Театрга рәхим итегез, or Welcome To The Theatre: audio description in Tatarstan

Audio description: a coloured photo. Audio description specialists' workplace in a theatre. Black headphones with a microphone are lying upon a red semicircular surface. Next to them, there are two folders, a white one entitled The Magic Swan Geese, and a pink one with Special View logo. The auditorium is brightly lit, the stage is hidden behind bright red curtains with floral pattern.

Once again we are speaking about the development of audio description in Russian regions. Gelyusia Zakirova from Kazan shared with the Special View reporter the difficulties, regional peculiarities and her unexpected personal discoveries. Gelyusia is an honored culture professional of the Republic of Tatarstan and head of the Guidance Department in Tatarstan Special Library for The Blind And Visually Challenged.

How Audio Description Specialists Came To Be

In 2018, libraries for the blind and visually challenged in cities with population of over one million, received an information letter: the Rehacomp Institute announced the opening of competitive admissions for the Audio Description Specialists training program. Gelyusia Zakirova from Tatarstan was admitted as the first cohort student. Her admission was no surprise, as by that time Gelyusia had been working in the library for the blind for 17 years.

All these years she and her colleagues described the premises for the blind visitors, together with their readers went to events and performances, and there too, they described everything they could see. Sometimes they moved around by touch, as prescribed by their job, or by their own will in order to better help the sightless. Without any guidelines or manuals, without even knowing there was a special term for it, they learned audio description through practice.

Gelyusia Zakirova says: "I started consciously researching the audio description topic around 2012 when movies with audio description first appeared. Then I started to think about how one could arrange movie shows with audio description in my city. I contacted Moscow Sports and Recreation Rehabilitation Centre of the All Russia Association of the Blind, and the Beating Hearts Charity Foundation, and through them we received DVD movies with audio description. Thus, the Accessible Cinema initiative was born in Kazan. Within its framework, we organized movie shows in the city movie theatres. I was the curator of this initiative, so together with the sightless viewers I watched all these films and came up with the idea to create audio description for the local cultural projects. I was most eager to try and do it in the Tartar language. But I lacked understanding and knowledge of how it should be done correctly."

Sometime later, Moscow Gubernsky theatre company came to Kazan on a tour. Gelyusia was lucky to watch the only play provided with audio description and had the privilege of talking to Irina Bezrukova, a prominent Russian actress and audio description expert. As Gelyusia says, such an encounter was bound to inspire her!

When the information letter came, Gelyusia was among the first people to apply. She was then selected for the program and completed her course in Moscow. Having returned to Kazan, she started working to make this service available in her city. This became possible thanks to grants competitions organized by the Special View program. This is how audio description was introduced in Kazan.

National Peculiarities

Audio description: a coloured photo. A young woman with long curly chestnut hair is sitting at a desk and staring intently at a large screen. Her name is Gelyusia Zakirova. She is wearing a tight-fitted black blouse with white dots. Big black headphones are covering her ears. Gelyusia is holding the text of the audio description. A large production desk is placed on the table to her right.

Gelyusia is fluent in both Russian and Tartar languages. During her studies, she thought that making audio description in Tartar would be easier, but it turned out to be not that simple at all.

This was due to the peculiarities of the language. For example, in Tartar, one often comes across doubled words that make the phrase seem more cumbersome. Making the description brief can be a problem. At times, in Russian there is just a phrase, while to translate it into Tartar one would need a whole sentence. Mrs. Zakirova had to choose words for the description with greater accuracy and take into account the level of the audience's proficiency in Tartar.

Gelyusia Zakirova explains: "In most cases, people misunderstand or even don't know the correct meaning of certain words and phrases referring to relationships between people, their attitude towards their surroundings, denoting personal qualities or abstract concepts. Sadly, national languages have been going through hard times, and every year the Tartar language is losing its uniqueness. Every year there are fewer people speaking Tartar at a good literary level. That is why audio description in rich literary language may not be understandable for people using just its colloquial variety. At the same time, if the text is too simple, it will seem inadequate for those proficient enough in Tartar".

