NT at home promo

Digital theatre and audio description: what do users want?

With a sudden increase in the volume of theatre being streamed online in recent weeks since the start of the lockdown, the lack of access provision for potential audience members who are blind or partially sighted has really been highlighted. The National Theatre’s fourth digital production was audio-described, setting a good example to other theatres.

VocalEyes has launched an audio description service for recorded performances. Our initial thinking imagines that this service will be a hybrid, a mix of the live theatre audio descriptions that we already provide, and the TV/film audio descriptions many of our freelance audio describers have worked on for other companies. Ideally, we want to take the best of both worlds, drop the worst practice and create a service that properly reflects recorded live performances and makes them accessible in the best way possible for the user. To help our thinking, we asked a group of our regular theatre AD users if they would share their thoughts.

What follows are some questions to prompt you, please feel free to answer as many, or as few as you find useful to convey your thoughts about existing audio description services and this potential new service.

A: When watching at home, I have the option to choose whether my partner describes to me or whether to go with the broadcast AD. For films, the AD is often so mechanical that it detracts from the atmosphere of the film – and American AD generally uses too many words anyway. My decision to watch AD theatre remotely depend on who is describing it. If it were Describer A or Describer B, I find their styles intrusive and I would therefore switch off the AD and choose to let [my partner] describe to me instead. If it were Describer C (who has great timing) I should probably give AD a go and were it Describer D (who has both great timing and an amazing economy of words) I should definitely switch on the AD. If the AD were to be scripted and delivered by a member of the cast, I should also be sure to give it a try

B: I think the idea of providing AD for online theatre presentations is an excellent one. If it were already available, I’m sure I’d be listening to many more online theatre performances than I am.

For live theatre we create introductory notes describing the set, characters and costumes – and we try to make them available in advance online as text and audio, by posting an audio CD and be broadcasting a live version immediately before the live performance commences. Audio-described films and TV shows do not have this, they only have description within the production itself. We imagine providing introductory notes to be made available with audio described recorded shows. Do you think this is a good idea or not?

C: For me I think best practice would be similar to the live AD in the theatre – i.e. firstly live AD intro notes at the beginning of the online / streamed filmed version of the performance with the notes also available to listen to and download from the online / streaming page / website , So that people can listen or read the notes prior to the streaming or viewing of the online film of the production but with the notes also at the beginning of the film.

Try and make the experience similar to the live theatre experience.

I would not want the online / streaming theatre performance to lack the quality of theatre AD and revert to film / TV AD which is pretty poor compared to theatre AD.

D: I do not believe that description notes are necessary. The notes are a great addition to a live performance but are not a requirement for the show.

E: Yes, good idea.

F: I do think it’s a good idea but the practicalities of their delivery could be a bit limiting. I think the best way of making them available would be to have them on a virtual platform where they could be listened to or downloaded from, but this would risk excluding some VI people who aren’t computer literate. Other than providing them as a downloadable option, possibly with the addition of a paper version which could be reformatted and printed, I don’t think the other options of postal CDs would work as the turnaround time and need for user databases could be challenging to create, protect and maintain.

If we do provide introductory notes for recorded shows with audio description – should they differ from the intros we currently make for live theatre, and if so – how?

A: The pre-show notes would be helpful whether or not I chose the AD for the show itself. The style could be expanded a bit to include some of what would normally take place during the touch tour.

C: I would not want to change too much of the live theatre intro notes apart from adapting them for the online / streaming film, i.e. you would probably not need to describe the auditorium that much, unless there are elements of the show that go into the audience; you might have to adapt description of some of the props if they are not being shown in the film, etc….

You could combine the intro notes and touch tour into an pre-show film that combines the two of them with actors talking about and describing their costumes, etc….

E: Summarised and not so detailed especially about costumes and set unless absolutely necessary. During the interval there should be an opportunity for a reminder of set/characters, especially if there is a large cast.

F: I think the initial sections relating to what the production is; background, stage, cast and production credits would do the job. I never listen to a CD beyond these sections but I do have a vague recollection of hearing things around links to organizations and groups which, if I’m right probably wouldn’t need to be included.

If we provide intro notes, we imagine that it would be best to provide these separately alongside the audio-described recording of the show, so that they are easily listened to on their own. Is that right, or would it be easier to have them be the first 10-15 minutes at the beginning of the video with a holding screen, so that you just have to find one thing and press play once (although if listened to separately you may then have to listen again or try and find where the show begins)?

B: I think Introductory Notes would be very useful. I’d be happy for them to be pretty much along the lines of those currently provided for live performances. I would agree they should be offered online, as a separate text/audio file, close to but not integrated with the link to the online theatre performance. I’m indifferent as to whether the Introductory Notes are delivered by the same person or persons delivering the AD for the digital performance.

