Describing Dances: Increasing Access for Blind and Visually Impaired Audiences

By Jess Curtis


with Tiffany Taylor and Georgina Kleege

In 2016, during the development of a duet I created and continue to perform with noted Scottish disabled artist Claire Cunningham, The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, Claire and I had the opportunity to work with noted Scottish audio describer Emma-Jayne McHenry and a variety of Blind and Visually Impaired (BVI), and Deaf artists and audience members—both locally and internationally—to develop access accommodations for our piece. Our goal was to make the work accessible and engaging to people with diverse sensory modalities. These ‘access practices’—including Audio Description (AD), Haptic Access Tours, accessible program materials, and Sign Language interpretation—are quite well-developed and offered regularly at theater and performance venues in the UK and it is a standing policy of Claire’s that all of her work includes these access practices.

Audio Description provides access to the visual elements—action, costumes, settings, gestures, facial expressions, objects and other visually communicative elements – of theater, dance or live art performances, film screenings or museum exhibitions. Almost any event that has a meaningful visual component can be made more accessible thru AD. AD is usually a live audio track spoken by a professional Audio Describer to patrons with visual impairments through a wireless headset system, but the service may also be pre-recorded if appropriate.

Haptic Access Tours are live pre-show tours that allow patrons to haptically (thru touch, their own movement, hearing and kinesthetic senses) experience the space, performers, costumes and objects in addition to key movement elements in the performance. Usually lasting 20 to 30 minutes and ending 30 minutes before house opening, these tours lay a multi-sensory foundation to support the audio description service and are intended to focus on access for patrons with visual impairments.

For The Way You Look (at me) Tonight—with the support of a grant from the California Arts Council—Gravity bought a wireless headset system to deliver a synchronized pre-recorded audio description track for the work; sadly, as we were reaching out to let people from BVI communities in the Bay Area know that these services would be available, it became painfully clear that these practices are almost entirely unheard of in Bay Area performance circles (and in fact, in America in general). Since the premiere of The Way You Look (at me) Tonight, Gravity has toured extensively with our AD system, gaining experience in providing these services to audiences nationally and internationally. More recently, we have also begun using the system to deliver live audio descriptions at our annual home seasons. In the process we have developed partnerships with LightHouse for the Blind in San Francisco and Hatlen Center for the Blind in San Pablo; both organizations have brought groups of audience members to Gravity’s shows in the last two years. Through this process Gravity began developing knowledge and connections around these practices and several organizations and artists started asking us for advice and referrals to make their own work more accessible.

In response to these inquiries, Gravity began to assess the feasibility of using our equipment and expertise to provide affordable Audio Description and related access services for other local artists and venues. We engaged blind actor/activist and access specialist Tiffany Taylor as an associate to help us design the program, shape our access practice offerings, reach out to Bay Area BVI service organizations, and to provide assessments for artists and venues who wish to make their PR and marketing materials more accessible to individuals of diverse sensory modalities.

The pilot program of what has become Gravity Access Services began in 2018 when we provided AD services for San Francisco performances by AXIS Dance Company and The Imaginists experimental theater company at Z Space; Wax Poet(s) dance company at CounterPulse; and Keith Hennessy’s Sink at Joe Goode Annex. With Tiffany’s help we were able to organize BVI test-audiences whose reviews have been really encouraging. We also anticipate having the opportunity to be commissioned directly by other BVI service organizations, such as Lighthouse, to provide audio description for events that their constituents want to attend.

Gravity Access Services now offers services, consultations and referrals to help other artists and venues provide access accommodation for live performances of all kinds in the Bay Area. Currently our main focus is around educating and introducing AD as a practice. While there are many amazing Sign Language Interpreters available and working on the scene (and we’ll be happy to refer you to them) we have found that currently Gravity is uniquely positioned with the information, experience, and equipment necessary to begin providing audio description by our team of working actors/dancers, and other extra-visual access services to a wide range of Bay Area artists and venues.

