Actually if I know there’s audio description on a family show, it makes me avoid it!
With all of the learning out there on making family shows accessible, it still seems to be a lottery for families who have children with access requirements to find a really good show. So I caught up with a mum of four who has a daughter who is partially sighted, to find out just what it is that will attract her to book a show, and hear about their experiences – good and bad – from having seen many different shows over the years.
So I was quite surprised when she told me that if she sees that a show has an audio described performance, that will actually put her off booking it. “It just tells me that they haven’t thought about access in creating the show. They’ve just bolted it on at the end, often with an outside person coming and describing literally what’s happening. And that doesn’t mean it will be a successful show for my daughter to enjoy”. She elaborated further that if you don’t create a show with accessibility in mind, there can be all sorts of pitfalls that audio description can’t help. Things like scares: often these are set up with little visual clues – a glimpse of a new character peeping quickly from the wings, a change in lighting state etc – and if the describer doesn’t have time to get these in, then if there’s a sudden loud noise and a new character arrives, that can be really quite frightening for a young child who had no idea it was going to happen.
What works she told me, is when a company create a show already thinking about the access needs of the audience, and work on how they can make their show accessible as it’s being created. And oftentimes, in a mobile touring show with a simple set, you can make sure that everything that happens is mentioned in the text so it can be understood purely aurally. For instance, instead of a character handing over an important prop without saying anything, you can add in the line “Here’s your carrot Bunny”. And if you do this, it means that any child can attend any performance, and enjoy it along with the rest of their family without having to wear a headset or get there early for a touch tour.
You can also do things like have characters wear brightly coloured and contrasting outfits, so for people who have some sight, they can tell that the person in red is now over on the right for example. She told me that watching a certain period drama on the telly with her daughter was frustratingly impossible as they all wore similar pale creamy crinoline dresses so she couldn’t differentiate easily between characters. You can also make sure that lighting states and sets clearly indicate the location, and the sound design too.
And of course, families may have more than one child with an access requirement, or be attending with another family who have a child with a different requirement, so if a show has integrated access throughout, it suits them all. And usually makes for a clearer show for everyone else as well!
She told me about some other things that have been problematic in the past. Sometimes a touch tour might be given by the theatre staff who don’t know the show very well and can’t explain why a prop is important or when it’s used, or by an audio describer who is only seeing the set for the first time. By far the most successful touch tours are done by someone involved intimately with the show who can answer any questions – getting stage management involved is good too, especially for explaining special effects. And she said the best thing is when the actors come out and chat to them as then her daughter can start to connect a voice to a character and follow the action much better throughout the show.
She told me of a situation where after a show, a well-meaning company asked if her daughter would like to come up and see the unusual instruments that had been played, which was kind, but unfortunately ended up being awkward and uncomfortable. Her daughter was quite young and feeling a bit shy, and they were inexperienced, and there was the awkwardness of someone taking her daughters’ hand to put it on an instrument without asking. Incidents like these are all too common for people who are blind or partially sighted, and particularly children. And can be so easily avoided by making sure that performers or people working on the show are trained in sighted guiding (there is plenty of free information on the internet about this). There are some simple guidelines such as that you should always ask permission before touching someone. And if a child is shy, then offer suggestions like ‘Would you like me to play the instrument for you, would you like to hold it and feel how heavy it is, would you like me to direct your hand to it?’.
And of course, the best thing would have been if they’d spotted them coming into the show (her daughter uses a cane) and offered her that before the show started. You can make sure your front of house staff are on the ball to spot these opportunities and have a plan to make them happen if possible.
Another thing that can happen on the night which is, in contrast, extremely helpful, is for a theatre to offer to move people to more suitable seating if it’s available. She told me how they booked for a nearly sold-out show and were quite far back, but at the interval, the house manager asked if her daughter and another family member would like to move to the front row after the interval as there two seats free. And her daughter enjoyed the second half so much more because she could work out which actor was where because you have much more spatial awareness the closer you are to a sound source. Plus she could now see that a set she had thought was beautiful and pretty from further back, was actually made out of rubbish! Even when your family are doing the very best to audio describe things for you, they might miss a really important detail as there’s so much to talk about, and they don’t know what is relevant as they don’t know what’s going to happen in the second half.