C: Best practice would be to have both as indicated above i.e. the notes at the beginning of the show plus the notes available to listen to before you start watching the film. If you have already listened to the notes prior to watching the film you could skip through them if you did not want to listen to them but I do think they need to be there at the beginning as the AD would be lacking without the notes.

D: The introductory notes are excellent, but are not necessary to understand the show so in my opinion they are not needed.

E: Separately but maybe on an easy-to-access link like the Opera North link below which opened immediately rather than being buried on a website that you need to scroll up and down endlessly to find the correct link to programme notes for a particular show.

F: I’m naturally drawn to having them read out at the start of a recorded performance while a holding image is displayed on screen. The only caveat here though is that it would need to be possible for people to skip them as it could be intrusive and irritating for sighted viewers to encounter it and it might not be needed for a VI repeat viewer.

For live audio descriptions we generally use the voices of two audio describers, because it can be hard for one voice to describe a full show on their own and the describers co-script them. The two describers also run the touch tour, and monitor the broadcast of the description. Films and TV tend to have a single voice throughout. We imagine that it will be simpler for us to produce audio descriptions with one voice, and that it may be distracting to change the voice mid-way through a recording.

Do you think that’s right? Do you think there is any case for changing voices? Specific instances where it may be helpful, for example if a show goes between two locations, one voice may signify one place, and the other voice another place? If we provide intro notes, does it make sense for the same voice who will deliver the audio description to record these for continuity and to intro their voice? Or would you prefer to have the voices split between notes and audio description for variety?

A: There is no benefit whatsoever to the user in having two voices describe during the show. If a second voice were to be merited it would be the voice of the stage manager describing the set and the props in the pre-show notes.

B: I agree that one describer would generally be sufficient, unless there’s a strong and self-evident case for using a second describer. As I said before, I’m indifferent as to whether the Introductory Notes should be delivered by the same person who is providing AD for the performance/recording.

C: I would be happy for one voice to deliver the notes plus the AD during the film; however, there might be times when artistically it would be good to have two voices such as in ballet and dance for describing two different groups, the male and female characters and dancers, etc.

If introductory notes were provided, I think it would make no difference who voiced them.

D: With the ability to edit the recording, one audio describer is fine. I don’t see the need.

E: Same voice.

F: Definitely I’d go down the single voice route as this would give consistency throughout the performance and mean that, when a voice is heard, there isn’t a risk of confusion for viewers as to just what is happening on screen. As well as the use of two voices for different locations another context where two voices might work could be if the show is being split between two separate perspectives, for example an authoritarian character dominating others where a different voice could represent each group but this would need to be explained, with both voices included in the pre-performance notes; as we are talking about stage shows, I don’t think this would be needed as the describer is providing independent description of everything which is happening on stage.

Are there any aspects of live theatre audio description that you dislike and would not like to be carried over to the audio description of recorded live theatre?

C: Noisy description points and rooms – i.e. don’t want to hear other noises when the Describer is delivering their scripts. Sound quality of the recording of the notes and AD needs to be of professional quality.

D: it will be excellent not be have to wear the headphones!

F: There is nothing I’d change, the description process and style works well, giving clear and useful information throughout a show with an excellent balance between giving guidance and information while ensuring that any approaching shocks and surprises aren’t disclosed.

Are there any aspects of film and TV audio description that you dislike and would not like to be carried over to the audio description of recorded live theatre?

B: I’ve very rarely enjoyed or been satisfied with the quality of AD for film or TV. There are various reasons for this, but I won’t go into them here. More important is the fact that online presentations of recorded live theatre are neither film or TV. Rather they are what they say they are, namely, online presentations of recorded stage performances. Therefore, the same principles underlying good AD for live theatre performances should also apply to online presentations of recordings of such live performances. The only additional thought that the describer might have in mind is the fact that the visually impaired listener will not have had the benefit of a touch tour, and therefore it may occasionally be necessary to say a bit more about the set in the AD. But I wouldn’t want to overdo this and consequently clutter up the AD. So essentially, the same AD used for live theatre should work equally well for online digital recordings, with perhaps just a bit more reference to the set?

C: Bad AD writing, bad mixing of the sound of the film and the Describer – i.e. you don’t need to suddenly duck the film sound for the AD as what normally happens with film and TV AD. I would like to see the AD mixed properly with the sound of the show.

E: Often film/TV AD is lazier in its detail, especially that produced by the broadcast media. There is not enough accountability for this output by users.

