Tag Archives: Audio description

Review: „The Wake“ by Tom Murphy with Audio Description at The Abbey Theatre

A few weeks ago we travelled to Dublin to see the latest production by the Abbey Theatre of Tom Murphy’s “The Wake”, a play portraying the materialism of Irish small-town communities in the early 1990s. It reveals how far most members of so called respectable families are prepared to go to satisfy their desire for power and wealth.

Accessible Performances

So far 2016 was a great year for fans of audio described theatre performances and I hope the continuing international interest in Irish arts will further not only creative art production, but also help to increase the availability of caption and audio description for patrons with visual and hearing impairments. I have written about how audio description works and the importance of making culture and arts accessible to everyone in a previous review.

The staff of the Abbey Theatre is very friendly and the lady who hands out the audio devices even recognised us from last year.

The Story

To the dismay of the rest of the O’Toole family, Vera suddenly reappears in her home town, endangering her sibling’s plan to auction the family hotel, which their mother left to Vera, in her absence. Vera however is more hurt about not being told about the death of her beloved grandmother. Although she resents not being consulted about the auction, unlike her money-obsessed siblings she does not really care about the buying and selling of property which she calls “the family game”.

While a lot of the time, Vera isn’t exactly pleasant and despite working as a prostitute in New York, she shows more courage than the others and is the most honest of the characters. Aisling O’Sullivan portrays Vera’s contradictory character beautifully. By coming home, the cosmopolitan, tough Vera turns back into a rebellious and vulnerable school girl for a while and seduces her teenage sweetheart Finbar and Henry, her sister Marcia’s pompous Anglo-Irish husband. Reversing the “Windows of the squinting valley”-theme they stage an alcohol and sex orgy in the hotel, with the whole town watching in horror through the windows. In spite of her eccentric behaviour all Vera really wants is to belong. After all, nobody can choose their relatives and their place of birth.

“What other society, town, civilised country would put up with it?”

To keep up the appearance of respectability, the siblings commit Vera to an asylum for the mentally ill, justifying their betrayal by saying it is best for everyone, including Vera herself. Locking up the most vulnerable members of society and those who simply refuse to fit in, has been a common way for Irish society to “solve” its “problems” for decades – Institutionalisation became the most expedient and profitable response to poverty, illness, orphans, “young offenders” and “fallen girls”. Finbar, labelled “Tinker” by the O’Tooles, too is a victim of institutionalisation. Abused by the priest and after spending his childhood in the industrial school in Letterfrack, he is constantly afraid of authorities and wants to be left in peace. While his dealings in scrap metal may not be entirely clean, compared to the O’Tooles, playing monopoly with the town, he is a straight businessman.

Tom Murphy himself is from Tuam in County Galway and according to a screen with a map, which decorates the stage in the final scene, the action takes place there. One of the reasons why the play resounds with the audience is, that the characters appear to be fashioned from real people. Everyone knows or has heard of a domineering brother married to a doctor’s daughter who gets through life only on pills, a greedy and jealous sister and a pontificating Anglo-Irish barrister with poetic ambitions who is too cowardly to embrace a bohemian life.


However, the play is not only dark, the characters interact brilliantly for some comic relief. Especially the funny dynamics between the feckless but likable Finbar (played by Brian Doherty) and the pompous Henry (played by Frank McCusker) is priceless. Their inability for the most part to understand each others language and thoughts highlights class distinctions, which, although traditionally disputed, do exist in Ireland. The wake-scene is no sugary happy ending, but it includes some great singing, reminding us that these ruthless and troubled people are descended from a rural society, which valued not just money, but also arts, kinship and wakes.


I’d recommend Tom Murphy’s plays in general to visually impaired people, since everything important is expressed in dialogue. I recently read “Conversations on a Home Coming” and while I consider it a great play, read in silence the text became very repetitive. Unlike for example Shakespeare plays which include lengthy monologues, most Irish plays work only on stage. It is spoken language – witty exchanges of one-liners, dialect and colloquialisms, recitations and subtle changes in intonation – that captivates the audience. The language in Murphy’s plays – and the characters who use it – seem simple and everyday, but everything is carefully constructed to present a picture of Irish society, audience members recognise.