With this in mind, Mrs. Zakirova believes that one should stick to the literary language, but try to make audio description easy to comprehend. In some cases, one should choose a Russian word instead of the one in Tartar, as the former will be more understandable. For example, кулчатыр in Tartar stands for зонт in Russian, which means umbrella. The Russian word is both shorter and is used more frequently.

Gelyusia admits that it took four years for these difficulties to become less of a problem. Now she feels equal confidence working with the materials in either language.

Audio description: a coloured photo. Theatre actors and their audience are forming three rows in front of the backdrop. All are smiling. The actors are wearing stylized Tartar national costumes in beige colours, and national headdresses. Gelyusia is standing next to them wearing a smart black ensemble. Women in casual clothes are sitting in the first row. Some of them are wearing glasses, others are sitting with their eyes shut.

More Than Tatarstan

Today Gelyusia is working with three Kazan theatres: Tartar Theatre For the Young named after Gabdulla Kariyev, Ekiyat Puppet Theatre and Tartar State Academy Theatre named after G. Kamal. Each of them has about two or three specialized stock plays, and seven new performances are being prepared at the moment.

The employees of Kazan kremlin are now familiar with audio description, too. Gelyusia wrote audio description for its exhibits, and thus a part of the museum collection was made accessible for the sightless. Moreover, Gelyusia gives workshops and hosts charity events for the local All Russia Association of the Blind (ARAoB) branch.

This year she had to work even harder than usual. When the Special View program announced a contest for providing audio description in theatres, colleagues from Mordovia, Mari El and Ulyanovsk contacted Gelyusia asking her to support their projects. Previously, only cities and regions with resident audio description specialists had been admitted to the contest, but in 2022 this condition was canceled.

Gelyusia Zakirova continues: "Local theatres began calling me. I recommended them to ask if this was permitted anyway. At first, of course, I was hesitating whether to agree or not. But then I thought, if these theatres had no local audio description specialist, then my refusal would rob the audience in these regions of the opportunity to partake in theatre performance, so I agreed. What is more, we are good friends and partners with ARAoB libraries in these regions. By that moment I'd been acquainted with Ulyanovsk Theatre for the Young, thanks to the Special View festival, but I didn't know Mordovia National Theatre or Russian Theatre of Mari El. And now looking back I'm glad that I agreed then, because it was the perfect opportunity to try my hand in something new".

In early April Gelyusia set out to work in Saransk. Mordovia State National Drama Theatre released two adapted performances: one based on A. Ostrovsky play Stay In Your Own Sled, and the other based on Lope de Vega play Miracles of Neglect, or Women Are Devils. Of course, working in several regions at once on a long-term basis is hard. That is why it was decided that audio description for Mordovia theatre will be prepared by Geluysia, but executed by this theatre's employee who had taken the Audio Description Specialist ARAoB course. The theatre is planning to train its own specialist in Moscow.

Gifted People And Their Fans

After performances Gelyusia always talks to her audience and asks for their opinion. It is always interesting to know how the viewers perceive the play. The feedback is always different. Mostly positive, but sometimes Gelyusia hears some criticism. Some people think that the description is too detailed, others feel that it is not detailed enough. Sometimes persons from the audience offer recommendations on the ways to improve the description. But the majority, naturally, give their thanks. There are some people madly in love with theatre, they try to attend every performance and come to some plays more than once.

Sometimes tourist groups arrive from nearby towns. This is a big event for the totally sightless or visually impaired. And for Gelyusia it means more new audience. The faces of all the visually impaired theatre goers from Kazan are familiar to her, as she also works in the library for the blind and at the ARAoB branch.

Gelyusia Zakirova says: "Many of them feel like family, they congratulate me on major holidays, send me their videos. Sometimes they invite me to concerts or other events. Sometimes they give me flowers, as if I were a real actress. Last year, before The New Year's Day I organized a contest of reviews. I then gave small souvenirs to my most active theatre goers and those who had written their reviews. Simply put, I always try to establish personal relationships with my audience".

