Culture

Alison Clarke: Passion for audio description, love for the theatre

2 Mins read

From William Shakespeare’s plays to more modern shows like Dear England, including pantomimes, it’s a career of more than 15 years.

Alison Clarke knows the theatres of the London capital like the back of her hand. First an actress and later a director, she became an audio describer for the theatre.

“Most of the people who go into audio description have a theatre background.” She defines her profession as “trying to describe physical elements of the show for blind and partially sighted people.”

Sitting in her office in Brighton, this short-blonde-haired woman recalls her early steps: “I went to the Central School of Speech and Drama to do a master’s in applied Theatre. Vocal Eyes received Arts Council funding to train describers, and I really didn’t know anything about it then. I thought that sounds quite interesting.”

It’s thanks to the charity Vocal Eyes, founded in 1998, that numerous audio describers are trained. Clarke was among the first. The number of professionals is increasing, but there is no official data, and it remains a “small world” and “a very well-kept secret”.

Audio description originated in the 1980s, thanks to August Coppola. With the 2018 European directives on video content accessibility and the 2010 Equality Act, subtitles and transcripts are mandatory for websites, but they are not always required for theatres.

This affects more than 340,000 blind or visually impaired individuals, according to data froms the Royal National Institute for the Blind (RNIB).

As an active member of the Audio Description Association, Alison Clarke increases accessibility for VIPs (Visual Impaired People). She sits in her box in the basement at the beginning of each performance to describe it live live, because “you can’t trust actors to do the same thing twice.” Through their headphones, VIPs enjoy the show.

The audio describer notices a change in the audience: “There is a lot more awareness now, but still. When we go to see a show, we have notebooks. And I would bet that someone sitting on one side will ask ‘You’re press? ‘No, I’m an audio describer. What’s that?'”

“You can’t trust actors to do the same thing twice.”

Alison Clarke

After so many years, Clarke is still passionate about each new play she describes, such as Dear England, at the Prince Edward Theatre in London: “It is absolutely superb, with wonderful performances and a fantastic script.”

What she loves is “the immediacy of it. It can be somebody doing something slightly differently and it keeps the AD (audio description) fresh.” Therefore, she only does audio description and not audio captioning.

She also remembers her work with Dame Judi Dench: “It’s that absolute joy because you can feel joy and pleasure in her. And when you’re describing this it’s joyous.” The actors’ performance facilitates the work of the audio descriptors with strong intonations and acting intentions.

Her love for the theatre has become a family affair, as her 15 and 12-year-old granddaughters are now involved in theatre. The grandmother would like to introduce them to her world: “I often think it’s something we should try and do, at least once.”

But before delving into the education of audio description for these young girls, the audio describer already starts to think about the Christmas pantomime season.

Alison checks her well-filled pink diary for the next appointment: “My colleague and I tend to do that pantomime every year, but we train together, so we’ve worked together quite often, and that’s quite nice because you know each other.”

Busy weeks, train journeys, and hours of theatre lie ahead.


Featured image by Monica Silvestre via Pexels

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