When booking the tickets I was told the play contain strong language, violence and nudity. While strong language is almost necessary in a realistic play, I wasn’t sure what to expect of the other two. I don’t mind violence and nakedness, if it’s not just to shock people, but serves a narrative purpose – which it did in this performance.

Audio Description

I thought I remembered the voice from the last time and I actually met the audio describer after one show. It was great to meet the person behind the voice in my ear and to thank her. I asked her if she couldn’t record the AD to make it available for multiple performances. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t work, because as soon as the silences between the dialogues would be a second longer, speech and recording could be out of sync.

There isn’t much to say about the AD. It blended nicely into the background, giving descriptions of cast, costume and changes on stage, while also leaving time to listen to the music. That’s the way it should be. Other audience members commented on Finbar’s comic expressions, when he didn’t have a clue or was too drunk to care what the others were on about. As I do in everyday life, I had to guess these subtleties without being able to see facial expressions and I’m not sure how they could be conveyed through words as part of the AD. The duration of the play was three hours, with a twenty minute interval. And the audio describer stayed attentive during the whole performance, a remarkable achievement.


Abbey Theatre Dublin

see Arts & Dissability Ireland for upcoming audio described and captioned performances




2 men and 2 women on stage

Review: CARE by WillFredd Theatre with Audio Description

Although the number of audio described and subtitled live-performances has considerably increased over the last few years, they are still rare outside Dublin. Consequently, I was delighted when I received the Arts & Disability Ireland text newsletter notifying subscribers that WillFredd Theatre Company was to bring its newest production CARE to the Galway Town Hall Theatre. The show featured audio description for visually impaired audience members and subtitles for patrons with hearing impairments.

What is Audio Description?

People may know Audio description (AD) from TV programmes. It is a voiceover telling blind and visually impaired viewers, or indeed anyone who chooses to use it, information that is not conveyed through dialogue, music or sound. For example It would say something like: “John enters holding a folder under his arm. He is a well-dressed man in his forties.” I’m not familiar with the production side of AD, but it is important that the information is as objective as possible, so that the viewers can form their own opinion. Timing too is very important, since the voiceover should not overlap with the dialogue or give clues in advance or too late.

I only learned recently, that being an audio describer is a profession in its own right, which is currently not taught in Ireland. Unlike the AD on TV or DVDs, the voiceover for plays is usually live, since breaks in dialogues can vary slightly. Producing an audio description can take up to forty hours: The describer attends rehearsals, watches video footage, writes a script and finally performs it off stage.

Audience members get a one-ear -piece headset with two wheels, one for turning it on and off and one to adjust the volume. Personally, I think this is better than giving people a smart phone or developing an app because not everyone knows how to use them and the important feature of AD is its accessibility.

Going to the theatre as a visually impaired person

Before there can be an audio description there obviously has to be a play and while for me the AD definitely increases my enjoyment of the performance, plot and acting are still my main criteria when reviewing a play. I’m a regular theatre goer and having AD is the exception. Mostly I have to rely on what there is to hear, the bit of movement I can see from being seated in the front rows or whispered comments from friends. Thus, I tend to go to traditional plays with lots of dialogue. If they were offered with AD, I would give more experimental and dance pieces another chance. While I prefer to go to shows with friends and to talk about it over a drink afterwards, I would go on my own if I really want to see something.

CARE “a show about the people who add life to days, if not days to life”

CARE explores the daily work and private life of four hospice staff members, thus questioning and redefining our associations and often prejudices about what working, living, dying and grieving in a hospice is like.

Having seen numerous Irish plays, I expected something very dramatic and very dark, featuring tragic family stories and heartbreaking last words. Although CARE definitely has its sad moments – and does not culminate in a happy ending as such –, it is a beautiful depiction of compassion and love for people and life – simply summarised as CARE. The action could be set in any hospice in Ireland or indeed worldwide.

