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Audio description making live theatre accessible for people with low or no vision

09 January 2017

Richard Crandle and Toby Francis, Kinky Boots cast members who play Lola and Charlie with Vision Australia clients Kim, Kevin, Hazel and FrancoisVision Australia clients have kicked up their heels with the hottest tickets in town to see the award-winning ex-Broadway musical Kinky Boots.

More than 20 people with low or no vision gathered at Melbourne’s Her Majesty’s Theatre on Saturday, 7 January, to experience the show with the help of Vision Australia’s Audio Description Team.

Vision Australia national audio description service co-ordinator Michael Ward says the team covers about 180 shows a year and opens up a new world for people with blindness or low vision.

Audio description is available for television, DVDs, at cinemas and in art galleries, but describing live theatre presents a unique challenge for the service’s 80 volunteer descriptors, Mr Ward says.

Vision Australia negotiates with theatres and theatre production companies for access to the shows before the descriptors get to work.

“Our audio descriptors will watch a shown three or four times to deliver one audio description so they are prepared for all the different movements and get their terms right,” Mr Ward said.

People attending an audio-described show collect a headset when they arrive at the theatre, and an audio descriptor transmits an account of all the on-stage action - the actors’ costumes and movements, the lighting and the sets – in real time as the show progresses.

What does it take to be an audio descriptor?

”They are highly skilled people, so we look for people with excellent language skills who can project their voice and have keen observational skills,” Mr Ward said.

About 30 volunteers came forward for the audio description team’s last recruitment drive, but only five people had the skills required for the task.

Mr Ward said the audio description service helps enhance the experience of live theatre for people with blindness or low vision, even from their first encounter with it.

“Some people can initially feel a little overwhelmed to hear a voice describing what is happening on stage,” he said.

“They start out hearing the voice but, after 20 minutes or so, they just get into the story.”

“The majority say, ‘Wow, why didn’t I do this before?’.”

The team now offers pre-show notes that include a story synopsis, descriptions of the characters, detailed information on set design, costume design, make-up design and articles relating to the show to prepare clients for the performance.

Vision Australia can help you to access a vast range of audio described arts, culture and entertainment.

For information on audio description resources that are available through Vision Australia and other sources, visit our audio description page here.

For a list of upcoming audio described events supported by Vision Australia, visit our events calendar web page here and select Audio Described on the scroll-down tab.

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