Sensory Equity

According to the National Federation of the Blind, there are over 797,000 Blind or Visually-Impaired adults resident in California. A recent survey of local venues for live performance showed that in all of 2018, other than my company Gravity’s five accessible presentations, only six Bay Area theatrical presentations provided access accommodations for Blind or Visually Impaired audiences. These six were limited to matinees of for-profit touring Broadway shows at large commercial venues in San Francisco.

As a sector, American performing arts has largely failed people with visual impairments. Among the hundreds of performances presented in San Francisco, there is currently not even one show per month with audio description available. This unjust exclusion of people with visual impairments has two key contributing factors: 1) Many cultural organizations are not even aware of audio description as an accessibility practice; in our discussions with local colleagues and US presenters, most have had zero exposure to the practice. 2) While one company in San Jose provides occasional AD services for large commercial theaters in San Francisco (e.g., the Orpheum, Curran, and Golden Gate Theaters), there are no local organizations advocating for or providing audio description services for nonprofit venues: not even larger ones such as A.C.T. or Berkeley Rep, let alone smaller, more experimental venues like ODC Theater, CounterPulse, or Dance Mission.

Given the lack of audio description services and the exclusion this creates, many people with visual impairment simply do not think live performance will be accessible for them. We are hoping that Gravity Access Services will enable people with visual impairments to have broader and deeper experiences of the performing arts.

I’ve asked two of my current collaborators, Tiffany Taylor and Georgina Kleege to share their thoughts on the experience of Audio Description for live performance. Both of them are active as consultants and advocates for Access Accommodations and write from the first-hand lived experience of being blind. Tiffany is an actor and is one of the performers in Gravity’s new work (in)Visible. She also teaches Braille and independent living skills at the Hatlen Center for the Blind in San Pablo and is an access consultant testing new digital products to assess their accessibility. Georgina has written several books on blindness including her most recent More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art. She is a professor in the English Department at UC Berkeley and is collaborating as an advisor on (in)Visible as well.

Tiffany Taylor:

I have always had an interest in dance and have a background in theatre and music so when I attended The Way you Look (at me) Tonight I was thrilled to see they were offering audio description, braille programs and a haptic access tour. This was the first time I felt fully included and welcomed to a dance performance. Having the opportunity to work with Gravity as an Access Consultant for various venues to help with their PR, web access and outreach to blind organizations was something I didn’t know was even possible. As a performer who is visually impaired myself I know firsthand how meaningful it is to have the opportunity to attend live performance and how moving and enriching it can be with these access considerations built into the show.

One of the most memorable experiences for me when working with Gravity was bringing my visually impaired friends to the Imaginists’ show The Magic Circle Cycle at Z Space. The artists and venue were so enthusiastic about having audio description and a haptic access tour that it made me very excited to see their production. I felt very welcome and that my experience was valid and very appreciated. This show worked wonderfully with audio description and haptic tour. The combination of dance, music and acting paired with the description really made a difference. As this show used many props, unique costumes and set pieces there was much to feel and take in through the haptic tour.

The best part was experiencing the reactions of my friends who were blind who had never been to a show with audio description before and how excited they were to find out what would happen next as the show progressed. We were not just sitting there wondering what the heck was going on or what was the point of sitting through a dance show with no idea what was happening or what it meant. We were fully included in the experience. We were able to take away so much more from this production thanks to the access accommodations and the type of performance. Having the cast ask our thoughts and opinions about the production was a great experience because we could learn from the performers as well as educate them. They could learn from us and see how enthusiastic we were about their show because they took the time to make the show accessible.

Access isn’t just an afterthought or a box checked. It is about education and collaboration between those of us with disabilities and persons who are not disabled. Persons with disabilities are so often excluded from live performance and we are rarely asked our thoughts. We have so much to add based on experiencing the world through a disabled lens. This can add so much to the arts if we are given the chance to make our voices heard and included through access.

