Behind the Scenes: Audio Descriptions and Touch Tours

Inside Out Theatre’s Good Host Program works with Calgary theatre presenters to facilitate a selection of accessible performances. Curious to learn more about touch tours and audio descriptions for patrons with vision loss, I recently chatted with Inside Out Theatre’s Artistic Associate Ashley King. Ashley was an avid theatre participant as a youth and when she lost her vision at age 19, she thought she would never participate in theatre again. Later, as a journalist, her serendipitous interview with Inside Out Theatre’s Artistic Director Col Cseke led her back to theatre with a renewed passion. She now assists in coordinating and consulting on Good Host Program touch tours and audio descriptions.

A theatrical audio description is a verbal description of visual elements of a play provided between dialogue, typically transmitted through radio headsets. Props, emotions, and physical actions which impact the understanding of a story are described. “Simon’s jaw drops in surprise.” “Simon reluctantly hands Max the pen.” The great thing about audio descriptions provided by Inside Out Theatre (as opposed to, say, the pre-recorded descriptions available on Broadway) is that they are given in real-time by actors following the pace of the play so any overlay with dialogue is avoided.

Inside Out’s team of audio describers are professional actors/directors with specialized training. Their process is involved. They receive a play’s script and then watch the live play 2-3 times, developing their own audio description script and learning the play’s flow.  Depending on the nature of the play, the audio description required can be quite brief as with Lunchbox Theatre’s radio-play staging of It’s a Wonderful Life. On the other extreme, Ghost River Theatre’s GIANT integrates complex puppetry and physical and visual narrative, and required pages of strategically developed script by Mark Hopkins. As the audio describers’ consultant and someone with visual loss herself, Ashley provides valuable feedback during their process.

I ask Ashley if the audio describers ever bring their own personality to the part. She responds that it’s a question of matching the tone of the play. The best audio descriptions provide consistency with the play’s emotional journey, floating in and out as part of the play. If the moment is tense, the audio describer should sound tense. For GIANT, which tracks the life of professional wrestler André the Giant, Mark Hopkins had fun taking on the voice of a sports announcer while describing matches.  

The idea of an audience member keeping track of characters and action without visual references sounds daunting to me as someone with sight. Ashley agrees. “The play keeps moving, so you can’t stop and think about what is going on or what was said.” Thus, audio descriptions are a careful balance of clear, descriptive, and salient. “The actor moves upstage” doesn’t contribute meaning. “The woman sassily moves towards Simon” does. “The cat is massive” is vague versus “the cat is the size of a car.” Enter touch tours. Touch tours, which are preshow tactile tours of the set, costumes, and props, are great opportunities for patrons to internalize characteristics of production elements.  

Towards the end of our conversation, Ashley mentions the emerging movement of fully integrating communications such as ASL or audio descriptions into plays themselves rather than treating them as separate entities. Having heard much about the recent, celebrated ASL/English bilingual Prince Hamlet by Why Not Theatre, in which actor Dawn Jani Birley signs her lines, I understand what Ashley is referring to but hadn’t thought of this concept in terms of audio descriptions. If phrases like “I will hand you this pen now” were written directly into the script, then a separate audio description could be redundant. For Ashley, such integration would be the ultimate experience. It’s an exciting time right now, at the intersection of Canadian theatre and artists/patrons with disabilities, and Inside Out Theatre is at the centre. Check out