F: There can be a tendency with AD for films and TV that when action on screen is busy, the AD goes quiet which results in what is happening just wafting past me; I can get so frustrated as my wife is responding to on-screen action and I don’t have a clue what’s happening as the AD has gone quiet.

Do you have thoughts about how the audio description should be integrated on the soundtrack? For the AD to be heard, it will often be necessary to duck the sound level of the performance down. We imagine that this should be done as smoothly and as little as possible to minimise distraction, and that the sound level of the AD should be the same as the average level of speech in the production, so that you don’t have to keep adjusting the sound. Are we on the right track?

B: I agree with what you say … about the relative levels of AD and stage sound. Yes, it will be fine to bring down the stage sound levels to make sure the AD is audible, but it needs to be done sensitively and subtly by a competent and skilled sound mixer.

C: Exactly and in some cases, you may not need to duck the show sound as the describer will be speaking in a space with little sound from the show for some productions.

D: Yes, dulling the sound … to hear the AD sounds correct.

E: Yes.

F: Definitely, with AD on television, when the AD resumes, the transition needs to be smoothly processed as, otherwise, it risks being a distraction to the performance.

Would you want anything else as part of the service? With live theatre we also provide a touch tour – which of course will not be possible! But does anything else need to be provided, or other parts of the service grown and adapted to help fill that gap? With live theatre we also provide the Braille and large print cast lists, the cast are listed in the intro notes we plan to have as text and audio, would you like a separate cast list on a website, or to download in a Word document?

B: If production credits appear in the intro notes, then I agree that there’s no need for braille or large print cast lists.

C: Firstly, the cast and production credits would be part of the intro notes so no need for separate extra ones in my opinion.

There might be the opportunity as mentioned above to do something creative with the intro notes and touch tour to film something with the describer and cast on the stage, even if it is just a walk through the set highlighting props, costumes, etc and chatting with cast members…. Maybe for the future but would be a really good element for the whole experience.

D: A list of cast members is not needed. it would be quick and easy to look this information up online.

E: Good to provide programme details somewhere and also describe approach of theatrical style of productions.

F: Instinctively, there isn’t anything that needs to be included beyond ensuring that a means of getting a cast list into a format which everybody needs is put in place but I’m uncertain as to how this could be achieved when circulating braille cast lists.

Do you have any thoughts about how the audio-described video and intro notes should be made available and controlled on a website to ensure ease of use?

C: Could the intro notes be available as a download from the online / streaming page maybe a button to download the text notes and another button to listen to the audio notes or even an embedded audio player on the page.

D: For copyright reasons, this service may need to be restricted to a sign-in use service. I would be very happy to use this service.

E: Plainly listed, not too many levels of links and a simple control interface with Play, Fast Forward/Rewind and Pause/Stop.

F: Sadly, this is an area I really don’t know a whole lot about but I think it will probably need to be structured in an alphabetic order with all the links being grouped around the production link, maybe basic production information, dates when the show was live and cast members as these could be picked up by search engines as well as the different resources which can be explored.

Is there anything else that strikes you about this potential new hybrid service that you would like to share?

A: I should add that I am not sure how much I would like AD theatre at home. I am locked down in the country and enjoying radio drama but not bothering with AD television or the near constant barrage of free online content being offered by theatres and other arts organisations. I seem to like my club life at my club and my theatre at the theatre. This may change in time but for the moment I am not missing London life.

C: Opening up theatre AD to many more people around the country and also bringing more visually impaired people to a live AD theatre experience.

Having moved from London to the West of England there is a real lack of AD around and it is too expensive to make a trip to London to see an AD show. Fine if you live in or near to London and can easily get to see a show but not so easy for people in the sticks.

It is very frustrating about the lack of AD for online content whether it is theatre shows being streamed online, TV on catch up services, etc.

Maybe if online theatre AD was able to provide a really good service and show how with the aid of intro notes in whatever form, really good AD during the show and good professional standards of quality of AD and it’s delivery i.e. not just ducking the film sound in and out when the Description comes in. This could be a real opportunity for theatre AD to help to shape and improve the quality of TV and film AD.

D: As the users of this service are VI, is there need for the visual part of the performance to be broadcast?

E: How it gets advertised?

Image: promotional image for National Theatre at Home, where a selection of NT Live shows is being streamed on YouTube every week, free of charge’. The current show is Twelfth Night.

Experience the audio-described stream of Twelfth Night on YouTube.
An audio description of the background to the play (Track 2 MP3 2.15MB)
An audio description of the settings, scenes and characters of the production (Track 3 MP3 35.3MB)
Audio description Notes in Word

If you’d like to add your thoughts on the audio-description of streamed theatre online, please add a comment below, email us at [email protected] or tweet us @VocalEyesAD.