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Making theatre more inclusive

For more than 25 years, Charles Wiltshire (BEd Learning Difficulties, 1986) has worked in theatres as an audio describer. Here, he explains how he found this career path and why it means so much to him.

What did you study at Warwick?
I began my 40-year career as a teacher in mainstream education, then came to Warwick to do a Bachelor of Education (BEd) in Learning Difficulties so I could work with children who have additional needs. I had a great year at Warwick. Being based on the Coundon site, I made full use of the athletics track and sporting facilities. I worked in both mainstream and Special Educational Needs (SEN) schools around Coventry as part of a team of teachers of the visually impaired.

What is audio describing and how did you get into it?
In a theatre, it’s the process of describing via headset what is happening on stage for people in the audience who are visually impaired. In 1996, I saw an advert in the Coventry Evening Telegraph for audio describers at the Belgrade Theatre while I was doing a course at the University of Birmingham to teach the visually impaired. I went along with a friend, and we were chosen as volunteers. A few years later, it turned into a paid role because of changes required following the Disability Discrimination Act.

By the time I retired from teaching and moved to Poole with my wife ten years ago, I’d worked on about 100 shows. I then carried on audio describing at the Mayflower in Southampton, where I’ve just worked on The Lion King, and I am booked in to do four pantomime shows at Christmas.

I’ve also worked at Salisbury Playhouse (which is close to various military bases and many people who attend have lost their sight in the course of duty) and at Newbury Water Mill. It’s the most magical theatre I’ve ever been to.

It's not only theatre that you can audio describe – I’ve described photos for Bournemouth University, pictures for Herbert Art Gallery, and plays at Christmas in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral.

Can you tell us a bit more about how the process works?
I usually get the script in advance and go and see the show so I can start to prepare what I’m going to say and when I can fit it in around the dialogue. Sometimes, we do a “touch tour”, where the people we are describing to can go onto the stage, feel the props, and get to know the cast if they’re around. We used to do this with the visually impaired children I worked with, and it was amazing to make the theatre accessible to them at such a young age.

I start to audio describe about 20 minutes before the show begins, working from a booth at the back. I tell people how long the show will be, whether there will be any loud noises, and describe the cast and the set. I have to try to find a gap in the dialogue to describe what’s happening on stage, but the cast often change the script slightly so it can be challenging!

If it’s a musical, I also have to try hard not to join in with the singing!

What do you enjoy most about it?
Audio describing has been a fantastic experience as I feel like I’m doing something really useful and have met some incredible people. I feel so lucky to still be doing this and can’t believe I get paid for doing something I love.

There’s a real need for audio describing because the theatre experience is such a pleasure and should be available to everyone. It’s brilliant to see that the profile of sign language has increased greatly in recent times, and it would be great to see the same happen with audio describing.