Interestingly, the protagonists are not the patients but the staff members: nurses, physiotherapists and social workers. The audience accompanies them through their daily jobs, their tea breaks and their private lives in the latter of which they have to deal with the stigma of pure death surrounding hospices. The main patient, a woman called Anne who is in her fifties dying of lung cancer and her husband and children who have to deal with her eminent death are narrated by the staff members. Having a clothes mannequin representing the patient avoids the pathos and victimisation commonly associated with the death of an individual, but I sometimes thought the patient could have shown some signs of life and agency not only through narrations but also through his or her own speech or movement. The main focus clearly lies on the way individual staff members interpret and deal with medical history, physical complaints, mental anxieties and relatives denying the impending death of a loved one and attending the death bed.  The last days in a hospice are not about dying they are about living as long and as comfortable as possible until the end. It was quite touching to see how the characters did their best to fulfil their patient’s personal last wishes to bring them some final pleasure. The play definitely changed my perception of hospices and the people who work their.

“Life is a sexually transmitted disease with a 100% mortality rate”

There is also some humour in the play, for example when a patient drinks a whole bottle of ”Baileys” through a straw, resulting in a terrible hangover in the morning, only to be cured with bacon sandwiches. To add some cynicism and serious social commentary on the “trolley crisis” in Irish hospitals, the play opens with a scene showing HSE administrators deciding how many beds are available and who gets them by rolling the dice.

I would have been able to follow the plot without audio description, but I would have missed a lot of details, especially the dance piece in the middle and the final Elvis impersonation. In theatre and film visual aspects like set, costume and gestures are important and sometimes not seeing them is missing an essential part of the performance.

The audio description was very good, a pleasant female voice in the background, discretely filling the silences between dialogues and music. There were a few background noises and I had to adjust the volume depending to what was happening on stage. Unfortunately, I missed the introduction describing set and characters who were already on stage when we entered the theatre. Overall the AD was helpful and objective as it should be.

Improving the communication between disability advocacy groups and “mainstream” institutions

As far as I could see, only a friend and I were using the audio description which surprised me, because there are quite a few blind and visually impaired people living in and around Galway city. So where were they? Perhaps, many people who would benefit from AD do not know that it even exists or are not aware which shows are audio described. While the information was widely distributed within the disabled community, it did not appear in mainstream print and online publications. Consequently, nobody in the local arts and theatre community knew about it. Often programme brochures are printed before all details concerning the AD are finalised. Nevertheless, AD should not be regarded as special feature for minority groups of little interest to the general public. Even if the majority of audience members will not use it, they may know someone who would benefit from it and spread the word.

Getting to the venue, especially from county Galway may also be an obstacle, but I have already written about the difficulties visually impaired public transport users encounter on a daily basis elsewhere.

Patrons with disabilities too are paying customers and – like all public sectors – culture and entertainment facilities should be as inclusive and accessible to everyone. Therefore it is essential that culture, media and government organisations establish effective networks with disability advocacy groups to inform the public. On the other hand, people with disabilities should try to avail themselves of AD and similar offers, because if they are not used they eventually will no longer be available.

According to their website:

WillFredd’s work engages with contemporary culture, actively inviting new audiences into the theatre. Through ethical encounters between artists and communities of place, space and interest, the company develop theatre which responds to and represents y elements of these communities.

By developing CARE together with real-life hospice staff and by providing audio description and subtitles to the performance, they certainly fulfilled their objectives. Thanks for considering my special needs as an audience member. I would also like to thank the Arts & Disability Ireland team and the staff of the Town Hall Theatre for an amazing, inclusive night out.

You can still see CARE audiodescribed and captioned in the Pavilion Theatre Dun Laoghaire on May 21st. The next accessible show in the Galway Town Hall is The Plough and The Stars on May 26nd.


