Making theatre accessible with audio description

15 February 2021

Across Australia, Vision Australia’s audio description team is making attending the theatre, opera or ballet more accessible to people who are blind or have low vision.

Audio description provides people with information about the visual aspects of what’s happening on stage or screen through an additional audio tracked delivered by Vision Australia’s highly trained staff and volunteers.

For theatre and other stage productions this includes descriptions of actions, scenery and costumes, all succinctly delivered during gaps in the dialogue.

For more than 30 years, Vision Australia has been providing audio description services to make all types of art forms more accessible.

Changing the theatre experience for people

For audience members like Janene, who has very low vision, Vision Australia’s audio describers make attending and experiencing plays a much richer and more immersive experience.

Janene has been attending audio described plays for almost as long as Vision Australia has been offering them.

“The first show I attended was Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre,” Janene said.

“I remember nearly crying because I’d never experienced audio description before and it was just so wonderful.”

The difference audio description can make to a play depends on how much dialogue there is.

“If there’s a lot of verbal communication it’s nearly as enjoyable but you still don’t get everything, all the actions people are doing on stage,” Janene said.

“With audio description we get a similar experience to people who are sighted.”

Delivering audio description

The majority of Vision Australia’s audio description is provided by a team of dedicated and highly volunteers. This group give up a significant amount of time to support blind and low vision audience members.

Jill has been a volunteer theatre audio describer since 2012 and it’s knowing that she’s supporting people like Janene is what keeps her involved.

Jill explained there is a lot more to her role than simply describing what is happening in a play or musical.

“We provide pre-show notes which cover a lot of information including the performance title, where it’s held, the writer, the cast and descriptions of the set and the costumes,” she said.

“It takes a lot of research.

“We also include clippings of reviews of past performances so clients have the opportunity to make a decision about whether they want to see it.”

Describing an average of five plays a year, Jill sees each play three times before she describes it for the audience.

“The first time I sit in the audience and experience it as a theatre goer would and the second and third times I see it from the booth where I do the audio description,” she said.

Vision Australia audio describes various theatre events throughout the year. To see what events are taking place near you, visit our events calendar.