The Visual Made Verbal: The Art of Audio Description at City Theatre

by Kristen Link
Director of Education

Anyone that has ever attended the theatre knows that much of the storytelling happens in between the dialogue—the tentative embrace of weary lovers, the slamming of a door in fury, or the signs of resignation as a protagonist falls to his knees. All are crucial to the trajectory of the story, and all happen in between the words.

Most patrons have the advantage of experiencing such moments to their fullest extent, but audience members who are blind, have low vision, or are otherwise visually impaired miss out on these important visual cues. Similarly, the set, costumes, and lights are all designed to complement the themes and tone of the play. Without the benefit of experiencing these, much of the richness and intricacies of the play are lost.

For many years, blind or low vision patrons were relegated to experiencing theatre imagery through the occasional whispered asides of sighted companions. As avid attendees to performing arts events, many members of this community sought an alternative and more comprehensive way for them to experience performances. A solution to this dilemma finally arrived in the form of a communication tool known as Audio Description.

Audio Description (AD) was invented by Dr. Margaret Pfanstiel, legally blind since her early 30s, and her husband Cody in 1981. AD makes the visual images of theatre, media, and even museums accessible for members of the blind and visually impaired population. In theatre, the description is a form of “audio-translation.” During the live performance, audio describers use the natural pauses in dialogue to provide narrative that translates the visual images on stage. Patrons have a small audio receiver and an ear piece that allows them to hear the action described in real time throughout the performance.

Those who are familiar with Audio Description understand that it truly is an art form. In fact, audio describers often go through auditions and rigorous training to learn the craft. So what are some of the qualities that AD organizations look for in a describer? They are many of the same characteristics that one looks for in an actor—enunciation, a strong command of the English language and the ability to sense what is important in any given scene. An audio describer’s main goal is to never distract from the performance, but, rather, say what they see.

City Theatre patrons listen in to Audio Description.

In 2005, in an effort to expand its Accessibility Program, City Theatre became the first arts organization in Pittsburgh to bring Audio Description to the region. With the support of the VSA Arts of Pennsylvania and funding from the Birmingham and FISA Foundations, City Theatre was able to train volunteer audio describers and acquire AD equipment. Since that time, City Theatre has continued to offer this service to blind and low vision patrons. Individuals attending AD performances also have the option of participating in a Pre-Show Introductory Workshop, where they can learn more about the show and explore the stage and props in a tactile manner.

After seeing the positive impact this service has made on the visually impaired community, many other arts venues around Pittsburgh have chosen to implement this program (and often borrow City Theatre’s AD equipment to do so).

City Theatre will continue to seek out opportunities, such as Audio Description, that allow for a more enriched and inclusive arts experience for patrons with and without disabilities, alike.

If you are interested in attending AD performances, or interested in learning more about City Theatre’s Audio Description Program and to become a volunteer audio describer, please contact Kristen Link, Director of Education, at 412-431-4400 x 225 or email klink@citytheatrecompany.org.

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