Directed by Sophie Motley
Designed by Sarah Jane Shiels
Produced by Kate Ferris
Sound and Music by Jack Cawley and Sean Mac Erlaine
Choreography by Emma O’Kane
Costume Design by Sarah Bacon
Performed by Jack Cawley, Sonya Kelly, Sean Mac Erlaine, Eleanor Methven and Shane O’Reilly


WillFredd Theatre Company

Arts & Disability Ireland

Photo by Marcin Lewandowski: L-R: characters Marie Ruane, John Doran, Paul Curley, Maaike van der Linde

all quotes are taken from http://willfredd.com/

Read my review of last year’s Abbey Theatre production of Marina Carr’s By the Bog of Cats


Comics Empower – Audio Described Comic Books

Cover of the comic book Wynter

Comics Empower, an online comic store for the blind and visually impaired, makes comics accessible to readers who cannot see them. This includes giving people who have lost their sight, back the pleasure of enjoying a comic without needing someone to read it aloud to them.

Comics are the most visual literary genre I can think of. I remember trying to read them with a giant magnifying glass back in my school days. However, I couldn’t share my sighted friend’s enthusiasm. I never saw the illustrations as a whole, because only a segment of the picture was visible in the magnifier and I had to move it around all the time. If they were printed in a fancy font, I couldn’t even read the speech bubbles. From that time on, I was more interested in audio and later electronic books, where I can imagine all the action in my mind. Thanks to many amazing people I meat through this blog, I now know that blind people can be brilliant visual artists and photographers, so when I heard about Comics Empower, I decided to give Comics another try.

How it Works

To Guy Hasson, the initiator of the project “comics are not a visual medium, they’re a storytelling medium. I’ve always been a writer, and at the very origin I come from prose. And in prose, I can make you see anything and feel anything. So it was easy for me, to translate the visual pictures (called panels) into the story behind it”.

An audio described comic is a bit like a mixture between audio described films and our photo descriptions: a sequence of actions is presented in a series of separate and static pictures. Not only the speech bubbles, but also pages, panels, and texts are described in a way that doesn’t break the rhythm of the story. The description focuses on the plot, without slowing down action and suspense. For example colour and style of the pictures are only described if they fulfil an essential function in the storyline.

Twenty-two to twenty-four pages of comics are translated into thirty to thirty five minutes of audio recordings. Readings also include the letters pages, where the editors, writers, or publishers interact with the readers. In one letter a blind reader tells how he talked with a sighted friend about a comic and was told by this friend that he knows the comic almost too well.

The Story behind the Project

Guy writes texts for film, theatre and science fiction for more than twenty years now. He started the Comics Empower campaign to give real people the opportunity to tell their own stories. He talked to more than a hundred interviewees about their personal experiences with Comic books and heard lots of amazing stories, how people were empowered and encouraged by their favourite heroes. Naturally, the participants were inspired by heroes who resembled themselves. Black kids growing up in a white neighbourhood in America identified with black heroes, lesbians with a lesbian version of Cat Woman and so on. Guy realized how important these fictional characters are in many people’s lives. They are models of strength and kindness and remind us of how much we can achieve even in difficult situations.

Aurora – A Comic about a Blind Hero

But there are almost no heroes with a physical impairment, never mind a blind one. To fill that gap, Guy wrote Aurora, a comic that is published in the audio described version before it is reworked into a conventional comic. Every month a new episode goes for sale in the Comics Empower online-store. Here’s what Guy says about the main character:

Daniel Price was blinded in battle. Yet he is the only man who can save Earth, the only man who can activate an ancient robot fighting machine, called Aurora. He can no longer fly it properly, since he can’t see. And he can’t aim properly for the same reason. But the Aurora is the only weapon who will save the Earth. Daniel will just have to find a way to be a hero.

Unlike Daredevil, one of the few other blind heroes who recently made the news, Daniel has no supernatural sixth sense. Like most real blind people, he will never get his sight back; he has to adapt to his new situation. Daniel is here to show blind and visually impaired children and adults, that they can be super-heroes in their own ways too.

