Audio Description International
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
March 23-24, 2002
Lunch with Speaker - Anne Hornsby Secretary, Audio Description Association of England; Director, Mind's Eye Professional Description Service
Anne Hornsby is introduced by Joel Snyder.
Anne Hornsby: Hello, thank you for inviting me. It's been 20 years since I was in America. I came over when I was still a little drama student and AD was just beginning. I'm still little, but AD has come a long way since then! I am going to talk to you about the Audio Description scene in England and Scotland, but I¹ll begin with a little history of my own.
Back in l988 I was Head of Marketing at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton, a medium sized repertory theatre seating around 400, situated about 20 miles north of Manchester. One of our regular customers was a blind lady, Sheila Birketton, who found she was missing out on her full enjoyment of theatre through not being able to see. Now Sheila had heard of something called "audio description" which was happening in the States and her attitude was that if it could happen in America, then why couldn't it happen in Bolton? With Sheila's help and the assistance of our Chief Electrician and a bit more research, we set up a rather clumsy system and started putting an audio description service together. Initially the customers had to wear large cumbersome headphones that made them feel rather conspicuous and somewhat alienated. However with the development of technology and the installation of an infra-red system, headsets became smaller and more discreet. Initially I was one of a team of volunteers who would in theory deliver the description. But as it turned out the others never seemed to be available on the night and so I started to describe on a regular basis, still working closely with Sheila and other listeners to improve the quality of the descriptions. In the early days, on a couple of occasions the director of the show would deliver a description. But we soon found out that that wasn't ideal as they invariably told us not just what was happening but why it was happening. They couldn't just say he grips the back of the chair, they had to say showing his inner turmoil as he wrestles with the decision facing him. They couldn¹t just say she opens the cupboard door and swiftly hides the case inside. They would add, "So that it is there for the next entrance, etc."
I carried on describing regularly for the Octagon Theatre. After a couple of years I did try to get on an AUDEST training course but I was told that I was too experienced. I then tried to get on the advanced course, but was told that I needed to have taken the regular course first! However the tutor did allow me to sit in on the advanced course and to my relief I discovered that I was doing most of the right things and following the prescribed guidelines.
On several occasions at the Octagon customers would say to me "Oh I wish you did this in Liverpool or Manchester." So in 1995 I launched Mind¹s Eye Professional Description Service providing freelance audio description for theatres and other arts organizations and have been extremely busy ever since, working with around eight theatres on a regular basis, both big commercial theatres and smaller subsidized theatres, working on touring shows and home produced shows. I describe on average 45 productions a year.
Shows described over the years range from Alan Bennett¹s monologues to Les Miserables; from full-blown Shakespeare to minimalist Godot; from lavish panto to bleak kitchen sink drama, with many stops in between. I have also produced audio guides for art galleries and I have audio described films.
In 1999 I became one of Vocaleyes principal describers. Vocaleyes is an organization that exists to provide audio description for touring and other productions. It receives funding from the Arts Council of England and its Director is here - Claire Stewart. Also in 1999 I was elected onto the Steering Group of what was to become the Audio Description Association. Our priority was to put together a Constitution and become a Registered Charity. This took up much of our time in the early days, as did planning our first Annual Meeting and Conference held in Stratford upon Avon at which both Joel and Mari were distinguished speakers. Our mission is to raise the standard and profile of AD nationwide, supporting audio describers and facilitating a quality service for blind and partially sighted people.
The Executive then took on the responsibility for setting up an accredited training course, about which I spoke earlier. The Audio Description Association's aim is that whenever new describers are now trained, the accredited course will be used resulting in uniformity of standards and much higher consistent quality of audio description services. We are also about to launch into Accreditation of Prior Learning and will next week be running a training course for AD users to teach them about the sort of standards they should expect from AD.
Other achievements of ADA England are:
that this source of income from the RNIB can no longer be relied upon and that in order to fulfill the aims of the Association a paid worker is now essential to develop and expand and further raise the profile of audio description.
Particular projects in the wings include the establishing of the "mystery shopper" campaign. It will work in a similar way to the Scottish model providing a quality control operation for theatres and customers, employing an experienced describer who can attend described productions unannounced and offer constructive criticism; working more closely with museums and galleries; and we need to set up a web site urgently. Other big issues facing us are equipment and audience development.
ADA England has around 70 individual and 17 corporate members of whom about 10 are visually impaired, so there is definitely room for growth. There are around 80 theatres offering audio description in the UK, although some of these are on an occasional basis only. In most of these theatres description is carried out by teams of volunteers, some of whom have been trained and others not. Professional describers are in the minority in England whilst in Scotland describers are almost exclusively volunteers. Audio description in film is in its infancy and although television programmes are having audio description produced for them, the technology for people to receive the description is still being developed and very expensive.
Looking back we have come a long way since 1988 when the Octagon was the second theatre in the country to introduce audio description for its audiences, but we still have a long way to go. The recent Disability Discrimination Act declared that service industries must take reasonable steps to ensure that disabled customers were not discriminated against and that the use of auxiliary aids, like AD was to be recommended. We are still waiting for a test case involving audio description--we haven't had one yet, but when the Empire Theatre, a large commercial theatre in Liverpool, was complaining that they didn't have the funds to continue operating its AD service, my blind friends rang up to complain and happened to mention the DDA. A couple of weeks later the theatre rang me to book a season of dates for forthcoming shows.
People often ask me what I do for a living. When I am sitting scribbling in the dark in an auditorium, they ask if I am a critic. When I explain to them what I do they are always fascinated and often very envious. I don't need to tell you it is a great job and I usually feel very honoured to see so many great shows and to spend my time developing descriptions that will enhance the enjoyment and the overall theatre experience of blind and partially sighted customers. People also say to me - it must be very rewarding, and it certainly is. One of my favourite moments was after the pantomime in Liverpool when a young lad, aged around 8, clasped my sleeve on the way out of the theatre and said, "That was 'boss,' that Anne." Other memorable times include other pantomimes when the whole school for the blind has been watching and listening, with so many of them that there is a swell of laughter just from them whenever I describe anything funny. Or watching a young girl's face as she joined in the song from the song sheet, her parents watching her, wide-eyed. But there have also been the down sides, which I can also share with you because I know you will understand--the frustration of
Finding out at the interval that you have been speaking to yourself for the whole of the first half because nobody has actually turned up for the performance, or the even worse frustration of finding out that the equipment hasn't been working and that you have delivered your description to a dead microphone; there are the times when you prepare beautifully and then the actors speed the timing up so much, usually at a matinee, so you can't get a word in edgeways, or the times when you give a description of a main character: "Mary Magdalen is a lithe, curvaceous young black woman, whose thick curly dark hair tumbles down to her shoulders, and whose red dress has a plunging neckline revealing her cleavage...she has wide dark eyes with a high forehead, neat nose and wide mouth with full sensuous lips," only to find that the understudy is on, nobody has told you and she is played by a skinny white skinned girl with flat chest, cropped blonde hair and blue eyes.
Thank you for your attention, and I'll try to answer any questions you may have. I will be back later joining in the panel on Audience Development. If you find you've had too much of me I give you permission to fall asleep. I sometimes wonder if that's what people mean when they tell me I have a soothing voice.
Thank you, again.
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