Improve your access audiences’ experience and save money!

Photo: Alice captioning a show at Leeds Grand Theatre. Photo credit: Sara Bukumunhe

Image description: a woman sits in a dark theatre box looking out at the bright red and gold Victorian theatre auditorium with a laptop in front of her showing lines of text.   


As you may know, over two million people in the UK have a visual impairment, and over ten million are hearing impaired.  And these two things affect us all as we get older, even though we may have more leisure time to enjoy the things we love, such as live theatre.  Luckily, Equality Law states that it is essential that organisers and companies make reasonable adjustments to allow disabled people the right to enjoy events in the same way as the wider public.


So currently in commercial theatre, most producing companies (I’m talking about the big UK tours of plays and musicals) create a show (or re-cast/rework it after its initial successful run somewhere), and then book a tour to theatres all around the country.  Then each individual theatre books in access providers to make the show accessible (audio describers, BSL interpreters, captioners) for the one or two weeks the show is with them, and usually splits that cost back with the producing company.


So here’s the time it takes for an audio describer to prepare: I will watch a video of the show several times following the script or score, and watch the show at least once live.  If there’s no video, I’ll watch it at least twice.  Then I write a script highlighting all the important visual cues, describing the sets and costumes etc.  And write and record an audio introduction that the theatre can send out ahead of time and play through the headsets before curtain up.  And this is all with a very tight turnaround as I may only watch the show on the Tuesday and have to describe it on the Friday.  I also then run the touch tour and deliver the audio description on the night, and I charge the theatre a proper rate for all that work (over two days prep and half a day delivery).


The same is true of captioning; I have to import the script into the captioning software and then go through and write written descriptions of sound effects, format the text in a legible way, and research what songs are played and properly credit them.  Then I have to get to know the timings of the show and put in reminders where there are long pauses to wait for a visual clue.  I’ll watch it live at least once and make notes about sentences that have changed or been added or cut, and then have to check those changes with the company.  But at least with captioning, sometimes we share scripts (if we’re using the same captioning software) so if it’s a new show to me, I just have to get to know the show, but not actually format the whole script as well.  But the cost will still have to cover the viewing and practice time for each new person who operates the captions in each different venue.


And of course, the same is true of BSL interpreters – they have to really get to know the show; they have to create a whole translation from English into BSL, and practice many times to get the timing right.  And being visible on the stage, they have to memorise it too, particularly those who are D/deaf themselves as they aren’t hearing what the actors are saying or singing.


So it seems a bit crazy to do all that work for just for one show, and when the show moves from Leeds to say York the following week, new access providers are doing all of that exact same work again to provide the same services.  Sometimes you do get booked to do the same show at a few different theatres, so you aren’t starting from scratch each time – and you certainly find that your fourth show in a run is markedly better than your first one.  But generally, it’s all quite ad hoc; there’s a huge amount of ‘re-inventing the wheel’, and a lot of unnecessary extra cost because of that.


So what would happen if the producing company organised all the access up front themselves and used just a small pool of operators who got to know the show really well?


The audio description could be written by the creative team, with some help from an audio description consultant, and maybe even recorded by the actors describing themselves, the sets, costumes, and set pieces of action.  Imagine how immersive that would be for the audience, and what quality that would bring to their experience.  And the company could train their stage management team to run fantastic and engaging touch tours, and the actors could take it in turns to come out and chat to people on those tours.


The same with captions – the creative team could agree on how they want the captions to look in terms of font, colour, italics, on what words are used to describe sound effects and music.  And you can link pre-recorded audio description files to captioning software so you could have both on the same night with just one operator.  Or you could add the pre-recorded AD into the running of the show, have your own mobile audio description system and offer headsets so there would be audio description on every performance.  Plus you can send captions to people’s phones so again, you could offer it on every show.  Hiring kit like this is not particularly expensive these days, particularly if you’re booking it for forty weeks.


And then the same with the BSL interpretation.  You could bring the interpreter(s) into rehearsals and help them create their translation of exactly what is going on – what are the characters motivations, what is the music conveying?  You could incorporate them into the action, give them a costume, and make sure they look and feel part of the show.


Then, if the company booked the operators (perhaps two or three for each discipline who share the tour between them, so no-one needs to travel too far), they could negotiate a better rate (perhaps it might be * £400 for operating a show if you’re getting 10 or 15 shows, as opposed to £600 for a local access provider to start from scratch).  So then when you’re sharing that cost 50/50, the theatre and the producing company would only be paying £200 each, instead of say £300.  And if you provide pre-recorded audio description and captions using just one operator, you’re saving a further £400, (or £200 split cost each) per week.

So over say a 40 week tour, that means;


For the producing company

Original cost

40 x £300 (half of the £600 fee) x 3 (AD, CAP and BSL) = £36,000


New cost

40 x £200 (half of £400 fee) x 2 (AD/CAP and BSL) = £16,000

Plus cost of access consultants for production week / recording of AD / formatting captions / costume for BSL interpreter = £5,000 (est.)

TOTAL = £21,000


A saving of £15,000 over the tour


And for each venue

Original cost

3 x £300 (half of £600 fee) = £900


New cost

2 x £200 (half of £400 fee) = £400


A saving of £500 per week


AND most crucially of all, the access audiences are getting the highest quality access they could possibly get – and one that fits in better with the world of the show so is therefore less obtrusive to the rest of audience who don’t need it.  The operators’ interpretation of the show will be in line with what the creative team intended, and they will fully understand all the nuances of the production and be able to convey them to their audiences.


Some might think that this would put access providers out of work but I don’t believe it would – we’d all just specialise on one show for a period of time, instead of all doing all of them.  And if local theatres are saving £500 of their access budget per week, they can provide more access on their smaller shows.


And yes, there is an extra cost on travel (as well as on the environment) because a provider will have to travel from say Manchester to Leeds, Newcastle, Birmingham and Liverpool.  But that’s what the touring company are doing with the whole tour – they’re bringing the expert actors, musicians, technicians, and stage crew from city to city because they have rehearsed the show for weeks, they know it like the back of their hand and can deliver it to the highest possible standard – they don’t just pull in local actors or musicians or lighting or sound operators in each town to save on travel.  So why should we do that to access and give people who rely on it a lower quality experience?


Luckily lots of people are going down this route and being super creative with it.  The RSC recently provided audio description on every performance of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ by using their own actors to deliver it.  They brought in audio description consultants Ben Wilson and Vicky Ackroyd to work with the actors who played the fairies to develop the script and work out how it could be delivered by them when they weren’t acting on stage.  And what was great to hear was that the performers themselves loved doing it – it gave them a whole new perspective on their own character and the play, as well as being a wonderful way to do more ‘acting’ (what they love doing and are great at) even when they were not visible on stage.


And companies like Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, bring their own access providers with them to all shows.  Which means the quality is guaranteed wherever you go to watch a performance.


So when planning a touring show, talk to access providers and consultants before you even start rehearsals and see what you could do that would provide the best quality access for your customers, AND save money for both you, and every theatre you perform in.



* These fees are just plucked out of thin air – experienced providers can and do often charge more than this for their services, particularly in London, and less experienced ones probably less!


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