Accepted Paper:

Making Manifestations Accessible: The Case of Theatre Audio Description for Sight-impaired Audiences  


Harshadha Balasubramanian (UCL)

Paper short abstract:

This paper asks how theatre Audio Description (AD) makes artists' ideas manifest for sight-impaired audiences who cannot fully perceive visual materialisations. I argue that some processes of making ideas manifest can be better understood in the experiences created than the materials used.

Paper long abstract:

Theatre performances frequently express imagined worlds in material form, but for audiences with visual impairments, not all of these materialisations are perceivable. This paper analyzes ethnography of Audio Description (AD), a service making artists' ideas fully accessible to blind and partially-sighted audiences, and it traces the creative processes through which describers prepare and deliver descriptions. Rather than verbalising exactly what sighted audiences see and dictating how this should be understood, describers provide specific details enabling visually-impaired listeners to use their available senses and references to form independent interpretations. For example, colours are described with tactile adjectives; environmental sounds are not described, assuming that listeners will know what these signify.

I will argue that generating this phenomenological experience (Desjarlais & Throop, 2011)- foregrounding individual modes of perception and discourses of independence- would remove obstacles to making ideas manifest for sight-impaired theatre-goers. Such an experience would establish a certain orientation with the artist's imagination, where sight-impaired audiences can be immersed without unnecessary mediation by others' interpretations, including from describers. Keeping in the phenomenological vein, the second half of this paper asks how describers enable this orientation to develop. I suggest that describers' practices involve regulating their own relationship with both artists' imagined worlds and listeners, so as to protect and not hinder the independence of sight-impaired audiences' interpretations. This research results from three months of participant observation and semi-structured interviews amongst describers from the National Theatre, London, and the Audio Description Association, Scotland.

Panel P027
Materialising the Imagination: How People Make Ideas Manifest