Up to Sixteen: Audio Description of Children’s Plays

Audio description: This is a colour photo. On stage, there are vibrant fairy-tale props and scenery: a square with colourful houses and the Tsar’s palace towering in the centre. Tsarevna Zabava is standing on the palace balcony, and golden ribbons are streaming down from her hands to the hands of the girls in the square. The Tsar and Merchant Polkan are standing under the balcony.

It is common knowledge that children are the most grateful audience: most of them not only love going to the theatre, but gladly come back again and again. Visually impaired children are no exception here — the theatre opens up a magical new world to them and turns out to be a tool of cognition, entertainment and a means of communication at the same time. But how would you fit a colourful theatrical production into several pages of text? How would you translate from the extraordinary theatrical language to the ordinary human language? How would you convey the abundance of the actions and the beauty of the scenery in normal words and just in one sentence?

In this article published by Special View, you will find general recommendations to those who have just started practising the audio description of children’s plays. The article also contains specific examples and professional advice.

About complex things in plain terms

Unlike plays designed for adults, children’s plays are full of action and constantly changing scenes, but there is not much dialogue. Of course, this creates additional difficulties for audio describers,who, within a short period of time (children’s plays are usually shorter than those for adults), need to describe briefly and clearly what is happening on stage. Moreover, you must avoid using some obscure language of an academic paper or some poor vocabulary of a comic book — you should instead speak intelligently and comprehensively. The description needs to be clear to old and young as the audience in headphones will comprise not only children of various ages and levels of development, but their parents as well. Therefore, when working on a children’s play, the audio describer needs to be extremely careful about the selection of vocabulary, keep the sentences short and avoid using unnecessarily complex grammar.

Yekaterina Negrutsa, the audio describer who provided the audio description for “The Flying Ship” play at Teatrium on Serpukhovka, says: “Language is an important element of audio description for children’s plays (although, in my opinion, you shouldn’t slip into the language of a three-year-old even if this age group is the target audience). However, the simplified language becomes more colourful than the language at the theatre for adults, where it’s quite neutral. I’d say, at the adult theatre, I’m more of a commentator whereas, at the children’s theatre, I’m more of a storyteller — along with the actors and director. If I start speaking with a boring teacher’s voice while miracles are happening on stage, I’ll spoil everything. That’s why I prefer using colourful descriptions and humour, deliberately choosing funny words and expressions (‘the character turned around and screwed up his mug’ because ‘mug’ sounds funny here).”

Photo: the audience is watching “The Flying Ship” at Teatrium on Serpukhovka (Moscow)

Photo by Darya Khripach

Audio description: This is a colour photo. There are two boys aged about nine in the audience. One of the boys is looking ahead while the other is pressing an FM radio speaker against his ear to listen to the audio description.

However, any play, including those for children, is not only about text, but also about subtext, the atmosphere created on stage and the contact emerging between the actors and audience. In order to convey to the blind something that cannot be described by words, something that exists between the lines, there is no need to reinvent the wheel. All you need to do is answer the following questions: what are the peculiar features of a particular play, what is its stick, and what makes this play different from others? Then, after tedious and meticulous selection of words and concepts describing the sensations you want your audience to experience, the right intonation will emerge all by itself, according to Yekaterina Averyanova, who provided comments for eight plays of SamArt Theatre. She says: “Each play unfolds in its own way so there are times when you need to change the commentary quickly — on the go. Unlike a movie, a play is a live performance, which is happening here and now. It’s important to let a play be, without interrupting it. Less words, more precision. I build the audio description in the script. I try to use simple phrases to ensure they will be understood by children of all levels of development. A commentary to children’s plays is distinguished not only by simplified vocabulary, but also intonation. For adults, I try to speak in a neutral tone whereas, forchildren, my speech is livelier and in harmony with the play. When you manage to ‘live through’ a play together with the young audience, this gives you such an incredible sensation that you don’t feel like using any neutral intonations.”

It is especially important here not to get carried away and slip into ad-libbing. You should carefully watch the video of the play in advance, check your assumptions and consult with the director. Otherwise, a chicken might turn into a goose and vice versa, as it once almost happened to Elena Kern from Izhevsk: “When working on an audio description, I try to discuss everything with the director. Once there was a situation where I was absolutely positive that one of the minor characters periodically appearing on stage was a goose whereas, according to the director, it was a white chicken. These details need to be dealt with carefully. The same applies to interaction between the actors and audience. In ‘The Snow Queen’, for example, the trolls go down to the audience and try to catch some of them with their large white scoop nets. Of course, I describe the trolls actions in as much detail as possible to ensure that partially sighted and blind children don’t get scared.”