Getting Started

If you’re a complete newcomer to comics, have a look at the free First Timer’s Ultimate Guide to Comics to get started. It will tell you what to expect from an audio comic and how the reading experience differs from that of sighted readers. So far all customers of audio comics are blind, because sighted comic fans still haven’t overcome the blockage in their minds, that comics are exclusively visual. Guy hopes, that eventually, audio comics become more widely popular as Audio books did already.

Writing Competition

For those of you who always wanted to publish their own stories, Comics Empower are hosting a competition for blind and visually impaired comic writers at the moment. Check out the rules here and discover the super-hero in you!

 Twitter @ComicsEmpower




By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr with Audio Description

I went to see a performance of By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin. I’ve seen audio described films before, but I was curious what the AD in a theatre would be like. In most conventional plays there is much more dialogue than in films, consequently the need for additional comments may be less. Additionally the actors don’t leave the stage and although changes in the setting are indicated by props and stage design, there is less to describe compared to a film set where the actors actually move to different places, although what is to see on a theatre stage often has a greater symbolic importance.

On the other hand, I’ve been to modern plays where a lot of the action and emotions were conveyed by movement and body language. Because of that and because it’s more fun to talk with someone about the performance afterwards, I usually go with a friend who can describe setting and costumes to me and can give some explanations, if necessary.

The play

Set within a small rural community living at the edge of a bog in county Offaly, By the Bog of Cats contains all the essential ingredients of a traditional Irish tale: family feuds, ghosts, ambitions to gain more land through an arranged marriage, eviction, a horrific tragedy and some humour in between to lighten the mood. Being an unmarried mother and a more or less settled traveller, the main character Hester Swane also embodies current social issues.

Carthage Kilbride built Hester and their daughter Josie a house so that the child would have a “normal” settled life, but now he wants to move up the social ladder* and agrees to marry Caroline Casey the young and rather naïve daughter of a better-off farmer. Consequently, he tries to persuade Hester to leave, but she refuses, despite several warnings from the other world delivered by an American-Western-Style Ghost fancier and the blind Catwoman who has a passion for raw mice and the parish priest. Shadows from the past, her overwhelming love for her daughter and the man who left her, her pride and her rage drive Hester to take extreme steps. A captivating play with powerful acting.

The performance was followed by a Q&A session where the actors talked about their approach to their characters and the play in general.

The audio description

The staff at the Abbey was very helpful and we were allowed to take our seats before everyone else. The audio device comes with headphones and is very simple to use. It is like one of the audio sets handed out in museums as audio guides. All the user has to do is turn it on and off and change the volume.

The audio description was performed live by a woman with a pleasant voice. She briefly described the setting before the play started. Describing the beginning of the play must have been quite difficult, because in addition to what was happening onstage short video clip flashbacks of Hester’s live were projected onto the wall behind the actors. Some scenes were accompanied by suitable atmospheric music. However, even with two ear pieces I had to turn the volume right up at these moments, only to quickly turn it down again when the music stopped.

In my opinion the audio description was extremely professional and exactly timed. The voice in my ear never talked into the dialogue and never gave too much away or interpreted more than necessary. Generally, the sound was clear; only once or twice I heard background noises.

Because the timing and length of the commentary is so important in a live performance, the audio describer is in some way part of the performance; for the visually impaired it is an integral part of the theatrical experience.

I would have understood the play without audio description, but it certainly told me details I would have missed without it and made it easier to follow the plot. I’d like to use this opportunity to encourage more blind and visually impaired people to avail of audio described performances to show the people who make it possible that we appreciate their efforts and of course it’s a great day or night out.

Several plays are performed with audio description and subtitles at the Abbey Theatre throughout the year; as far as I know unfortunately always for one performance only. So if you’re interested keep an eye on the programme. However, productions at the Abbey are always worth a visit even without audio description.