Shakespeare’s Globe: Diversity Description Workshop for Twelfth Night

stage set for Twelfth Night
A sign on the left at gallery level proclaims ‘Welcome to Illyria’, with a gaudy yellow arrow pointing right. The R of Illyria has come loose and hangs at an angle, giving the sign a down at heel look.

In August we had the pleasure of returning to Shakespeare’s Globe to run another Diversity Description workshop. This time, we were with the company of Twelfth Night, who also performed the recent run of Midsummer Night’s Dream with a vibrant Mexican piñata theme. We brought together the audio describers, Jane and Ess, two audio description users, Access Manager David Bellwood, Kirsty Bloxham, Deputy Stage Manager, and eight of the actors: Shona Babayemi, who plays Olivia, Jacoba Williams (Fabian), Ciarán O’Brien (Sebastian), Nadi Kemp-Sayfi (Maria), Rachel Hannah Clarke (Curio), Victoria Elliott (Feste), George Fouracres (Aguecheek) and  Bryan Dick (Orsino). The workshop was facilitated by the artist, performer and trained audio describer Koko Brown.

We all introduced ourselves in an inclusive way– by giving our role, pronouns and briefly describing our appearances – and Koko gave a short description of the room we were in. We were then ready to kick off with the question ‘What is audio description and what does it mean to you?’

The range of answers that people contributed demonstrated just what a sophisticated and evolving art form audio description is. One of the AD users explained that there are many different styles and forms of AD, just as there are many different ways of interpreting a play. For her, AD can and should be very much part of the ‘creative journey’ of experiencing a play. We talked about the traditional delivery of AD, whereby audio describers, who are typically hidden from view of the audience, deliver the description to users who listen through headsets. Audio describers and creatives are also experimenting with integrating AD into the performance, for example by having the audio describer appear as a character on stage, or by having characters describe one another. The creative possibilities are endless.

One of the Audio Describers, Jane Brambley, explained that AD should not try to tell the user what to think. For example, rather than saying a character looks miserable, she asks herself the question: what is it I can see, that tells me he looks miserable?  This way the audience is left to interpret for themselves. The actors had a range of experiences of AD. Some had never heard of it before and did not know they were being described. Several had attended touch tours and met blind AD users. Very few had actually listened to the AD of a performance before. We rounded off our initial discussion about AD by explaining how it relates to equality, diversity and inclusion, which took us straight into the heart of discussing the description of diversity on stage and how and when it should be done.

Some of the actors felt that when someone has been cast irrespective of their race or gender – a casting strategy important to Shakespeare’s Globe – then it didn’t need to be mentioned. AD users countered this by explaining that AD needs to give them the ‘first impression’ that a non-blind person might have. So if diversity information is missing, then they miss something from the experience. The actors who were initially unsure quickly warmed up to the idea that people should not be denied information, and the conversation quickly turned to how actors could get more involved in AD, and retain agency over how they are described.

One suggestion was that actors could describe themselves in the Audio Introduction, using their character’s voice. This might help AD users to match actor and character later on stage. One actor felt that actors should not dictate how they are described – he wanted audiences to be left to decide for themselves what they should take away from the information given. This supports our view that actors’ input to description is very valuable, but that audio describers may need to filter it to ensure they are providing visual information, and in a way that is meaningful and easy to use for the audience.  For example, we had a discussion about whether the term ‘mixed race’ was useful to the blind audience, or whether it was a case of identification, rather than description. However, having access to the words an actor uses to describe themselves would give an audio describer confidence that they are respecting their language choices. A short chat or use of the VocalEyes character questionnaire are invaluable.

Another actor raised an important question about whether or not AD should include ‘privileged’ information that may not be available to the non-blind audience. In other words, should the blind audience get access to what the actors or production company want to present? or to what a contemporary audience may ‘see’ or understand? These two things may not always coincide! We hope that theatres will become increasingly involved with AD creation and provision in the future, and if AD becomes more embedded in the creative process then this question will become ever more pertinent.

Once again gender was a hot topic for this company, where the play has women playing men, and a woman pretending to be a man. The character of Feste, as explained by Vicky, is also treated in a gender-fluid way, to reflect the fact that people don’t necessarily occupy the gender that we prescribe to them, and that gender is a scale. The workshop provided a useful opportunity for the audio describers to consult with Vicky on describing Feste and which pronouns to use.

Some practical ideas came out of our discussion too. One actor pointed out that they already provide physical descriptions of their appearance through tools like their Spotlight profile and information provided on casting websites. Perhaps there is a way for audio describers to access this information for the benefit of audiences? The actors were also keen to listen to some AD and to discuss with their colleagues how AD should ‘become part of the creativity’.

Thanks once again to all who attended, and particularly to Shakespeare’s Globe and David Bellwood for helping us to bring people together and to facilitate these useful and productive discussions.