The cold pole: how audio description develops in Yakutia

Audio description: photo in color. It shows Evdokia Gerasimova in wintertime. Her head and lower part of the face are covered with balaclava – a dark headwear with an oval cut for the eyes. On top of that she put on a white furry hood, so only her brown eyes with icy eyelashes are seen.

For the last 5 years the “Reacomp” institute has been training audio description specialists for Russian regions. What do they do after graduating? In 2019 an employee of the Republican Library for the Blind in Yakutia, Evdokia Gerasimova, got her diploma of audio description specialist. Today Sakha Republic (aka Yakutia) has its own adapted cinema, theatre plays and even music concerts for visually impaired.

Elena Kern, an audio descriptor and journalist, talked to Evdokia Gerasimova to learn how audio description develops in the region.

Audio description at −50°С

When someone mentions Yakutia — cold, diamonds and Yakut cinematography are the first things that come to your mind. With regards to cold — that’s the honest truth. The local weather with its −50°С in winter is a real challenge for everyone visiting the Republic. While for the locals such weather is a source of inspiration. In the last few years, the movies by Yakut directors and operators have won several prestigious awards from around the world.

It doesn’t come as a surprise that the development of audio description in the Republic has started with cinematography. In 2006 the “World of Cinema” club at the Library for the Blind opened its doors. That time it was just a rise for the Yakut cinematography. The movies produced were mainly philosophical, having a lot of silent scenes and authentic music. After the first showings the library audience asked for explanation about what was happening on the screen.

“We created our first cinema audio descriptions with ‘trial and error’ approach. In a very simple way, in our own words, we described the silent scenes, sitting at the same room with our viewers. It couldn’t go smooth all the time in the beginning. For example, our non-professional (that time non-professional) audio descriptors disturbed other viewers, we were asked to lower the voice, we could reveal the movie details far in advance — but in general, people liked our ‘know-how’. We learnt a lot, analyzed the critics, responded to requests and improved step by step. Even today our library club ‘World of Cinema’ is still very popular”, this is what Evdokia Gerasimova tells.

That time there was no professional audio descriptor in the library, but in 13 years the library’s employees managed to prepare and record audio descriptions for 6 Yakut movies, for architectural masterpieces, museum exhibits and paintings, and adapted guided tours to historical and memorable places in Irkutsk.

Audio description: photo in color. A piece of theatre play called “Stone of Happiness”. There are 3 actors on the stage, wearing national Yakut clothes decorated with fur, fringe and other fine elements. In the very center a dark-haired man is sitting in the sledge. There are 2 women standing behind him. They are screaming and banging the tambourines lifted high above their heads, with the mallets.

Audio descriptor as a career

Until 2019, when Evdokia Gerasimova was sent to study in Moscow, the audio description science in Yakutia had been developing in its own way. The library specialists adapted the materials for the visually impaired people intuitively and pro bono.

“Before we could only dream about getting such a service officially. What I like about this profession is its uniqueness and fascination. To create one description, you have to dig tons of information, choose the right words and expressions, analyze, read, study history! Isn’t this a great way to train your brain muscle? And seeing your work bringing real value, making your readers’ world brighter and a lot more interesting, is worth all these efforts. I created audio descriptions for guided tours, cinema and art and waited that they would offer me to work on a theatre play. I am so happy that my first work of such kind was a kid’s play”, Evdokia Gerasimova shares.

In the end of 2021 the local Youth Theatre — the youngest theatre in the Republic — won a grant from “Art, science and sport” charity foundation, as part of the “Special view” program to provide audio descriptions for theatre plays. “Stone of Happiness” was the first performance to be adapted. This is a beautiful and wise story based on the legends of peoples from the North, talking about a brave young man named Honi. In search of a mystery stone, he walks around endless Northern territories and gets engaged into wonderful adventures on the way.

The young audio descriptor had to make use of everything taught in the institute. It took Evdokia Gerasimova a month to prepare for the first play, she went on watching the video recording dozens of times, put it on pause and thoroughly studied costumes and decorations. She also went to rehearsals and each time made new amendments to the final material. She worked on her voice and intonation by watching the play recording and reading her audio description.

“I was so nervous before the premier show. I felt as if I was a theatre artist too! A lot of journalists from local newspapers, radio and TV gathered before curtain. We went live and I didn’t even have a chance to get scared. While I am not a public person at all and going on camera for me is always terribly stressful. I guess I had the greatest excitement during those interviews, that were held in 2 languages, by the way. As far as the theatre play is concerned, my fear magically disappeared right after the start of the fairytale, as if someone just switched off the ‘fear button’ in my head. Probably, because I didn’t let myself get distracted and felt such a great responsibility in front of all the people, so I was able to direct all my attention to the stage”, Evdokia Gerasimova, the audio descriptor, tells.

Audio description: photo in color. A play for the blind in Estrada Theatre, with full auditorium. The viewers are sitting in the gloom. Each of them has the lower part of the face covered with a medical mask, and the upper one — with a dark eye mask. In the foreground, in the stalls, there can be seen a pair dancing: a young man dressed in a blue shirt and a blond girl with long hair, wearing a dark dress. Their faces are covered with masks.

Yakutia counts more than 2.000 blind and visually impaired people, while more than 500 of them live in the city of Yakutsk. All of them can potentially become the adapted theatre plays audience, although the adults still have to wait for their turn, since currently Yakut Youth Theatre is about to stage another 2 kid’s plays with audio descriptions — the one is “The Tale of the Fisherman and the Golden fish” and the other is “The adventures of Washee-Washee and Fedora”.