There is so much you can do to help access customers ahead of time too. Successful things she said they’ve enjoyed in the past are finding small models of the set out in the foyer so her daughter could take in all the detail close up and touch things. Many people who are partially sighted can’t work out a large detailed theatre set from a distance, but can examine a model or photo up close and get a really good insight from that. Other easy wins are having props the same as those used in the show on display for people to touch and hold, and large laminated photos of the sets and characters available for people to examine as closely as they like. If you do these things, remember to tell people in your pre-show email or on your website (and where to find them) and then they can plan to get there in good time to make use of them.
You could also email the pictures ahead of time to customers who have told you they have access requirements, and a large print word document without too much punctuation (better for screen readers) which describes how it will all look. Audio versions of this are useful too – record the actors (even into a phone) describing their character and their costumes in the accents they will be using, and make it fun – mix in a bit of music from the show so they can learn a song or too. You can host this publicly on your website or send out a link to a private page on your website just for access customers.
So to sum up, if you’re putting on a family show, here is a handy list of do’s and don’ts
- Integrate access from the start, and mention that in your marketing material – she jumps at a show that has the word ‘integrated’ on the poster, but obviously you have to do it too!
- Include some more detail in your longer copy like ‘we worked with an audio description consultant’, or ‘we have an actor who will interpret in BSL throughout’
- Have several touch tours (a weekday show, an evening and weekend matinee) so families have options. Or be even more open and say ‘touch tour available on request’ if you’re able to do so
- Have disability represented on the stage – she said it’s amazing seeing the confidence boost to a child when they see themselves represented on stage
- Have some information in the foyer that people can look at before they go in – pictures, things people can touch etc.
- Send out information to people before coming to the show – pictures, a large print info sheet, or an audio file they can listen to
- Move people if you can – you could hold back some seats on the front row for this if possible. And train your front of house staff to spot people and offer it to them in an easy-going manner
- Bolt on access at the end (audio description, captions or a BSL interpreter at the side of the stage) without much interaction with the access providers. This is better than nothing, but you can do so much more. And particularly with audio description – children don’t like to be singled out by having to wear a headset amongst their peers
- Have your access performances on slow-selling mid-week matinees – this gives off an immediate impression that as a company you are just paying lip-service to access
- Have several different types of access all in the one show – audio description, BSL interpretation, relaxed etc. She told me they had been to an audio described show which was also a relaxed performance, that was so noisy at times that her daughter could barely hear the audio description through the headset
- Run a touch tour without properly preparing for it with some training, research, and having people who know the show running it
She had a really simple but easy way to help larger organisations think about access too, and that is that access is everyone’s responsibility. So then it’s not just a huge job for one or two people (say the access providers, who are possibly external so can never know the show as well as someone who’s created it) but it’s everyone’s job to make sure their work is accessible in more than just one format. So for instance, each creative on a show (be it the lighting designer, sound designer or choreographer, etc) should be able to describe what they have done in more than one way. If it’s something visual, like lighting, then the lighting designer should describe it in words for a blind or partially sighted customer. Or if it’s aural like the music and sound design, then the sound designer or composer should describe what the music sounds like for a D/deaf or hard of hearing customer.
Simple! Then the person who coordinates access in the company just has to collate the relevant information together and make it available to customers.
And finally, asking your audiences if they’d like to review your show from an access perspective is always a great idea. But don’t expect them to do this for free. Have a little extra for them like free ice-creams, or tickets to another show to thank them. And if you have had it reviewed (and taken on board their recommendations), do add that information to your marketing information or pre-show emails: it can set anxious parents’ minds at rest so they can get the whole family excited that this show might be one of those ones that’s really got it right.