October 2017

The Nation Reviewed

Painting the picture

By Paul Connolly
Audio describers bring theatre to life for the vision impaired

Ness Sari wouldn’t normally go to the circus. Being almost completely blind, she figures that there’s little point. She’s here tonight, though, sitting in the front row for Circus Oz’s latest show, Model Citizens, staged in a large tent pitched by the Yarra River in Melbourne. From her seat, Sari, 34, can make out little more than the otherworldly glow of the ultramarine-blue set – and, occasionally, ghostly silhouettes of performers in motion – but this evening she is visualising the action, with assistance.

For people with vision impairment, going to the theatre or cinema often means relying on the cocked-head whisperings of a patient companion. Tonight, the words that Sari is hearing – piped to her earphones via the small receiver in her hands – originate from the rear of the tent’s central stand. There, in the popcorn-scented shadows, surrounded by a buffer of empty seats, sit Bruce Pyke and Lauren Williams, two of Vision Australia’s audio describers. This team of 74 volunteers narrates select performances of some 160 live theatrical shows every year, from regional plays to blockbuster musicals including The Book of Mormon. Sitting among the notepaper at their trestle table in microphone-equipped headsets, with his retreating silver hairline and her cropped, bleached ’do, they look like a modern take on the archetypal sportscasting team: the wily veteran and the twinkle-eyed up-and-comer.

And when they begin talking – Pyke in the first act, Williams in the second – they initially sound the part too, an impression coloured by the cheers, oohs and aahs of the audience. Their pitch and pace are composed, however, and hyperbole (the sportscaster’s crutch) is not part of their verbal arsenal. “Mitch dips his [flaming] torch towards his extended arm and sets it on fire,” Williams calmly narrates at one point. A sports commentator would burst a valve over that.

It’s not an audio describer’s job to lead the witness, or to actively evoke emotion in their listeners, of whom there are six tonight. “I try to make sure I tell people everything they need to know to follow the story. But I’m not there to interpret the story or become part of the show,” Williams, a law student and former actor, tells me later. “It’s like I’m a camera. So if someone walks onstage looking super excited, I don’t say that. I say what leads me to think that: that they are walking on with a big smile on their face.”

Live audio description for theatre was developed in the United States during the 1980s by Margaret Pfanstiehl of the Metropolitan Washington Ear, with her husband, Cody. In the late 1980s Pfanstiehl visited Australia, where she trained six audio describers as part of a pilot program organised by Marjory Lane, a volunteer at the Association for the Blind (now Vision Australia). The first Australian production to be audio described was Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, performed at the Playhouse in Melbourne in 1991. Vision Australia’s Michael Ward says that Pfanstiehl and Lane’s work continues to underpin the rules and techniques of audio description.

If the first rule of Fight Club is you don’t talk about Fight Club, the first rule of audio description is you don’t talk over dialogue. An audio describer will go along to two or three shows before their main performance, in order to familiarise themselves with the plot, the set, the costumes, and any physical jokes they will have to set up in their commentary so that their listeners will laugh at the same time as the sighted audience. They must be astute at filling silence, and humble enough to suppress their ego. “It’s not about them; that’s something we weed out early on,” says Ward, explaining that only about one in five who audition have what it takes. An effective audio describer, he adds, must be consistent with terminology, be able to find the right word, and have good voice projection and a good memory.

Calmness under pressure is another important quality, says Pyke, a telco customer-service manager who has been volunteering as an audio describer for more than 20 years. I put it to him that he must surely struggle with the impulse to describe circus action as if calling the final furlong of the Melbourne Cup. Pyke explains that his technique, when faced with a busy set, is to describe what his eye is drawn to, figuring that it’s likely to be the focal point of the performance. “But it can still be tough. How do you describe the moves being performed by a contortionist? Or how many ways can you describe someone spinning around a rope? I wonder sometimes what people are visualising at times like this.”

One of the limitations of audio description (besides there not being enough of it, particularly on free-to-air and catch-up Australian television, which, despite lobbying, has no government-mandated audio description) is the differing expectations among listeners. While audio description has been honed through experience and feedback, some listeners find the clinical descriptions too, well, clinical. For instance, Sari, a paralegal with Public Transport Victoria, found the emotionless description of the character Mitch setting his arm alight “too scientific and insufficient”. Then again, perhaps Sari later found some poetry in Williams’ description of a chain of acrobats suspended from a horizontal rope: “hanging like a half-moon”.

A listener’s experience of what the world looks like can depend on how long they’ve been vision impaired or, indeed, if they’ve ever had sight. Before the Circus Oz performance, the cast and crew welcomed a young vision-impaired boy on a tactile tour of the set, props and costumes. He and his parents loved the tour, but as the boy dipped his fingers into the wounds on a knife-thrower’s target, his mother said that, sometimes, deciphering audio description requires an “adult understanding of the world”.

For the 384,000 Australians with vision impairment, however, audio description can overwhelmingly open up their world. At the conclusion of the circus show, Sari, her mobility cane tracing her path, walks over to Vision Australia’s small table near the box office and returns her transmitter. She’s had a ball. “The atmosphere was great,” she says. “But I only came because of the audio description. It’s not the same as seeing for yourself, and it was hard at times to fathom how amazing the action was, but without the describers it would have just been sound and noise without context.”

Paul Connolly

Paul Connolly is a Melbourne-based freelance journalist and author, and is the editor of the essay collection Father Figures.

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