Property Master Will Help: Audio Description in Karelia and Khabarovsk

Audio description: a coloured photo. A small dimly lit room. Warm light from a table lamp is falling on Alexandra Lavrenova who is sitting by the table. She is holding a thin sheaf of paper and reading the text with a hint of a smile. A microphone is standing in front of the audio description specialist. Alexandra is a young woman with large regular features. She is wearing a mauve dress with cowl neck. Her hair is swept back, her forehead uncovered. She is wearing massive headphones.

We continue our series of articles about the development of audio description in Russian regions. Who is afraid of blast sounds and other sound effects? What is jouhikko? How can one describe a musical? This time, the Special View portal speaks to audio description specialists from Petrozavodsk and Khabarovsk who share their problems, know-how and discoveries.

What Is Sigudek and How A Prop Master Can Help an Audio Description Specialist

Petrozavodsk may seem a perfect place for audio description specialists: there are five theatres in this city. In the National theatre, one can watch plays in Finnish, in two dialects of Karelian, in Vepsian and in Russian. That is why the theatre is fully equipped for synchronous interpretation. In terms of hardware everything was ready for audio description even before Alexandra Lavrenova, the theatre’s synchronous interpretation announcer, began her training in the Rehacomp institute. Now the equipment used for synchronous interpretation (stationary and portable transmitter and receivers with headphones) also works during plays with audio description.

Alexandra Lavrenova graduated from Petrozavodsk State University, faculty of Finnic philology and culture. She has comprehensive knowledge of her native tongue and speaks Finnish and Karelian fluently. After her graduation, she won a contest and as a result became a synchronous interpretation announcer at the National theatre, and later an audio description specialist.

Audio description: a coloured photo. Audio description of a performance is in progress. Alexandra is sitting in the same room, her profile turned to the camera. There is a lamp on the table to her right. The woman is holding a sheet of printed text. Reading the lines she is following the performance that she can watch through a window in front of her. The stage set is composed of long crooked branches and a multicolored striped rug. A young woman is sitting in front of the set. Her hair is braided; she is wearing a long dark red skirt and a pink blouse. The actress is playing a bow instrument.

“After I had finished my course, I was asked to write an audio description for three most popular plays performed in Russian. They were the family fairy-tale Bear Son, and two performances based on plays by Vladimir Gurkin, Quadrille and Love and Pigeons. While working on the audio descriptions I had many questions concerning the words standing for certain objects, especially with the first play. Bear Son is based on folk tales, and the actors are wearing ethnic clothes and playing ethnic music instruments. It is a very authentic piece, much of the set (sticks, crooked branches) were picked up in the forest by the director. These sticks form the mise-en-scene: the forest, the palace, Baba Yaga’s realm. And all this must be properly described,” says Alexandra Lavrenova.

The main material for an audio description specialist’s work is a video record of the play, which is quite convenient. At the first stage of the audio description preparation one can easily go back, study the details, try to fit the description between the actors’ lines or clip phrases if they are too long. But this is just the start.

Alexandra’s work isn’t limited to videos. She also works with the people who created the play. Sometimes details cannot be seen clearly in the video, and then the specialist needs to address the stage director, the actors, lightning designer, composer, prop masters. When Alexandra had questions concerning costumes, she consulted the costumer and went to the sewing shop to learn the words for certain details of ethnic clothes. For Love and Pigeons she had to consult production designer to find out the correct terms for some fragments of the scenery.

Sometimes this kind of work is unavoidable; each performance has its own peculiarities. While Love and Pigeons is mostly based on dialogs and rather easy to comprehend, the Bear Son ethnic performance is full of symbolism and different sounds that need additional explanation. For example, this show largely employs ethnic Karelian instruments like kantele, jouhikko, aerophones, reed pipes, sigudek, saws and noisemakers.

Audio description: a coloured photo. A smallish auditorium. The guests are applauding the actors of the Bear Son performance, three men and three women in ethnic clothes. They are standing in front of the patrons, smiling and holding folk instruments made of wood. Women are wearing headbands, long dresses and sarafans with aprons. Men are wearing long loose shirts with woven belts, unbuttoned waistcoats, pants and heelless leather boots.

In late February 2022, National theatre of Karelia gave the first night of another performance with audio description, The Russian Field, based on An Absolutely Happy Village, a novella by Boris Vakhtin. This is a story about love, a chronicle of one village which begins before The Great Patriotic War and ends after the war is over. The performance includes many acrobatic movements and dances. Alexandra had to work with many sources to get the military terms right.

Moreover, the show is abundant with noises and special effects. The audio description specialist was concerned that this might be startling for the viewers and challenging for their guide dogs.

“In the second act, there is a very loud battle episode, and I worried so much for my viewers, even consulted the director. In the end, he simply suggested that we put a notice in the audio description to inform the guests about the scenes that awaited them in the second act, so that they would be able to choose whether to stay and watch till the end, or leave. I was told that my viewers were sitting in the auditorium and saying that they had been informed about that loud battle scene in advance,” says Alexandra Lavrenova.

That is why, as she notes, her work begins not with the beginning of the play, but with the second bell calling the patrons to take their seats. This is some extra time to fill them in, give them an idea of the performance, inform them about some peculiarities of the play and, if possible, invite them to the stage to study the scenery up close.

While preparing her audio description, Alexandra consults two experts. They are her strict “examiners”. One of them is Leonid B. Avksentyev, honored culture professional of Karelia, and the other one is Oleg A. Cherepanov. Oleg Cherepanov works in the National Library of the Republic of Karelia, specializes in rehabilitation of the sightless and visually impaired. Leonid Avksentyev is a poet and a short story writer.

