We’re Off to Hear the Wizard (Redux)

I thought I’d share an article I wrote for the ACB Ohio’s newsletter last summer:

Last week, as I was preparing to provide live audio description for the CAPA Summer Movie Series presentation of “The Wizard of Oz” I was reminded of an episode from my childhood. Back in the dark ages, before we had streaming video, DVDs or even video cassettes, the annual broadcast of perennial favorites such as “The Wizard of Oz” was a very big deal. There were two nights a year our family ate on tray tables in front of the TV and one of those nights was when “The Wizard of Oz” was on.

One year I was being punished for some childhood transgression or other and I was not allowed to see “The Wizard of Oz”, which — for the sake of this tale — you should know I had seen several times before. However by the night of the broadcast, my mother was feeling sorry for me and allowed me to sit beside the closed door to the den, where my sister and father were watching the movie with the sound turned way up — on eleven, as the lads from Spinal Tap might say — while my mother kept me company in the kitchen. With the music, sound effects and dialogue as my cues I proceeded, from memory, to regale my mother with details of all the visuals I was missing. And so, upon reflection, I suppose that’s when my career as a nascent audio describer began…

Now to those of you familiar with audio description, this tale actually is a bit backwards with regards to how an audio describer works and for those of you who are not, allow me to explain. An audio describer creates a supplemental narrative by describing the visual details and actions in a movie or performance that would otherwise be inaccessible to audience members who are blind, low vision or otherwise visually impaired. Audio describers also describe art work and other types of exhibits in museums, parks, landmarks, educational materials, sporting events — pretty much any visual content you can think of. Audio description is just that: description. A good audio describer provides the imagery using language but does not interpret the material being described. It is our job to allow you, the audience, to have the story unfold with all of its nuances as the director intended and to experience art and exhibits so that you can draw your own conclusions.

So, what’s actually involved in creating audio description for a performance? The first thing that is necessary is to preview the performance or movie. Ideally I like to see something three times. The first time just to see it and understand the flow of the story and action. The second time is to make notes on the action and visual details and the third time, at least when I’m working on a film, is to work out the audio description in the context of the action. There’s a lot of stopping and starting when I work on a movie. Unfortunately when I work on a theatrical performance, my time line is very compressed. I generally preview the show one time, maybe four or five days prior to the performance I’ll be describing, before I begin writing the audio description and pre-show program notes. By getting a copy of the script in advance, I’m able to acquaint myself with the characters and the flow of the show before previewing. The night I’m in the theater I keep one eye on the stage and the other on my notebook as I scribble details about the costumes and sets. I supplement my notes with photos from the production’s website.

Unlike the pre-taped audio description you might hear on TV, at a live performance (or in the case of something like a movie festival where the audio description may be provided live) we have the luxury of spending the half hour prior to the show to give more detailed descriptions of the characters, costumes, scenery and sets as well as pertinent information from the printed program. These notes generally run less than half an hour and are repeated as time allows until the curtain goes up.

Between previewing, reading and writing my description, I generally spend at least 16 hours to prepare for a show. So when a venue requires that patrons make accommodation requests a certain length of time before a performance, please understand that they need time to locate an audio describer and the audio describer, once booked, needs time to prepare so that you can have the best possible experience.

Many venues provide audio description upon request as opposed to having a set performance time that will have audio description. You can always request audio description for a performance by calling the box office. If the box office cannot handle your request simply ask to whom you should speak and ask for the best way to contact that person. Many museums have audio descriptions of select items from their collections on their websites. The Audio Description Project has many resources listed on their website http://acb.org/adp/.

Don’t be afraid to request access. If you are already an audio description consumer, please be sure to give feedback to the theater (or museum or television station, etc) so that they understand what it means to you to have this access. You can do this either by posting on social media, making a phone call, sending an email or going old-school and sending a note via snail mail. If possible, try to get some feedback to the audio describer. We can provide better description when we have a better understanding of what our audience wants. Not everyone is the same, so not everyone may want the same level of detail and you may like some audio describers better than others. But, hey, that’s a horse of a different color!

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