According to Elena, it is very important not to spoil the children’s enjoyment of the play by deliberately making it down-to-earth and depriving it of its magical aura:"It’s important not only to describe what is happening on stage, but also to recreate the atmosphere of the play. For example, take my debut — “The Snow Queen”. I always keep in mind that I’m telling a fairy tale. Therefore, instead of saying"the lights go down on stage" (what stage?! everything’s happening for real, isn’t it?), I say"the night closes in“. Instead of saying “backstage workers have wheeled out plywood scenery”, I say “boulders of ice have risen in the swirling cold mist”. It’s very important to provide extra support to children’s plays by using the right intonation, particularly because the situation in them changes rapidly: for example, all of a sudden, a fairy turns into an ugly fat witch —this circumstance is, of course, reflected in the narration:the tempo, timbre and speed of speech change."

Indeed, it has been proven to all of us more than once or twice in our lives that what is important is not what is said, but how it is said.The young audience is no exception here, and you can easily lose their trust by slipping into baby talk or, the other way round, by reading the text too pompously. Finding the right words is as important as saying them in the right way. You need to sound convincing, serious and as their equal, but absolutely not like their mate. Yekaterina Negrutsa describes this style of audio description as “through a smile”: “I’ve developed a special intonation for children’s plays, or, rather, I’ve ‘borrowed’ it from a voice-over professional who voiced a cartoon with my audio description. Her voice was warm, affectionate and very pleasant. I’ve been thinking a lot about how appropriate it is, and I finally realised that talking to children ‘through a smile’ is a really good decision.”

Photo: after the play “Roger Rabbit” at the Kazan Tatar State Theater of the Young Spectator named after Gabdulla Kariev (Kazan).

The photos were provided by Gelyusya Zakirova.

Audio description: This is a colour photo. A group of smiling children are standing in front of the stage against the golden yellow drop curtain with an actor dressed as Roger Rabbit. The actor is wearing a white high neck jumper and a fur hat with long ears sticking up.

Peculiarities of ethnic audio description

Vocabulary simplified to the maximum, trusting intonation and recreation of the atmosphere of the play — it all helps perfectly when the performance is in the blind child’s language. But what would you do in a situation where double translation is required? After all, our country has many ethnic theatres, including the ones for children, where plays are accompanied by subtitles or simultaneous interpreting. In this case, when choosing between different words denoting the same concepts in both languages, it is better to go for the most common option. In addition, you might occasionally want to mix in some literary words and expressions because audio description also serves as a textbook of your child’s native or second language and enables us to enrich their vocabulary. There are, probably, not many people who know this topic better than Gelyusya Zakirova, of Kazan. She is the author of the audio description for Russia’s first play with audio description in an ethnic language —"The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane" (based on the book by Kate DiCamillo of the same title) at the Kazan Tatar State Theater of the Young Spectator named after Gabdulla Kariev:

“The Tatar language is unusually melodic and abundant in various expressive and figurative phrases, paired wordsand catchphrases. This makes it hard to follow the main principle of audio description — conciseness. For example, in Russian, a certain action can be described in one short word whereasa few paired words or even a whole sentence are neededin Tatar. So I realisedthat audio description requires a very thorough selection of words. You need to take into account not only linguistic peculiarities, but also mentality, various dialects and the level of language proficiency. Unfortunately, the Tatar language has recently been going through hard times, and the number of people with a good command of Tatar has been decreasing. As a result, an audio description presented in literary language can not always be understood by people who only know the spoken language. On the other hand, too simple a text will seem incompleteto those who know the language well. Bearing all this in mind, I try to stick to literary standards, but keeping my commentary reasonably plain at the same time, which is particularly important for children (for example, one of the dolls in ‘Edward Tulane’ is holding an umbrella, and as the Russian word зонтis shorter and easier than the Tatar qulçatir, I used the Russian one). I try out my audio description on my thirteen-year-old son, who often comes up with very valuable advice.”

By the way, Gelyusya is not the only one who has her son to try out a completed audio description. This is what Elena Kern says: "I always try out my audio descriptions on my son. Savely is eleven years old and has a rare sense oflanguage. He comes up with his own neologisms and unexpected speech patterns at the drop of a hat. I turn on the video for my son and start my narrative. For the most part, things go smoothly, but usually I still have to make a few alterations. For example, instead of spikes, icicles appeared on the snow trolls’ heads. My comment “The Snow Queen’s servants changed their clothes” was also criticised so I altered it to“...they turned into...“. In other words, everything needs to be for real, like in a fairy tale.”

Photo: after “The Bremen Town Musicians” play at Theatre-Theatre (Perm).

The photos were provided by Nailya Ibragimova.

Audio description: These are two colour photos of the theatre stage. In the picture on the left, a girl aged about seven is examining a prop wheel by touching it with both hands. In the picture on the right, an actor dressed as a Bremen Town Musician is squatting in front of a girl aged about seven. She is examining the bracelet on his wrist by touch. The girl is wearing glasses with clear lenses. A woman is standing behind the girl. She is guiding the girl’s hands. Actors dressed as the Silly King and the Princess are standing nearby, watching them with affectionate smiles.

