Our project coordinator recently spoke to Alastair Sill who provides Audio Description for a range of theatre companies in Wales.
Hi Alastair, can you tell me how you got involved in your area in the arts?
After finishing my degree in English, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to be involved in drama. I started writing to a few theatres across the country and the Belgrade Theatre in Coventry was one of the theatres I contacted. It just so happened they were looking for a marketing assistant to train up, so I went along and was lucky enough to get the role. I was a general marketing assistant so distributing posters, general office support etc, which was fine. Whilst there I was chatting to a colleague about other roles available in the theatre. She mentioned that she was involved in Audio Description and would I like to come and have a listen to it and see what I thought? I said yes and went along. At the time Audio Description was a voluntary service so there would have been about 6 audience members who were interested, this must have been about 15 years ago, things have changed since then. After meeting everyone I was keen to get involved, in-house training was provided by a member of the Audio Description Association. I enjoyed the training but was really interested in acting and applied and managed to get a place on the drama degree at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff and completed this course in 2003.
After qualifying I saw an advert for a training course in Audio Description at the Soho Theatre in London. Which I applied for and got accepted. The final exam was to AD a Christmas show at the Soho Theatre, which was the Big Bad Book by Lauren Child, which as you can imagine was very nerve wracking. The production was brilliant with lots of animation and live performance. It was difficult to capture in AD the style of the animation in the show but it went well and I passed the course. I continued to develop my acting career but the AD started to drip-feed into my work, mainly through friends based in Cardiff. who had their own theatre companies. I think one of the first productions I provided AD for in Cardiff did was at The Sherman Theatre called The Minotaur in Me by Paul Whittaker. The Sherman then asked if I could do the Christmas shows and then a few more shows a Sherman.
So how did you employment as an Audio Describer develop from there?
I then went to work at the Torch Theatre. Peter Doran the Artistic Director said they had accessed some additional funding to provide moreAD for their productions so I spent an autumn season there, which was really nice. I provided AD for a Christmas show and a play called Accidental Death of an Anarchist, by Dario Fo the play is a farce. That was a challenging piece for me to AD as it was difficult to keep up with the timings. When you are describing different types of theatre you have to change the AD to fit appropriately.
I wonder if you would mind explaining your actual process when you are asked to Audio Describe a production?
I spend quite a long time with the work; firstly I go and watch the play, with the audience. Then I come back again and read the script and often watch it from the audio description booth, which is the space I am usually in when providing AD for a production. I make notes on the script, pauses in the dialogue and perhaps the facial gestures of the cast. It’s important to note relationships between the characters and how lighting helps to tell the story. Then I come back again and watch it for a third time and will often have been given a video recording by the theatre or production company. This helps to really focus on what I need to be prioritising when providing AD. I can pause and rewind, which you can’t, do in real life! In total this process can take about 5 days to a week.
Could talk a little about your actual approach to live AD during a production?
OK so most importantly you cant talk over what’s happening on stage! This means you might create a sentence that you think describes perfectly what’s happening on but then when the actors are performing you might not be able to find the gap. This means you have to condense everything down to tell the story. This can be difficult as there are often lots of different things happening at the same time. You have to try and focus the AD down to the essential elements that convey what’s happening on stage and are most important for the audience.
There are moments when there might be a pause or a silence and the AD disrupting this can spoil this silence and the drama of the moment. Essentially AD is about choosing when to talk and not to talk! The AD audience and non-AD audience share the same space and the same moment in time, you have to feel what’s happening on stage. When it works, you feel connected to the world on stage; it’s a strange sensation as though you are on stage with actors.
Then there are also moments which frustrate me and I am not alive to the situation and I speak over what the actors are saying and that annoys me as I want it to be as good as it can be. Sometimes I get a bit carried away and get too descriptive. There is only so much information the audience can assimilate in their heads. It’s really important to get to know your audience.
So what companies in Wales have you been working with most recently?
I have worked with new writing company Dirty Protest on the play Parallel Lines written by Katherine Chandler and directed by Catherine Paskell. Catherine and the team were very helpful. Everyone was interested in the AD provision, I was aware it was a piece of new writing and felt a responsibility to describe it correctly. I spent quite a long time in rehearsals which was beneficial to the final AD for the production and also provided AD in a variety of venues when the show went on tour.
Alastair providing AD for Taking Flights production of A Winters Tale
I have also worked with Taking Fight Inclusive Theatre Company as a cast member and provided AD. Taking Flight often perform outside for their production of ‘A Winters Tale’ I played a character who was sort of the court audio describer and I was referenced during the play by the cast and was visible to the audience, which I am usually not. There were moments during the production when I would provide live AD with a microphone to an audience who are using headsets and then moments when I would speak directly to the entire audience That was really great to be able to integrate AD in this way.
I have recently just started to AD dance, for a production called Jem and Ella. I am developing my dance vocabulary and getting working on getting the emotional feeling across as much as the technical vocabulary. I had a lot of support from Jem Treays and his daughter Ella who are the performers in the piece. They helped me develop my vocabulary to AD the movement in the show, I found Rudolf Laban’s quality of descriptive movement helpful as well.
As you mentioned AD provision is becoming increasingly common, more creative use is being made of artists working in this field. What do you personally think the future might hold?
Well in Wales there are more companies and venues supporting the provision, which is great. Some venues really support AD well but I think it needs to start from the top down. Awareness of audiences need to start from that initial entrance to the venue and meeting the Front of House staff right through to the actual performance, inclusion should be the norm. Venues often don’t know when someone blind is attending so if possible they should aim to have an inclusive attitude for every show.
Personally I am interested in creating my work with AD at the heart. Also I am not aware of anyone that provides AD in the Welsh Language in Wales and wonder if that is something that could be supported in the future?
Next up I am providing AD for Theatr Fynnon for a production called Pupa, which will be performed at Chapter Arts Centre on Friday 20 May – Saturday 21 May. Then National Theatre Wales and a production called Before I Leave at the Sherman Theatre. I think the AD for that production is on Saturday the 11th of June at 2.30 pm. I am also working with Hijnx Theatre Company and their Unity Festival. And of course Taking Flight who are performing Romeo and Juliet this summer.
Many thanks for your time Alastair.
Alastair recently took part in a charity bike ride to raise funds for Taking Flights summer performance of Romeo and Juliet.
You can catch Alastair providing AD at the following performances below.