Reflections of an audio describer

Lara Torr


By Disability Arts International on November 25, 2014

Ever wondered what an audio describer does? Lara Torr, an alumna of the British Council’s Realise Your Dream programme, is a visual artist and audio describer based in Adelaide and offers some great insights.

Lara, can you explain to us what Audio Description is?

At its simplest, audio description is about using words to describe the visual world to people who can’t see. In the area that I work in – the arts – audio description is used to describe the visual elements of an artwork and spans live performance, visual arts, dance and events.

What first prompted you to start working in this area?

I discovered audio description by accident when I turned it on while watching a DVD. I heard a disembodied voice explaining what a character was doing. I found out that the voice was pre-recorded audio description and didn’t think much more about it until a year or so later when I was working for a South Australian arts initiative called the Richard Llewellyn Arts and Disability Trust. While supporting professional, practicing artists with disability, I got an amazing crash course in access, which led to me training as an audio describer in 2011.

What is the process for an audio describer, from start to finish, in your view?

Many people assume that audio description is an improvised practice but the opposite is true- a great deal of preparation goes into audio description.

The process varies depending on the job and the kind of work that you’re describing. The mainstay of audio description in Adelaide – which is where I’m based – is live theatre performance. At the recent Arts Activated conference in Sydney, I stepped through the process in my presentation and, in general, I think people were shocked by just how much time and effort describers put into their work.

Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the audio description process for theatre:

  • Working in pairs, two describers view the performance and take copious notes about the visual elements of the work
  • With a copy of the script, their notes from the viewing and a DVD of the performance, they work to prepare detailed pre-show notes, which outline the set, characters and costumes. These note are typically available prior to a performance, so that blind or visually impaired theatre patrons can arrive at a performance with a visual context for the work.
  • Next, the describers prepare their own scripts, which fits in the silences between the actors’ dialogue. Usually, each describer writes half for half of the show. This script complements the dialogue (and never gets in the way!) by adding in pithy, useful sentences which outline the visual content of the piece. Things like ‘he eats another cucumber sandwich’.
  • The two describers test this script at a dry-run, which means they go back to the theatre and deliver the live description to one another. After that, there’s an opportunity to make final tweaks and changes.
  • Next, come the actual audio described performances. Patrons can attend a touch tour prior to audio described performances. This is a chance to explore the set, to handle key props and costume items and to meet the performers.
  • After the touch tour, the audio describers will hand out headsets to patrons – this is how they hear the live description which is broadcast during the show.
  • Just before the show starts, the describers run through the pre-show notes and then when the lights go up on stage, the live description starts.
  • Depending on the theatre company, there may be one or two audio described performances of a production

Can you tell us a little bit about the state of audio description in Australia?

At the moment, I’d describe audio description in Australia as a bit of a patchwork. There are places where there are established AD services, places where new services are getting started and places where there’s no audio description available at all.

There are also different approaches and South Australia, where I’m from, is currently the only state to pay describers for their work. It’s a model that works really well for us, as it places a greater emphasis on buy in from arts companies and supports describers to commit the significant amount of time that is required to provide high-quality audio description. Interestingly, since introducing a fee for service scheme, there’s been a huge increase in demand for audio description.

It’s not the only model, though, and there are volunteer describers elsewhere in Australia who make great contributions, as well as organisations that are exploring other groups that are exploring different ways to deliver audio description, like apps and audio tours.

It’s worth noting, that there is currently no standardised training or accepted industry standards for audio description in Australia, nor is there a national body.

What challenges do you think we face in Australia?

There are a number of challenges but there are two that I think are particularly significant.

The first is distance. Australia is a really big place and it’s very hard for describers from different states or territories to connect with one another, so we tend to have clusters of describers in different places with limited avenues for sharing ideas, resources or training with colleagues in other places.

The second challenge is the absence of audio description on Australian television. There has previously been a trial on our public broadcaster and there is another trial (for a web-based streaming service) in the works but at the moment, we have no description for TV.

I think this has a significant, detrimental effect on the development of audiences for audio description elsewhere. If people can’t first experience audio description at home, with the option to change the channel or turn it off, I think it’s a big ask to expect people to pay money for the theatre ticket and make the journey to an arts venue to try a service for the first time. I’m convinced that described television would help to build the audience for description.

Do you have a standout moment during your audio description work in Australia that continues to inspire you?

I’ve been really privileged to work with the kids from the SA School for Vision Impaired over a number of performances. Working with primary school aged children is totally different to working with adults. The kids have a huge appetite for audio description, they ask lots of questions and they give feedback very willingly. It’s hugely encouraging as an audio describer to see a generation of budding arts lovers who will expect (and, I hope, demand) audio description as they grow.

In early 2014, as part of the Adelaide Festival’s access program, we explored the combination on an in-school workshop with a live audio described performance in a theatre. I visited the school days before the kids came to the show to present a tactile, interactive workshop which explored the visual world of the theatre production that the kids were going to see later in the week.

This model worked extremely well and created a much richer and more considered experience for the kids. This was a bit of a breakthrough in terms of the different ways to deliver audio description to different age groups and it’s something we’ll continue to explore in the future.

What kind of reception does your work receive, in terms of audience feedback?

An ideal audio description feedback scenario, is one in which a patron doesn’t give feedback about the description itself, but rather, reflects on the whole experience. Having said that, it’s also really useful to get feedback from patrons and I’ve been lucky to receive lots of positive and constructive feedback.

What are some of the best exhibitions or pieces of theatre you’ve experienced with audio description?

While I was in the UK, I saw a production by Extant Theatre Company. This company is Britain’s only professional performing arts company of visually impaired people. Instead of offering audio description via headsets for those who require it, the entire show was interspersed with pre-recorded audio description in the voices of the actors. I think that this integrated and creative approach to audio description has huge potential, especially in devised work.

After returning from the UK, I headed to Alice Springs for a week to work with Artback NT. I delivered a training course for describers from across the Northern Territory. After the hustle and bustle of London, it was fascinating to consider the role of audio description is some really remote areas of Australia. This project culminated in a series of MP3 audio description resources which will travel around regional Australia, accompanying an exhibition of beanies. That’s right- the kind you wear on your head. While there’s great value to live description, I believe it’s also really important to acknowledge that there’s a place for description outside of capital cities. I’ll be watching with great interest to see how audio description grows and adapts in the NT.

For someone looking to learn more about audio description or perhaps looking to become an audio describer, can you recommend any next steps?

The first thing I recommend is to listen to as much audio description as you can, in order to get a sense of the kind of language that describers use as well as the tone, pace and delivery of the description. By far, the easiest way to do this is get your hands of DVDs with audio description and turn it on in the menu.

Once you’ve done that, enquire at an arts organisation that you connect with to see if they have description available or contact an organisation like Access2Arts or Vision Australia to find out more about what’s happening near you.

Unfortunately, there isn’t currently a national database of audio describers and described content, but I can see one developing in the near future…

Lara Torr is a visual artist, audio describer and arts worker from Adelaide. Since graduating from the South Australian School of Art (University of South Australia) in 2006, she has exhibited around South Australia and has worked on arts and community projects around the country. In 2010, she was a co-founder of Renew Adelaide. In 2011, Lara trained as an audio describer and she has been combining her love of images and language with her passion for access ever since. Since training, Lara has worked with Access2Arts to describe numerous theatre productions and visual arts exhibitions around Australia. You can find out more about audio description and view examples of Lara’s work on her blog, Telling Pictures.

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