The Play's the Thing: Audio Description Opens Doors for New Theater Fans

Before one or two performances of plays at the Guthrie Theater, an unusual procession marches up onto the stage. They wander around the set, with the help of a guide, touching the walls and tapping at the floor with their canes. Occasionally a volunteer will bring out a costume from the production, and it will be passed around the crowd; while they hold it, the volunteer will describe the item, and explain who wears it in the play.

While a number of local theaters offer audio described performances of their plays for blind theatergoers, the Guthrie is unique in offering this pre-show tour of the set. Responses have been excellent. “When a character tripped on the stage,” one patron reportedly said, “I knew where she was–I knew what she had tripped over!”

Audio describing is nothing new–variations of it have been around since the dawn of recorded sound, and surprised television viewers occasionally stumble across audio described television shows while channel surfing through the upper channels on their cable service. For those not familiar with audio description, and are uncertain what they have uncovered, the results can be a little disconcerting. Often what plays on television is an old movie, and a narrator speaks during opportune pauses in the dialogue.

Let us say we are watching a pirate movie: Whatever occurs on the screen, including brigands swinging from ship to ship and complex cutlass duels, is neatly described by the narrator.

The motto of a good audio describer is “not to critique, not to interpret,” so, while various describers have their own styles (some are very careful in describing facial expressions and body language, for example, while others offer meticulous descriptions of sets and costumes), the audience will nonetheless be sure that the show that is described for them is the same show the remainder of the audience is seeing. This is a particularly tricky business in theater, where so much can change from night to night in a show.

While the Guthrie’s audio describers watch rehearsals of plays in preparation, and often spend hours working through a copy of the script with a red pencil, the describer must be quick on their feet. They must be ready to catch the subtle nuances that actors bring to their performances, because the meaning of a line of dialogue can change with the tilt of an actor’s head or a gesture of their hand.

To this end, the Guthrie carefully trains their audio describers, and have developed a small stable of professional describers from whom they draw for their productions. The original group of audio describers were trained by professionals from the Seeing Ear Theatre in Washington, D.C., a group that developed many of the techniques for audio description. This first group then went on to train subsequent generations of audio describers.

In addition, the Guthrie lends out its audio description equipment to other local theaters–as well as elsewhere. The equipment consists of a microphone for the describer, and a small transmitter. The transmitter basically acts as a very small radio station, sending out the words of the transcriber to anyone who has a receiver, which looks like a little portable radio. Besides their use in narrating plays, this audio description equipment has other uses–for example, the Guthrie occasionally lends it out to groups that need it to act as a translator. Two people, speaking separate languages, can put in the earphones and have conversations with each other, assisted by unseen translators.

There is an art to audio describing, as there is to every element of theater, from costuming to set design. For sighted people, anyone who has ever attended a film or watched a video with a blind friend knows how tricky it can be to describe the events on the screen. For the blind, anyone who has had to suffer through a friend’s well-meaning but utterly incomprehensible narration knows that it can be enormously frustrating. It

is easy to sense the shifts in the mood of an audience, and if they burst into raucous laughter or respond with terror to some event that the narrator has neglected to mention, it can ruin an evening. Nobody enjoys having to ask, repeatedly, “What just happened?”

A good audio describer is able to convey these shifts in mood and tone, even if they are very subtle, with their carefully chosen descriptions of the onstage action. This allows more theatergoers to share in the complete experience of theater than was previously possible–and, as happens with good performers, good audio describers begin to develop an audience. A spokesperson for the Guthrie related that when they have an audio-described show coming up, they always include the name of the narrator in their press materials. “Some prefer the description of one person over another,” she explained. “Everybody has a different style, and it is just a matter of preference.”

People interested in learning more about audio description should contact the Guthrie Theater at (612) 377-2224.