Audio Describer profile: Roz Chalmers

How did you get into audio description?

I actually started by phoning the National Theatre and asking if there was any training available! I was too inexperienced to know how lucky I was, but it just so happened that they were auditioning for audio describers and I was accepted for training.

My trainers were two of the best describers in the business, Louise Fryer and Andrew Holland (who is the co-founder of VocalEyes) Andrew invited me to join the company. Now I work for Vocaleyes, the National Theatre, the Old Vic – one of the See a Voice theatres – as well as in a freelance capacity.

What kind of work do you do to prepare for a show?

I start by making a visit to the set, to talk to the stage manager and identify the props and pieces of furniture that are significant in the production. Then I watch the production, taking copious notes about the appearance of the characters and their costumes and the way the set works in performance.

I always work with a co-describer and we bounce ideas around and check details with each other when preparing the introduction. There may be some research to do, perhaps to illuminate the context of the production, to establish the correct pronunciations for actors’ names or identify the correct terms for pieces of costume.

The introduction is written, edited by a describer who hasn’t seen the show, recorded and despatched on CD to people who’ve booked. Then I start work on the “through description.”

Using a DVD means I can examine all aspects of the production in great detail and decide which are the most important to describe. Some of these are obvious – a dance routine, a fight, a tableau. Others are more challenging.

You cannot describe everything that is happening onstage in the two second pauses between dialogue, so you have to be selective and choose those pieces of information that are going to clarify the production and evoke the same sort of emotions in the blind and partially sighted members of the audience as their companions experience.

I will rehearse my delivery against the DVD before having a technically supported dry run. My co-describer will give me editorial notes on any changes that need to be made and I’ll do the same for him or her.

Finally, we’ll speak to the stage manager to request certain items for the touch tour – props that are important or unusual, for example, or particularly tactile. Then after any rewrites, I’m ready for the show.

Why are touch tours so important?

Our listeners tell us they ‘add the colour’ to a production, filling in the areas that even the introduction doesn’t reach. They can explore the size of the space, feel the rake of the stage and handle particularly significant props and costumes.

The production team add so much to the experience – explaining how the set moves, giving an insight into wigs, make-up, costumes or quick changes, and the company talk about their characters and what it’s like to perform them – without giving too much of the story away.

Hearing their voices in character gives the audience an opportunity to tune in and helps them to identify who’s who during the performance. For the people who attend, a touch tour is an essential part of their experience.

What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced during a performance/or preparing for a performance?

It’s normally technical issues that cause the biggest problems – DVDs not being available, leaving you very little time to write your description, or discovering during your sound check that you’re not broadcasting in the auditorium or that there’s interference on the signal.

Touch wood, that’s always been sorted out before the audience arrives, but it’s sometimes gone very close to the wire.

What would make your job easier?

A standard agreement about describer-end equipment and working conditions.

During a touring production, describers have to adapt to many different systems and conditions and while of course it’s possible to do this, describers know that they do their best work if the mic and the mixer are appropriate for the job, if they’re able to hear and see the show and if they aren’t constantly having to fight to be heard over backstage calls or the pub next door delivering crates of beer.

You often work closely with access officers – what advice would you give someone doing the job for the first time?

Keep details of your blind and partially sighted audience members so that you can alert them to future shows, and make sure you’re there during the audio described performance – people appreciate the personal touch and they will become very loyal to your venue if they have a good experience.

Of the shows you’ve made accessible, which was your favourite?

That’s impossible to say, probably my next one!

What I can say is that as a describer, in each production you find something to savour and to challenge you. It might be a particular performance, a breathtaking effect, a beautiful lighting cue. Very often, of course, it’s all of these things!

Ballet, circus and contemporary dance stretch you as a writer, and expose your vocal delivery; multimedia productions and promenade performances encourage you to look at different approaches to description and different technical solutions, street performances test your vocabulary and your ability to react to the unexpected.

Often genres mix. Six Degrees of Separation requires the describer to write a description of two abstract Kandinsky paintings, a production of The Birds included trapeze and silk work, Noises Off has twenty minutes of hilarious slapstick with no dialogue, Travelling Light has a number of black and white silent films that would mean nothing without description, while the stars of War Horse are life-sized puppets.

The sheer variety is what makes audio description so interesting as a job.

What’s the most satisfying thing about audio describing a play?

Finding exactly the right word to describe a movement or an expression so that it conveys precisely what is needed. It’s also a genuine pleasure to meet the audience at the touch tour and find out what they enjoy about theatre.

Now go to: Deciding where the describers will work from