Liz Porter reviews the status of Audio Description, in response to a symposium at the Oxford Playhouse
Envisage2 promised to be an opportunity for service providers, Arts organisations and users of Audio Description (AD) to enter into critical and creative debate about what is happening within this sector. If you were new to AD or considering providing it in your venue or productions, you would certainly have gained a flavour of how AD can be used and is being developed in the UK.
Graeae Theatre Company, Stop Gap Dance Company, Carousel and Vocaleyes offered some innovative approaches, including live and pre-recorded AD, in their work. Vocaleyes' See the Voice initiative is clearly an important step forward in raising the quality and the profile of AD. However, there were far too many short presentations, with little variety in delivery, and few demonstrations to back up what people were talking about. This had a knock-on effect, cutting into the question-and- answer sessions and networking time.
The afternoon break-out groups allowed us to consider in more detail some of the themes raised, but involved more talking. A series of creative sessions exploring areas such as dance, film, and theatre would have been more dynamic. It could have been led by professionals in the field of AD, in partnership with professional visually impaired arts practitioners, such as Jane Hall (dance), Raina Haig (film), and Extant (theatre).
In the final discussion some key issues were raised, such as outreach/ user feedback consultations; audience development, and the need for a professional code of conduct. It was also suggested that Audio Describers should network more with BSL interpreters, who have more recognition in the standard of their working practice and fees. Many describers come from a creative background and themes of communication and access should be included in Performance Arts training. This would give actors and others a better understanding of the importance of AD access for visually impaired people and raise awareness of AD as a potential career option. This was the best suggestion of the day and I hope Arts Council England's Drama School Consultancy will take note.
I was very disappointed that Extant were not present at this event. The work they have been doing in terms of AD research in rehearsal and performance is extremely relevant for audience members and actors, as well as being food for thought for describers. Their recent project The Cast Party has just won an Arts & Business Award. In this project Extant were exploring how to use mobile phones to link describers and visually impaired individuals. This has huge potential, and ironically would have been very useful at this event. Unfortunately, I didn't know to whom I was talking, as people weren't wearing badges.
Conferences such as Envisage2 are important to uplift the profile of communication access for visually impaired people. But we need to be more creative and critical at such events. Had this event been co-organised by a professional organisation of visually impaired arts practitioners, service providers would have been able to elicit feedback from a wider audience involving more visually impaired people. We could have also looked at some positive action, planning together to put AD more firmly on the map.
Envisage2 was organised by the Audio Description Association and Audience Development South East with funding from Arts Council England, South East.