers’ body movements, but also how each body feels at any one time. It also alludes to other acoustic and textural qualities in the space, perhaps adding new insight to contemporary dance which many of us, blind or sighted, often find difficult to grasp.

“Making contemporary dance accessible to anyone, let alone visually impaired people, is hard. So the translation of movement into words is really useful. We can ask ourselves, ‘Why do it? What are you trying to communicate, and what is worth communicating about it,?” Tim Gebbells added.

Claire and Jess also chose to work closely with an audio describer with a background in contemporary dance, which both felt an essential part of understanding the physicality of dance and describing movement. This emphasised, once more, the need for more specialism and representation in the provision of audio description.

Barry Ginley, Equality and Access advisor at the V&A, who is blind, spoke about use of audio description in the museum and how haptic technologies and virtual and augmented reality have the potential to take audio description into new territories in shaping immersive experiences for a range of audiences.

Similar to Claire’s assertion that describing can often be one-dimensional, Barry shared how the museum was committed to making description everyone’s responsibility. With popular V&A events such as Fashion in Motion, audio describers not only describe the outfits on the catwalk, but the set up and scenarios behind the scenes.

“With our touch tours, we train our guides and curators giving talks to be more descriptive. Audio describers get backstage access and speak to the costume and set designers as well as the models as an inclusive part of the show,” said Barry

The conversation was warmly welcomed from the floor and it became clear that audio description has huge potential as a creative driver rather than an afterthought. It will be interesting to see how future Unlimited artists, and others, harness the creative potential of the form towards new artistic experiences, insights and ways of bringing audiences into their work.