Before the first night, Alexandra calls her experts and reads the audio description text to them. This is a kind of a final run-through for an audio description specialist. The experts correct mistakes, help to understand what is wrong. Thanks to them, the audio description becomes deeper, richer, more true-to-life. Alexandra plans to organize group discussions of the performances provided with audio description, invite other sightless viewers to join in.

“I’m very thorough about creating my audio descriptions and always try to make my viewers see as much as possible. And when we share our impressions later, I’m very pleased to hear that they imagined everything exactly as it was in actuality,” says Alexandra Lavrenova.

Audio description: a coloured photo. Alexandra Lavrenova in a mauve dress is standing on a stage with two male viewers. All are smiling. One of the men is wearing a white shirt and classic pale trousers, a white cane in his right hand, black glasses on his face. The other man is wearing a medical face mask and a wide-brimmed straw hat. With both his hands, he is holding a scarecrow in front of him: an old cotton wadded jacket and pants fixed to a wooden pole decorated with sunflowers.

At the moment, Alexandra is writing an audio description to The Road to Nebyvan, a performance based on a play by Irina Komissarova. It is a fairy-tale about forgotten toys.

Cherchez la Femme With Closed Eyes

Vladimir Simonovich from Khabarovsk has been working as a specialist technician at the library for the blind. It is a rare combination: a person equally fond of engineering and art. That is why of all the library employees he was chosen to take a course with the Rehacomp Institute when they were presented with such an opportunity.

“When I learned about such thing as audio description, I immediately felt eager to try it. At first I was trying to give some kind of amateur audio description on my own. Later, together with other employees, I completed a course on audio description at the library. Then I understood that it was much more complicated than I had imagined, and that I needed professional training. Together with our management we repeatedly wrote letters to the Rehacomp Institute, and finally got the invitation in 2019,” tells Vladimir Simonovich.

By the way, the group was unique: usually, such courses are taken predominantly by women, while in 2019 group there was a surprising total of 3 men.

“We were fully immersed in our work. We were given photos, and we described them. We described paintings and sculptures. We created audio descriptions for episodes from movies. After I completed the course, I got a call from Khabarovsk Territory Musical Theatre and was asked to adapt for the sightless The Art of Getting Married. And I agreed,” says Vladimir Simonovich.

Khabarovsk Territory Musical Theatre became the pioneer in audio description in Khabarovsk Territory. Some may say how hard can it be to describe some actions? But it is not easy to describe what’s most important in two words, without going in too much detail. Plus, a musical show has its own peculiarities and presents extra difficulties for an audio description specialist. Audio description must not overlap the actors’ singing, but one must somehow tell the viewers what is happening on stage at the moment. Moreover, dances are considered to be among most difficult episodes for audio description.

“There are some moments in dances that are very difficult to describe, so one has to simplify them a bit. Firstly, you have so little time, and secondly, sometimes it is not that important, but you can name the term for the movement, and the viewer will understand,” Vladimir Simonovich adds.

Feedback is of utmost importance for the audio description specialist: thus one can see mistakes and correct the description. Whenever Vladimir gets the opportunity to talk to his audience, he always tries to find out whether they liked his commentary, and whether the description seemed correct and comprehensive.

“I’m always a bit nervous before the show. For me it is always very interesting, but I feel highly responsible. If I make a mistake, I can’t rewind and correct it, the show is moving on. That is why my work is difficult emotionally. What is more, I cannot describe every single detail. Sometimes the script with audio description takes 10 pages of printed text, and in that case I have to make it shorter. The pauses between the actors’ lines last no more than a few seconds, and I need to somehow describe the scenery or the interior, the actions, the costumes which can change right before the show. Then need to improvise instead of using the text I prepared in advance,” says Vladimir Simonovich.

In 2020, Khabarovsk Library for the blind applied for the Special View’s grants competition for preparation of audio description for An Ordinary Miracle show in the Musical theatre and Shchastya Bay. Admiral Nevelskoy in Khabarovsk Territory drama theatre. They won the competition and were given the sum for such adaptations. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, only the Nevelskoy play went on stage with audio description, and only once. This show is worth seeing and hearing. The play lasts more than two hours, involving more than 30 actors. For the sightless and visually impaired patrons, such large-scale shows are not easy to perceive. Nevertheless, in the intermission the viewers said that much has become clearer thanks to the audio description.

In 2021, the Special View program opened admission for the Continuation project. Khabarovsk puppet theatre was among the contest winners. In the fall, Vladimir Simonovich prepared audio description for three puppet shows: The Tale About the Lost Time, The Tale of the Fisherman and the Fish and Teremok. Before that he had prepared the audio descriptions only for adult audience, that is why he had to adjust the style and the manner of narration.

At the moment, Cherchez la Femme, a new performance with audio description, is being prepared in the Musical comedy theatre. It is a detective story with a love line. A murder is committed at a notary office in Paris, and inspector Granden begins the investigation.

“The play is quite complicated, the duration tops 2 hours, and there are so many details. That is why I wrote the text in advance, and it took me two months to complete it. It was the first case in my experience when the script was 12 pages long, usually it doesn’t exceed six pages. But I’m not reading it word by word, because during the show changes may occur: the costumes or the actors may be substituted. In theatre, you should always be ready to improvise, always be ready for the unexpected,” Vladimir Simonovich shares.

According to the All Russia Association of the Blind, there are 580 blind citizens in Khabarovsk, and these are only the official numbers. The number of the visually impaired is much higher. When Khabarovsk got its own resident audio description specialist, the Ministry of Culture of Khabarovsk Territory ordered the local theatres to stage specialized plays for the visually challenged at least once a quarter.