Describing Diversity

The project report Describing Diversity: an exploration of the description of human characteristics and appearance within the practice of theatre audio description was published on 16 September 2020.

The Describing Diversity project, in partnership with Royal Holloway, University of London, came about because we identified the need for a process of exploration of when and how we should describe the personal characteristics of the diverse range of characters that appear on stage, and in particular, the visible, physical markers of race, gender, impairment / disability, age and body shape. We also wished to explore why such characteristics should be described, so we had a basis for developing a common understanding and rationale for any proposed changes to practice.

The research involved the whole community involved in audio description: blind and visually impaired users of the service, actors, other theatre professionals, and audio describers working around the UK and the world, through an online survey (June to August 2019), in-depth interviews (January to March 2020) and collaborative workshops (April 2020).

In 2020 theatres and other cultural organisations have faced challenges beyond what anyone could have imagined just a year ago. With the coronavirus pandemic and resulting lockdown, theatres closed their doors, and now face more permanent closure or re-opening in a very changed world. Meanwhile, the world has also been shaken by the death of George Floyd and the global response of the Black Lives Matter movement and increasing calls for the decolonisation of institutions and long overdue changes to society. How theatres, museums and other organisations and their leaders respond will shape their future and that of the whole arts and cultural sectors.

Audio description has the potential to make a significant contribution to the future genres of theatre, dance and live art experience. Involving diverse directors, designers, and producers will be critical to the process and understanding of audio description; and we need to hear from them about their vision, their interpretation of classical scripts, their language and style.

Our report calls for increased understanding and dialogue between the dynamic industries of theatre and audio description. It is only through working together that we can strive to create the equitable and inclusive audio descriptions that both audiences and theatres deserve, and that audio describers wish to deliver.

“We all build our perceptions of difference and otherness inside our minds. So how do we verbalise regularly unverbalised diversity in a very public domain? I believe that the Describing Diversity report is seminal. It has a huge relevance for people beyond theatre and audio description. We are at a stage where seeing, describing and being confident to recognise the spectra of race, disability, age and gender in all of our intersections is an essential part of dismantling the narrow and now very tired default of cis, White non-disabled supremacy.”
Tehmina Goskar, Director, Curatorial Research Centre

“This thorough and balanced report presents the findings of a significant research undertaking by VocalEyes and Royal Holloway. Its context is clearly established and the results and recommendations could not be more timely in the present cultural landscape.

The crux of the project is how diversity characteristics are ‘translated’ by audio describers—and the ever-present issue of how describers themselves determine the relevance of visual data on behalf of the blind and visually impaired audience.

The report is not only a valuable contribution to existing scholarship, but also a blueprint for organisations looking to adopt more active policies in this area. What is more, in its own considered and respectful use of language, the report absolutely embodies its findings. Theatres and stage describers will find it an invaluable resource—but most relevant for me are the many ways the TV and film industries can listen, learn, and implement better practices where this important issue is concerned.”
Jonathan Penny, Audio Description Production Manager, ITV and VocalEyes Trustee

Additional resources

Alongside the full Describing Diversity report (PDF), three sections are also available as individual documents:

Twelve principles for describing human characteristics in an Audio Introduction (section 3.3, PDF)

Twelve recommendations for theatres and theatre companies (section 3.4, PDF)

Character Questionnaire for actors (section 3.5, PDF). For use by audio describers, as a proforma for consultation with the cast of a production that they have been commissioned to audio describe. The purpose is two-fold: to increase actors’ awareness of the purpose and processes of audio description, and to elicit their description of the character(s) that they play, and any preferences for how they wish to be identified. BSL and EasyRead versions of the questionnaire will follow.

Also available is a list of UK organisations and initiatives promoting access, equality and diversity in the arts and a list of recommended books and websites both of which we plan to grow and develop. Please submit suggestions for any additions to either list.

As the project develops, further pages will be added to this section.

Authors

The authors of the Describing Diversity report are Dr. Rachel Hutchinson, post-doctoral researcher specialising in audio description, Professor Hannah Thompson, Professor of French and Critical Disability Studies at Royal Holloway University of London and Matthew Cock, Chief Executive of VocalEyes.

Please direct all enquiries about the Describing Diversity report and project to Matthew Cock ([email protected]) in the first instance.