Audio Description in Theatres

Link to list of theatres.

What is audio description?

Audio description is a verbal commentary that tells visually impaired theatre-goers what is happening on the stage during the parts of the performance where there is no dialogue (i.e. during fight scenes). The description does not interfere with the performance but fills in the gaps, describing facial expressions, costume, scenery and action sequences so that anyone with a sight problem can follow the plot fully and independently. Many visually impaired theatre-goers are enthusiastic about audio description:

"For me, every word of commentary was a bonus."
"After a while I don't even hear what the describer is saying, I just see the pictures being painted."
"I could see the play for myself."

How does audio description work?

The trained describer sits in a soundproof booth in the theatre and explains what is happening on the stage. Usually, the describer has seen the performance three or four times before and is well prepared to describe the performance. Visually impaired theatre-goers are equipped with a headset or earpiece before the performance and the description is relayed from the soundproof booth to the headset/ear-piece via an infrared or radio sound system.

Where can I find an audio described performance?

Approximately ninety theatres across the country now provide audio description. Most of these schedule one or two audio described performances per play run.

RNIB Recreation and Lifestyles Department has a list of theatres throughout the country who provide audio description. For more information, please telephone Anna Jones 0207 391 2150.

Making arrangements with the theatre

It's always a good idea to explain your requirements when booking tickets for any performance. If you want to receive the audio description, reserve a headset or earpiece from the theatre box office. This guarantees that one will be available for you when you arrive for the performance. (NB: Most theatres ask for a deposit for your headset or earpiece.)

If you are a guide dog owner, you will be pleased to know that some theatres, which provide audio description, welcome guide dogs in the auditorium. Others arrange for staff to look after them.

The easiest way to be kept informed about audio described performances is to ask for your details to be put on to the theatre audio description mailing list. Most theatres provide this information in large print, Braille and on cassette. Vocaleyes is a national company working with theatres to provide audio described performances for visually impaired people. They produce a regular newsletter that lists audio described performances by the company.

For groups of visually impaired people, audio description can make all the difference. If you are planning a group visit, book headsets well in advance, or see if describers can organise audio description especially for you. In addition, most theatres can organise touch tours before the performance, where visually impaired people can explore the scenery and costumes. It's always worth asking if a touch tour is possible.

After the performance

If you have any comments about the standard of the audio description it's worth passing them on to the people involved. Describers will welcome the feedback and use it to help them improve the service. Also, if you have any opinions about the access to the theatre, do let the Manager know so that he/she can take them into consideration.

A word about music venues...

Some opera houses and concert venues have introduced audio introduction. Audio introduction is similar to audio description. In the opera house, it provides the music lover with a resume of the story, a description of the set and costumes and a clear indication of the order in which singers appear. Audio introduction in concert halls presents the print programme together with information about forthcoming events.

Useful contacts

RNIB Recreation and Lifestyles
105 Judd Street
London, WC1H 9NE
Tel: 020 7391 2150
For general enquiries about audio description.
first Floor
54 Commercial Street
E1 6LT
020 7375 1043
Audio Description Association
Maryse Jeffery,
'Ledrah', Penquite,
Lostwithiel, Cornwall, PL22 0HX.
Telephone 01208 873175
Helping to raise standards for audio description nationwide. Produces a bi-annual newsletter for its members that looks at national progress within the audio description world. For a membership form, contact the address above.
Audio Description Association (Scotland)
Kim McKenna
Edinburgh Festival Theatre, 13-29 Nicolson Street,
Edinburgh, EH8 9FT.
Telephone 0131 662 1112
Working towards raising standards for audio description in Scotland. Produces a quarterly newsletter for members (available in print and on tape). Membership details are available from the address above.
Updated July 2002

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