The viewers already send their gratitude — for this new opportunity and the magical atmosphere. Indeed, an audio description specialist has to keep cool, be extremely careful and ready for any potential deviation from the plot, any tiny change in literally everything. At the same time, commenting needs not to ruin the fairytale atmosphere. You need to use the corresponding intonations, but not too colloquial or childish.

The Youth Theatre will turn 30 next year. It is situated in a historical building, that is why Evdokia starts each performance with telling some facts about the Theatre, to connect better with the viewers. It usually takes a couple of minutes, and from her spot Evdokia clearly sees the children and may ask them to participate — like, raise their hands or clap to demonstrate if they can hear her well.

Audio description: photo in color. Evdokia and her son are sitting in a spacious bright hall with high ceilings. Evdokia has a round face, long straight hair below the shoulder, coarse face features, a slight smile. The boy is around 10 years old. He wears a black t-shirt with a big white number “3” printed on it. With his hands up, he is smiling widely.

20 tenses of the verb

Today the Youth Theatre is the only theatre in Yakutia which offers adapted plays for the blind viewers, and all of them come in Russian language.

Local traditions stand at the edge of 2 worlds: European and Asian. Yakut language belongs to the Turkic group of languages, while the theatre is based on the principles of Russian theatrical school. The repertoire in the local theatres is very different too — from ancient Yakut epics called “Olonkho” to modern authors.

Today Yakutia already has 3 professional audio descriptors, and they plan to create audio descriptions for the performances in Yakut language held in the Youth Theatre and the Oyunsky Academic Theatre, for free.

Such a job takes enormous efforts and can easily compete with literary work — take the grammar for instance. Let’s say, Yakut language has no infinitive, but has more than 20 forms of the verb, and 7 of them — for the past tense only: recent past, remote past, past conclusive, past episodical, past incomplete, pluperfect, past remote episodical.

“Yakut language is rich and complicated per se, and there is a huge difference between audio description for a movie and the one for a theatre play. From this point of view, commenting movies is a lot easier, as for this we use the simplified Yakut language. This is not a colloquialism — rather a mixture of spoken and literary language style. Everybody, no matter how well he or she knows Yakut, can understand this variant”, Evdokia Gerasimova tells.

Theatre plays are usually based on classical literature, where main characters bear original Yakut names, sometimes consisting of 3 and more words. It is very important not to ruin that very special atmosphere, preserve the spirit of a tale and the national character. The theatre plays attract versed spectators, and you cannot feed them with brief comments like “went in — went out” or “run here and there”.

The majority of indigenous people of Yakutia are bilingual, and often use 2 languages as they speak — Russian and Yakut, — mixing them in many different ways. However, for audio description this is unacceptable. For instance, an expression “a sly squint” consists of 2 words, both in Russian and English, while in Yakut language it will sound like “хараҕын быыһынан үөннээхтик көрө-көрө ымансыйан ылар” — counting 7 words all together. Sometimes it is not easy to fit into the scene duration due to the complicated way of building sentences in Yakut language. Audio description specialists have to constantly look for solutions, however, this happens with other languages too.

Theatres often put on plays which are based on “Olonkho” heroic epics, which offers a number of proper names composed of numerous complicated epithets. For example, the epics’ character Эрбэх үүһэ биэстэ эргийбит Эрбэхчин Бэргэн carries a name which means “Erbekhchin Bergen, who turned 5 times at the tip of a thumb”. Even native speakers find such a phrase difficult to remember, that is why an audio description specialist will make the names easier and shorter or just introduce the character in one single word — “hero”.

Concerts with eyes closed

Yakutia now provides a new way of engaging with the blind — theatre plays and concerts with audio descriptions, which people call “concerts with eyes closed”. They take place in the U. E. Platonov State Estrada theatre.

The very first audio descriptions were managed by the specialists, but today the theatre can manage on its own. The library stuff will only consult, provide masterclasses, check the texts.

The theatre already twice hosted “It’s not their own war” — a play with audio description, where visually impaired guys and girls from the library youth club participated along with professional actors.

A couple of moments before the play all the viewers are asked to put on dark patches to cover their eyes, and since then everything around is perceived by them through hearing. The auditorium is immediately filled with special atmosphere, as if something unusual is expected to come. During concerts there are audio descriptions provided about the artists, but when the actual performance is happening, there are no comments abouts what’s around.

During the plays the audio descriptors tell about the scene of action, for instance, a battlefield: for miles around there is just an exhausted, moaning land, torn with shells, streaked by tanks, etc. Everything serves to let the viewer take the place of the actors.

Each show is supplemented with tactile feelings, smells and even tastes. If a song tells about the rain, the viewers will feel small water drops coming from above, if it is about a home village — the auditorium will be filled with smells of fresh cut grass and fireplace smoke, etc. If this is a song about the mother, there will be warm “mommy’s” hands slightly touching them, and during a love song the viewers will be offered a slow dance.

There is a scene in the theatre play, where an aged mother of the main character makes pancakes, singing quietly. At the same moment a volunteer will indeed fry pancakes right in the auditorium to let the smell of it cover the entire room. Soldiers, wearing heavy boots, will make noise running right along the viewers’ seats, allowing their coats to touch some of them.

Each time there is something special about such concerts and plays for the blind, the viewers may even cry, as well as the actors, unable to hold their feelings.

The theatre intends to host concerts of such format every month, and plays — twice a year. Besides, April is booked for the premiere of the play “First teacher” based on C. Aymatova’s novel.