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The Audio Description Boom

October 4, 2017

When I started doing Audio Description in Chicago, over ten years ago, there were only a few theatres readily providing the service and I would book 2-4 gigs per year.

 

The last few years, I've noticed a serious and wonderful uptick in the number of theatres including AD as part of their access package. Over the last two months, I've worked four shows--all for different companies. Each had its own challenges.

 

"Lela & Co." at Steep, was staged unconventionally and I was grateful to have ample time to talk about the nature of the environment during our pre-show.

 

"The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Diety" at Red Theater forced me to get really creative in my language, in an attempt to effectively communicate the visual picture of swiftly executed wrestling moves. This one, demonstrated here by professionals, and which I think I ended up calling a "between the ropes body-helicopter," was my favorite.

 

I learned from Alejandro Tey, who played Mace, that it's actually called a 619. Side note: he performed it beautifully.

 

Strawdog, one of my favorite Chicago companies, had me in to do "Barbecue," a show with many strange twists, both visual and verbal. I felt good after the show, and like my listeners had had an experience similar to that of their sighted audience-mates. 

 

The most interesting AD gig of the season took place in a small theatre behind Steppenwolf's Front Bar (actually the same space Strawdog performed Barbecue). Matt Bodett, a visual and performance artist, put up one of twelve pieces he is creating this fall, with the support of Bodies of Work, about his experience with schizophrenia. "Edge/Sharp Mined," which lasted about 40 minutes, involved two screens--one with projected animation and one with a video of the artist in various postures and series of movements. The third component of the piece was Matt himself, performing live. The performance had no spoken element and no recorded sound. The relative soundlessness raised an interesting question. Describers are usually charged with slipping description in between lines of dialogue, giving our listeners precise information, delivered quickly. In this case, the entire experience would have to be described. Evan Hatfield, the Director of Audience Experience at Steppenwolf, and a passionate advocate for access services, conceived the wild notion that we would use three describers--one for each screen and one for "live Matt." He invited me to be part of the team. I was on board right away, because I trust Evan and I like to stretch my brain. Once the team was recruited, we had a meeting with Matt as to how we would proceed. I believe it was then that Evan came up with the idea of giving our patrons full headphones. Typically, they have one earpiece in and the other ear open to hear dialogue--this time they didn't need that. He went even farther and conceived the notion that our three voices should be delivered differently--each of the screens in one ear, and the voice describing "live Matt" (me, as it turned out) in stereo. We were all sent video of our respective parts of the performance, and we worked on our own, occasionally emailing the group to bounce word choices off one another or share ideas. We met the night before the performance and did a run for one listener, his dog and his dad. It was startling, and exhausting. The first time Evan put on headphones and listened to how it was going to sound, he took them off and yelled, "That's so f*%^ing DOPE!" and we got pretty psyched. As far as we knew, nothing like this had been done in the local access scene. The following night, we went live: 

 This photo was taken after the work was finished, and you can't see how tired our voices are or how our brains have yet to restore themselves to neutral. It was forty straight minutes of watching, talking, trying not to step on each other, trying to make poetry. ADs rarely get to talk to other ADs about our work, and we NEVER get to work together. This was a remarkable experience, and it sparked my curiosity about where we might be headed.

 

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