Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester: The Mountaintop

The IDEA project team recently got together with Amy, Associate Producer at the Royal Exchange; Scott, Company Stage Manager for The Mountaintop and Pat Hayes (Audio Describer) for a discussion about AD. It was hosted by Anne Hornsby (Mind’s Eye Description), who is delivering the AD for The Mountaintop.

Our discussion ranged between the development of AD as an artistic genre and the practicalities of writing AD collaboratively in the busy and often unpredictable world of theatre. While it is crucial to give thought to the nuances of describing people on stage, it’s clear that a lot of effort also needs to be directed at raising the profile of AD within theatres. As Amy pointed out, many actors will know broadly what AD is, but may not have listened to it themselves, so they don’t necessarily understand the level of detail that is included.

Raising awareness of AD was front of mind when we returned to the Royal Exchange for the audio described performance of The Mountaintop one week later. Our now well-travelled AD pull up poster welcomed visitors as they entered the foyer. After the show, actors Adetomiwa Edun (playing Dr Martin Luther King) and Ntombizodwa Ndlovu (playing Camae) joined Hannah Thompson and Anne Hornsby for a discussion about the AD. We were delighted to be joined by members of the audience who had used the AD and also plenty who hadn’t, but who were curious to find out more.

Anne opened the discussion by setting out how AD needs to find respectful ways to describe characters.  She explained that this means using the right pronouns for the actor/character and thinking about the language used to describe people’s physical appearances. The language of the play may not always be suitable. Audio describers also take care to avoid plot spoilers.

The non-blind audience were intrigued by the challenges that AD presents. People were interested to know how the AD is delivered to the blind audience, reminding us that AD, unlike BSL, is largely invisible in theatres. The use of headsets or earphones is easy to miss and the audio describer is often hidden away in a booth elsewhere in the theatre. Anne explained the purpose of the AD to those who weren’t familiar with it – that it aims to answer the listeners’ questions before they even form in their minds.

People were interested to know how visual humour is conveyed and Anne explained how timing is crucial. The AD tries to describe what is causing the humour at the optimal moment. If the blind audience members smile and laugh at the same time as the non-blind audience members, then that is a good measure of success.

Participants in our discussion were also curious to understand how you describe for someone who is congenitally totally blind, compared to someone with visual memory. AD provision is not tailored to individual levels of visual experience or preferences, although we hope that one day more choices might be available for users.  Currently, all AD users hear the same information.  However, Hannah explained that people who are blind from birth still live in a society that is predominately visual. This means they are still likely to have an awareness of and interest in visual information, including colours, especially when these have cultural meanings.

Finally, one audience member wanted to know how much input the actors had had into the AD for The Mountaintop. Anne explained that there are questionnaires in use (such as the actor/character questionnaire developed by VocalEyes) which give actors the opportunity to have input into the AD. However, there is always more work to be done to raise awareness in theatres. Audio describers and companies like Mind’s Eye and VocalEyes have been working hard to promote AD in drama schools in recent years. Theatres are required to provide AD as a reasonable adjustment under the Equality Act (2010). The more theatres understand about AD, the more embedded it can become in their work – a creative tool for innovation, as well as a means of access.