Play showing and telling

IN DEMAND: Circa Theatre provided an audio description for some performances of the Arthur Miller play My Sons in 2012.
IN DEMAND: Circa Theatre provided an audio description for some performances of the Arthur Miller play My Sons in 2012.

Four years ago a production of The Pohutukawa Tree in Wellington had a special component: a live audio description for the blind or visually impaired in the audience.

The performance at Toi Whakaari New Zealand Drama School was the first piece of audio-described theatre in New Zealand and audience members listened to the commentary through headsets connected to an AM receiver.

A year later Downstage and Circa theatres began their own audio-described sessions for some plays. Since then demand for audio-described shows has grown, as has the need for audio describers. It's a reason one of the pioneers of audio description will speak in Wellington tomorrow about the craft.

Joel Snyder, from the United States, has been providing audio descriptions since 1981. When he began it was essentially a new profession. "I'm not blind," he says. "I got into this through my media and theatre background reading talking books for the blind and reading for individuals who were blind."

Snyder, who runs the company, Audio Description Associates, was an actor and English teacher.

He volunteered for a radio reading service, where written material is read over the airwaves for the blind. "A few years into it we began experimenting with descriptions on television, without much success because we weren't a television studio or broadcaster." They were later approached by a Boston television channel that was keen to test audio-descriptions for some television shows. "I ended up writing and voicing descriptions of some of the very first television programmes, now [the station] has a significant service of their own."

Snyder has since provided audio description for hundreds of theatre productions, but demand for audio describers isn't limited to plays. He's provided descriptions for weddings and funerals, award ceremonies, parades, sports and even office meetings.

Snyder says for most plays he can prepare by seeing a performance and writing a descriptive script. He then follows the script for subsequent performances.

But one-off events can be a bigger challenge. He did audio descriptions for United States President Barack Obama's two inaugurations. "I got material from the White House that gave me an idea of the order of things, and the names of people and such, but that's all I had ahead of time. So it requires a special kind of concentration and description to not only use words that convey the visual image but be sensitive to a soundtrack that is essentially commentators blabbing on about what they think."

Snyder says he's had his share of moments when he's had to think on his feet. But the bigger risk has been with having a pre-recorded description provided for a live show. "In recent years there have been experiments with recorded description for live performing arts. This usually happens for big touring shows that are run by a computer essentially. The description is timed to lighting cues.

"The only problem there is if one of the actors falls off the stage. Somebody has to be able to take the microphone and cut into the recorded track."

Snyder says in recent years they've encouraged a member of the cast or crew having a dual role as an audio describer for any performance, rather than limiting audio descriptions to only a few performances.

"In my opinion that's not good enough because blind people shouldn't have to be limited to two performances."

So what makes a good audio describer? Snyder has what he calls his "four fundamentals".

"The first of which is observation. Audio describers need to see the world around them and develop a sense of visual literacy far beyond what the typical person sees. Describers have to see everything that's going on."

Ironically, the second fundamental is to know how to edit what they see to something that is precise and succinct, Snyder says.

The third is language. "It's to find words that will convey the visual image succinctly, vividly and imaginatively. We focus on word choices, synonyms, metaphor, similes – any literary device to conjure an image." The fourth is vocal skills.

Wellington-based Arts Access Aotearoa has organised Snyder's visit to New Zealand. Last month it organised a three-day audio describer course with the aim of building a team of professional audio describers. It has support from Wellington City Council and the New Zealand Drama School.

Snyder has championed audio description in more than 35 countries and while it has become firmly established, he still encounters scepticism. It has sometimes been in places, such as museums, where audio description is in its infancy.

"It wasn't all that long ago – and this is documented in a video in the United States – a blind person was in a museum with some friends and an uneducated, somewhat bold, sighted woman went up to the individual and said: 'Why are you here? You're blind. You can't see anything in the museum'.

"His response was, 'I want to see, I want to know. I want to be be part of our culture.'

"If a museum is not accessible they might as well put a sign outside saying, 'blind people not welcome'."


Joel Snyder provides a free presentation on audio description at St James Theatre, tomorrow, 5.30pm.

The Dominion Post