Cases From Practice

On specialized performances the guests are so grateful and observing. For them, every detail is important. Sometimes they notice things that may have slipped an audio description specialist's attention. One day after a performance in Kamal theatre, a patron asked Gelyusia to correct her audio description. Thanks to this comment, the phrase "a soldier's uniform" was replaced with "the Great Patriotic War soldier's uniform".

Gelyusia also gives the Five Evenings play as an example. In this play, there is an episode with a heater. According to the script, it is called a radiator, and is called so by one of the characters. But as it happens, not many people know what this word means, so in audio description this device is called жылыткыч, a Tartar word for heater.

Gelyusia Zakirova says: "In The Samovars play in the Puppet Theatre, there is a moment when arrows on a clock-face are turning around. The viewers asked me to clarify which way they were moving: forwards or backwards. This play is very complicated. And not everything is clear from the video. Before the next performance, I'm going to consult the stage director and edit the audio description".

In Mordovia State National Drama Theatre, in a play by A. Ostrovsky, Stay In Your Own Sled, there is an episode of a date. A character slightly lifts the hem of his beloved's dress and kisses her feet. All of this, naturally, is reflected in the audio description. During the performance, one of the guests liked this episode so much that he exclaimed out loud: "Wow! Amazing!" The audience was smiling and the actors did their best to keep from laughing.

Audio description: a coloured photo. A teenager is sitting in a wheelchair amid a spacious brightly lit foyer in front of a banner. His eyes are closed. Behind him, a middle-aged woman wearing spectacles and Gelyusia in a black close-fitting dress are sitting on a white bench. Mrs. Zakirova is holding a folder with The Special View portal logo on it. Yellow tactile band can be seen on the floor, and a yellow circle marks the glass door.

Theatre Family

Not so long ago Gelyusia's husband, too, got a job with Ekiyat Puppet Theatre. Family contract, jokes Gelyusia. During the pandemic they had difficulties with employment, and it took considerable time before her husband could find a job that would satisfy him.

Gelyusia Zakirova says: "For me, it came as a surprise when he started working in the theatre. One of these days I'm at work, and all of a sudden he sends me a picture of his theatre employee ID card. Before this he had worked in a totally different field. We live near Ekiyat Puppet Theatre, and he just saw an ad, went there and without telling me a word got a job".

Now the Zakirovs have a new topic for conversations and animated discussions. The spouses began to talk more about theatre and culture in general.

Gelyusia Zakirova continues: "My husband began to get a better idea about what I'm doing. And now I have this opportunity to get quick information on one play or another. For example, judging from a video, it is not always clear how a puppet or a prop looks, and now I can check the details without much fuss. When one is not a theatre employee, sometimes it is not that easy. You need to arrange things. Often you don't have an opportunity to speak to the stage director at once. From time to time I ask my husband to take a close-up picture of a certain detail. Through him I can communicate with a specific actor and ask some questions if I need to. As stagehands, he knows many performances from the inside, so sometimes he can give me some data without asking anyone for clarifications. All in all, when you have somebody working in the theatre, it is very convenient".

For Mrs. Zakirova, her family members are her most important critics and helpers. They are her test audience for the first version of a completed audio description, and they are her editors. The first people to appreciate or make suggestions on the adapted performances for children are her own kids.

Next year Gelyusia will celebrate her fifth anniversary as an audio description specialist. She is planning to arrange a little event for those who have come to performances all this time, who has been listening to her description and waiting for more such plays.

Gelyusia Zakirova says: "I am grateful to the Special View program for the support of audio description in general and for engaging us, audio description specialists, in various projects. For example, during the Special View portal presentation, I got new experience of organizing such an event, of working together with different specialists. Last year, there was the Special View festival where I went on a company tour as an audio description specialist. This, too, was an amazing experience. My social circle instantly grew much wider, I established new contacts. And this year, there is the regional festival. I'm very glad to extend the geography of the audio description program and I want these regions to initiate further work locally. I will offer advice, consultations and help with whatever I can".