When I started officially reviewing theatre almost four years ago now, I was mostly seeing larger, more mainstream productions with the traditional mode of audio description, transmitter in hand, headphone in ear, description in headphone. As I do not need to explain to anybody, the last two years didn’t present very many opportunities for live anything and my reviewing opportunities were limited. I did get to experience a fair few online works, some specifically designed with accessibility for blind and low vision audiences and some that were incidentally accessible works of sound.
All that is to say, emerging back into a world of live theatre over February saw me seeing performances that were experimental in their delivery of audio description. Playing with conventions and expectations of either what was being described or how it was being described. It was energising and affirming to witness. There is a long way to go and a lot of things to try, but it has been delightful to feel welcomed to smaller, weirder, less mainstream events.
One such event was ‘Coil’ by Re:Group collective as part of Next Wave 2022.
Described as “An elegy to the closure of the local video shop, Coil is about loneliness, nostalgia, friendship and viability. Blurring the boundaries of theatre, film and ceremony, Coil draws on our collective memories to pay tribute to the glory days of the video store, and commemorate the communities we made within them.” I was very unsure of what I was expecting from this performance apart from being aware that its approach to audio description looked as if it was going to lean towards the more traditional model. I have nothing against the traditional headset delivery of audio description if it is suited to the style of art and it is not done in a perfunctory way.
The undertaking of AD for ‘Coil’ was ambitious given the nature of the work itself. A combination of live performance, live recording and video playback coming together to tell a story that was a balanced blend of commentary, pathos and quirk.
Without the pre-show tactile tour with the cast and the use of audio description I would have been almost certainly, entirely lost. It was one of those instances where the accessibility options were not simply an added bonus to enhance my experience, but essential to my understanding and enjoyment of the work.
Possibly the most interesting and exciting development in audio description that ‘Coil’ represented for me was approaching AD from inside the production team. This can be tricky, and possibly polarising, as there are proper techniques and conventions when it comes to describing. You shouldn’t just stick anybody in as an audio describer and have at it. But Re:group sought training in audio description and tactile tours for one of the members of their collective. This was the first time I had formally come across this approach, and I believe it represents a positive shift in the attitude to disabled access. It meant that more than one AD performance could be offered, it meant the description could be provided by somebody who intimately knew the work and I hope it means that Re:group can provide the option of AD for their work on an ongoing basis and perhaps even develop work with integrated access in future.
‘Coil’ was a valiant and successful attempt as a first go at audio description, with many things happening on and off stage and screen simmultaniously. Was it perfect? No. It was an experiment with room for adjustment and improvement. (Which was made possible by being able to offer a second AD show.) But it was absolutely worth it. I was rivetted by the performances, the technicality and the content. None of which I would have been able to appreciate without the commitment to access shown by the creators of the work.
It is thrilling for me to be able to observe this shift in approaches to disabled access, particularly for BVI audiences. It takes work and experimentation, but for those that are willing to put in the effort, the rewards can only be enormous.
Co-created and performed by Steve Wilson-Alexander, Solomon Thomas and Carly Young
Video design by Solomon Thomas
Screenplay by Mark Rogers
Automation programming by Chris Howell
Sound design by Liam “Snowy” Halliwell
Creative Producer: Malcolm Whittaker
Set Realisation: Alistair Davies