Georgina Kleege:

It’s important to think more expansively about the blind and visually impaired audience. The vast majority of BVI people in the US, UK, Europe etc. are people who used to be fully sighted. Many of these people retain visual memory, and so if they enjoyed dance performance in the past, they may be able to activate those memories listening to AD. Also, many BVI people have some residual vision, so AD can enable them to make sense of incomplete visual experience while in a dance performance. Moreover, even people who were born totally blind grow up and live in visual culture. They may know a lot about visual experience simply from hearing or reading about it in the course of daily life.

I have some training in dance and other movement practices. I know what it’s like to move around a stage, to partner with other people moving around a stage and so forth. If I know something about the choreography being performed it helps me make sense of sounds that might be coming from the stage—the dancers’ breathing, footsteps, etc. When someone describes movement to me, especially if the movement is slow, it can feel like a set of instructions, and so I feel it in my “mind’s body” even if I’m not literally replicating the movement in my actual body.

The pre-show [Haptic] tours [like those for AXIS Dance Company and Keith Hennessy’s shows] can be really valuable. I enjoy moving around the stage and having the opportunity to touch whatever props or costumes are available. It can also function as a sort of preview of the action to come, which theoretically makes the job easier for the describer. If the audience has some advance knowledge of costumes, props, or specific sequences of movement, the describer can briefly refer back to the pre-show tour and so can be freer to focus on more specific details while the performance is in progress.

To all this I’d add that the exciting virtue of the Gravity Access Service is that the describer (you) is himself a dancer/choreographer. Sometimes it seems that people in access services believe that the only qualification required to describe something to BVI people is eyesight. This is not true in museums where the people who provide access tours are part of the art education department. Most have some background in art history, and I’ve found that many also have their own art practice. So they bring all that expertise with them when they describe a work of art. In a dance context, I’d much rather hear about it from someone who knows what it’s like to perform, if not that particular choreography, presumably something analogous. This does not mean that the describer needs to use dance vocabulary, but I think they should draw on their own experience of the phenomenology of movement.

Artists making their work accessible is a social justice issue: inviting new audiences into dance performance enlarges the culture. Also, there’s some evidence that people who are not blind use AD of movies and TV shows now available from streaming platforms such as Netflix. Apparently, there are sighted people who enjoy listening to media “eyes-free” while doing something else such as driving. Others simply enjoy an added level of comprehension provided by AD. When AD is part of the performance, as opposed to delivered via headset as a segregated accommodation, it could offer different levels of aesthetic appreciation and meaning-making for everyone.

What can you do?

Gravity Access Services is available to offer live Audio Description for your upcoming performance event. We’ve received a generous grant from the Haas Foundation to help spread awareness of AD as a practice in the Bay Area and to subsidize the cost of 20 evenings of Audio description in 2019. As part of our service, Tiffany will also assess the accessibility of your PR and marketing materials. If you‘d like to make your next performances more accessible we’d be very happy to talk to you.

Learn more:

Tiffany Taylor is an actor and activist based in the Bay Area. She teaches Braille and independent living skills at the Hatlen Center for the Blind in San Pablo and is an access consultant testing new digital products to assess their accessibility. She is a Program Associate at Gravity Access Services.

Georgina Kleege teaches in the English Department at UC Berkeley. Her most recent book is More Than Meets the Eye: What Blindness Brings to Art.

This article appeared in the April 2019 issue of In Dance.

Jess Curtis is an award-winning choreographer and performer committed to an art-making practice informed by experimentation, innovation, critical discourse and social relevance at the intersections of fine art and popular culture. In 2000, Curtis founded his own trans-continental performance company, Jess Curtis/Gravity, based in Berlin and San Francisco. Curtis is active as a writer, advocate and community organizer in the fields of contemporary dance and performance, and teaches accessible Dance, Contact Improvisation and Interdisciplinary Performance courses throughout the US and Europe. He holds an MFA in Choreography and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from the University of California at Davis.