Listening to scenography
One of the youngest professions in theatre, audio description (AD) is on the rise. It aims to provide sensory access to visually presented arts to previously marginalized members of the public – the blind and visually impaired. It is offered in a range of venues, from cinemas, theatres and opera houses to museums, and the market is growing fast. Far from being improvised, audio descriptions are developed by an exacting process of analysing the work in question, its scenography, setting and timing.
One of its proponents is the dancer Valérie Castan, who started offering AD for contemporary dance in 2013, having learnt film description techniques and applied them to choreography. Since she started out, arts provisions for blind people have seen a boom; AD can now be studied at the University of the Côte d’Azur. Nevertheless, it remains a struggle even in France to earn a living with AD. Another AD pioneer, the actor and theatre director Elisabeth Martin-Chabot, who founded the agency Écouter L’Image in 2013, confesses: “I keep afloat because I work for theatre, circus, film and museums and also offer training in AD”.
The technical facilities in theatre have considerably improved since 2013. “In the beginning I had to organise everything myself and there wasn’t enough equipment,” says Castan. Essentially, however, all that is required is a transmitter and receivers, akin to those used for museum guides. In terms of technology, then, it could hardly be more straightforward: “We work with a high frequency and there is no interference from telephones. The theatre technicians now have it all under control.” And there is an even easier alternative: “Some theatres work with WLAN, so that the audience can listen with their cellphones.” Of course, the theatre technicians still need to be prepared. During the performance, Castan herself sits in a separate cabin with a view of the action, like a simultaneous translator. “If necessary, I can also work from a box in the circle, if the action on stage is transmitted on a monitor, but it isn’t ideal,” she says.
What is ideal is enough time to have a talk with the visually impaired audience members at the end, and for them to arrive one hour before the curtain goes up to take part in a tactile viewing of the stage set and props. Circus artist Johann Le Guillerm, for instance, is known for his artistic, often metre-high sculptures, which also serve as apparatus, and which he shows in exhibitions and installations, too. For Écouter l’Image, he made 1:10 scale copies of his sculptures, to allow the blind audience members to gain a plastic impression of them. The originals used in his performances can be two or three times his size.
Participants are usually thrilled to have the opportunity to feel their way around a set. “The blind participants enjoy getting a head-start on the sighted audience members,” confirms Castan. Her description of the stage set for “At the Still Point of the Turning World”, a production for two musicians, a puppeteer and a dancer, by theatre director Renaud Herbin, starts with the words: “The stage is 15 metres wide and 12 metres deep. Curtains at the back left and right blur the contours of the stage, making the space appear to go on infinitely in the darkness. The set is reminiscent of a warehouse. Threads hang from the ceiling with dolls tied at the end. In the middle of the stage there are 1500 lightly filled canvas pouches, each 25 cm high. The pouches are closed and hang on long black threads, all the same length. This sea of pouches forms a kind of body, a hovering rectangle, 5 metres along the side.” This excerpt shows how much more information an audio description conveys than can be grasped just by looking. Indeed, AD is a verbal reconstruction of the stage and set. It needs to be highly detailed to incorporate the various levels of information that sighted audiences register simultaneously.
To complete an AD, Castan views each piece in advance, usually several times. “For ‘At the Still Point’ I really immersed myself in the scenography. I checked what you can register without seeing: the pouches, for instance. They make quite a lot of noise when they are lowered. Close to the stage you can hear them clearly.” And that is precisely where the blind audience members are seated. Castan also needs to study the technicians’ rundown and let them take her through it. As a rule, she has far more contact with the technicians than with the artists.
Editing one minute of AD takes about one hour. Special attention needs to be paid to the spatial dimensions. To describe a stage set, the text needs to start at one side, at the front or back, and move across the stage in one direction. As in audio descriptions of paintings, there needs to be a hierarchical organization so that the listeners don’t lose track. Spatial coherence is even more important for guided tours, where the audience moves through the architecture.
One of the most difficult aspects to describe is the light. Especially in dance, lighting works with the movement of the bodies to create spaces and horizons, and effects such as magnifying or shrinking figures in the viewer’s perception. To convey this accurately, Castan consults the lighting technicians for background information on each production to be described. And then there is specialist terminology to be explained. That is best done during a tactile tour of the production. “Light is really the most difficult thing. I’ve learned to deal with it and now I use it to describe the space.” But where there is light, there is shade. And that is something that is unfamiliar to the blind from birth. “But they’re too shy to ask.” And mist and fog? “I was on a job describing a piece that started with a misty scene. But that was in Le Havre and the residents of that town know exactly how mist and fog feel.”
How do AD writers select what to describe and what are the limits? These concepts are not fixed; they are constantly being refined. Responses to physical arts are very much informed by subjective ideas. “It’s possible for a blind audience to follow drama without AD if necessary,” says Castan. But to follow dance, description is essential. And in circus, the speed and simultaneity involved in the performance is hard to articulate. To tackle this, Martin-Chabot needed to rethink and adapt the method she uses for drama: “Today I focus more on the lyrical aspect of the acrobatics and sometimes I let the music do the talking. So, I might describe how a figure starts and where it will lead. But I leave the rest open so that the listeners can sense the grace for themselves.”
Castan, meanwhile, combines universal impressions with physical details in her AD for dance: “I talk about the feelings that are triggered when someone falls, rolls or jumps. Into every new AD I throw two or three sentences describing visual impressions and then one sentence on the gestures.” Explaining her approach of analysing videos of performances, Martin-Chabot says: “I watch them up to ten times and find more and more details that I didn’t notice at the first and second viewings. It just goes to show that even the sighted don’t get everything at once”.