Pre-recorded Audio Description – A view into the future?

A scene from the New Wolsey's rock'n'roll Panto Sinbad.

Jamie Beddard, Agent for Change at the New Wolsey Theatre, reports on pre-recorded Audio Description and how its potentially opened huge doors in its development with the New Wolsey’s own producted and touring work:

The New Wolsey Theatre is up for a challenge, and will challenge anyone up for the ride to join us! The theatre’s ethos is to make theatre open and welcoming for all, and the staff team have experience and desire in finding creative solutions to embed access into all our activities, on-stage and off.  This is not an after-thought to be tacked on, but core to our thinking and process.

Our last rock’n’roll pantomime Sinbad was no exception, and we aimed to do the impossible – make all 79 performances available to our blind or partially-sighted audiences through a pre-recorded Audio Description service.

Our dreams were big, but to us, not impossible. We had initially integrated pre-recorded AD into our production of The Last Five Years in March 2016. The show was a two-hander and technically tight libretto, providing the consistency and simplicity required to embed pre-recorded AD.  This worked beautifully, and the performers were recorded during rehearsals describing each other’s actions for the pre-record.  These lines were scripted by an Audio Describer. Audiences enjoyed the description, often not being able to differentiate the pre-recorded and live AD.  And they had an equality of access, being able to attend any performance.  This fed a desire to provide this service for all our in-house and co-produced shows. Feedback was positive, and we were fired up with ambition to take on the ultimate – a pre-recorded Audio Described rock’n’roll pantomime – a national first (we think)!

The idea was put on the table, and we were warned that it would not be easy. Panto is the hardest possible show to live Audio Describe at the best of times  – any fans of our pantos will know just how high-energy and unpredictable they can be!  So how would we keep up with the fluidity and changes in terms of AD AND run the show itself?

We’d never find out unless we tried!

The New Wolsey employed two fantastic Audio Describers, Alison Clarke and Ruth James, with whom the theatre has a long-term relationship providing live AD.   Their thoughts and feedback have been critical to our own learning on Sinbad and how we move forward in the future:-

“In March, anything can seem possible in December, it’s a long way off and we blithely agreed to have a go at creating a pre-recorded audio description for the 2016 panto. By September reality struck and the serious concerns began

What sort of quality is possible in a pre-recorded description? What sort of quality can be achieved when of necessity the number of AD cues is drastically reduced? How could it be possible to write and record a description of some sort in an EXTREMELY tight time frame? What chance would a technician have of running a description and having to take responsibility for around a minimum of 300 cues? And why try this with something as complicated, variable and with such a very tight schedule as a pantomime??

To sum up we could not see how we could produce anything at all acceptable and if we’re honest regretted even considering trying.”

It is at this point we should tell you about Ben. Ben is our Assistant Technician, and was assigned to be on the project 100%. He would be working with Alison and Ruth to make it happen, and at that point, we all had a glimmer of hope that this could actually work. It was impossible to ask a DSM to take on the cues – with a list of 300 alongside lights, sound, and pyrotechnics and traps, let alone puppets! – this needed someone solely on the case, with plenty of show and stage expertise that could feed into the output.

This worked, just, because two of us were working in tandem alongside a totally dedicated and highly competent technician who pulled out all the stops to make it work. We are in absolutely no doubt that the success achieved  was only possible due to the ability of technician Ben to respond to each individual performance in much the way a live describer does. This was very apparent in his ability to adjust to more stage business being put in or speeding up, which is vital.

Working with Alison and Ruth, it was apparent we’d struck gold with Ben. It is absolutely essential that the operator is very familiar with the performance: the content, shape, pace AND is prepared for the variations which is not easy with a recording. This pilot was heavily dependent on the interest, skill and dedication of the technician assigned.

And so we did it! The blood, sweat and tears (all mine) were all worth it.

Ben Ashton, Assistant Technician who worked solely on this says: “With the New Wolsey’s reputation for accessibility and upping the game in an attempt to provide an audio description for every showing of our pantomime Sinbad I was excited by the opportunity and challenge of making it happen. During our tech week the dedicated Alison and Ruth put together a script and together we recorded all of the AD cues. Over the following days I edited these recordings into a sequence which could be cued during the show along to a script. One of the biggest challenges I found was setting appropriate volume levels to play back the cues as some were cued between dialogue passages and other during live rock songs. It was a learning curve with a frequent need for re-recording and re-editing between dry runs before the pilot but it was by no means impossible and I was extremely glad in playing a part in making it happen.”

For anyone inspired to do this themselves, throw yourselves in it at full pelt! Without the dedicated, hardworking team we had to create this, it would NEVER have worked. Access in all venues is something that requires serious investment – especially as something as technically clever, creatively intense, and time consuming as providing a description that is of the highest quality that we expect for our audiences.

Alison and Ruth conclude: “We wouldn’t have attempted this with any other theatre at this stage, the New Wolsey have an amazing record on access and departments communicate quickly and efficiently making the describers job far easier than average.

Our take up on audio-description for Sinbad was up 40% on the previous panto, and feedback from our users was universally positive.  Some came more than once, others noted the flexibility of being able to attend with friends and family and many could not distinguish between the pre-recorded and traditional AD.  This is a testimony to all those who worked to make it happen, and the appetite for an equality of access from our audiences.

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