Between the acts

However, even if audio describers select their words thoroughly and stay in constant dialogue with their young listeners, usually there is still not enough time to establish fully-fledged rapport during a play. This is where such a wonderful theatrical invention as an intermission comes to the rescue. It is between the acts, and sometimes even before and after the play, that the narrator has a great opportunity to get to know the audience better, find out why they came to the theatre, what they understood from what was happening on stage, and what they make of it. In addition, by prior arrangement with the theatre, the narrator may take the children and the accompanying adults backstage for them to have an opportunity to examine the costumes and props, and sometimes even have a chat with the actors. Such a tour is a nice bonus for sighted spectators whereas for blind children it is a necessity.Moreover, it is a good idea to adjust the equipment and check the headphones before the play rather than during it.

Here is what Yekaterina Negrutsa says about additional effects: “Children’s plays are usually full of sounds and have a lot of dialogue. Something’s going on all the time. If the characters aren’t talking, there’s always something else on — sounds or a song. That is, on the one hand, the audio description should be ‘minimised’ while, on the other hand, the play is so vibrant, fantasy-like and full of colourful costumes and scenery that you need to describe the whole scene, but there’s very little time. This is when such a wonderful thing as an intermission comes in very handy, as well as the time right before the play (although a lot depends on the extent of involvement of the theatre itself and its willingness to be included in the process). However, if a theatre does get involved, like Teatrium on Serpukhovka, where Theresa Durova herself offered us additional options for the blind, then your work has a much greater effect. We usually begin half an hour before the play, and this gives me enough time to explain certain words and concepts which the children don’t know yet (for example, what is lubok and assignatsia). There’s an opportunity for me to explain, describe things and take the children on a tour backstage, where they can examine the props and costumes by touch (all the more so since a life-sized bear costume is used in ‘The Flying Ship’). During the intermission before the second act, we take another tour backstage to have a chat with our favourite characters.”

Photo: after “The Bremen Town Musicians” play at Theatre-Theatre (Perm).

The photos were provided by Nailya Ibragimova.

Audio description: This is a colour photo. On stage, a group of actors — the Silly King, the Princess and the Bremen Town Musicians — are posing with children and smiling. Four children are standing in front of the actors. The youngest spectator is sitting on the shoulder of one of the actors.

This kind of “backstage” work is particularly relevant for non-dramatic theatrical performances such as operas or musicals. Nailya Ibragimova, the author of the audio description for “The Bremen Town Musicians” play at Theatre-Theatre and “Terem-Teremok” at the Perm Opera and Ballet Theatre, said: "As for providing an audio description for an opera, there’s another difficulty here — the narration shouldn’t interfere with the music, therefore,a lot of information is presented before the play. Thus we get acquainted with the characters by solving riddles. For example, I first ask: “Who’s got 36 teeth and scares off even large predators by bouncing and snorting?” After the children have guessed that it is a hedgehog, I tell them that, in this particular fairy tale, the Hedgehog is a modest guy and a good friend who is always there for you. Then I describe his looks: “He has tousled needle-like grey hair and wears broad ballooning trousers. Over the trousers, he has a long knitted grey vest with a deep neckline. Under the vest, he has a blue long-sleeved shirt and a red-and-pink striped tie. The Hedgehog is very modest, but, if need be,can be very tough...” After the play, the children have an opportunity not only to talk to the actors, but also examine the characters’ costumes by touch,therefore, it is a great addition to the information they receive before the play. After that, we set off on a virtual tour, during which the children touch the mock models of the stage and auditorium and thus get a complete picture of the theatre’s space.

At Theater-Theater of drama, children get a unique opportunity to examine the scenery properly by touch while I describe it in general and in particular: “The drop curtain is down now, butas soon as the third bell goes followed by a magic incantation, the drop curtain will come up, and the play will begin. So what’s behind the drop curtain? The palace of the Silly King is in the centre of the stage. It’s as high as a real two-storey house, with tall walls, porthole windows and an open balcony along the entire wall. The roof of the palace has metal chimneys soaring up into the sky and a large wheel the height of a child. The palace resembles a large medieval English ship... However, not all the scenery is on stage. Some of it comes down from above during the play — for example, a large disco ball that spins around during the performance of foreign singers and casts bright spots of light around the stage.”

However, not every theatre has tactile models or can provide a backstage tour after a play. If that is the case,you can arrange a discussion with theaudience. Such discussions are held, for example, in Samara: “We always collect feedback after our audio-described plays. School children react in the same way as adults — they discuss the storyline, scenography and some memorable details.” Young spectators are in for a nice surprise — they get some gifts after the play. For example, in Izhevsk, children are given headphones. “Children are delighted to hear that the headphones are a gift. The fact is that apart from a trunk of audio description equipment, the Special View programme sent a few hundred disposable headphones to the theatre. For children, this is not only a pleasant surprise, but also a memorable item to take home after the play.”