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Telling While Showing: New Audio Description Services from Jess Curtis/Gravity

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Hien Hyunh dances in an audio-described production of Deborah Slater's Solos Lost and Found at SFIAF. (Deborah Slater)

When I get to the Fort Mason Fire House early on a Sunday evening in June, the wind is already rolling off the bay and buffeting my bicycle like a bumper car.

I’m here to take a preshow haptic tour of Deborah Slater’s Solos Lost and Found, a choreographed work that’s part of the San Francisco International Arts Festival. It’s a revival of some of Slater’s classic pieces, celebrating her company’s 30-year anniversary, but what draws me to this particular performance is a new audio description service by Jess Curtis/Gravity, an experiential dance company with a history of accessibility activism and programming,

While audio description for the visually impaired is not a wholly unknown service in the Bay Area (a San Jose-based organization, AudioVision, frequently describes shows for both SHN and the Curran Theatres in San Francisco), it hasn’t much penetrated the strata of smaller and more experimental theater and dance companies. Jess Curtis wants to change that.

‘Standard Practice’

Over the years, Curtis has created much of his work with an emphasis on access and accessibility. But even he hadn’t wholly considered the importance of audio description for the visually impaired until working with disabled dancer Claire Cunningham on their collaborative The Way You Look (at me) Tonight in the UK.

Claire Cunningham and Jess Curtis perform in ‘The Way You Look (at me) Tonight.’ (Sven Hagolani)

“In the UK it’s standard practice,” Curtis mentions to me, speaking from Berlin via Skype. “Almost any publicly funded theater there will have audio description, and sign language interpretation, and what they call ‘relaxed’ performances—a whole range of accommodation.” He attributes these standard practices to his observation that disability rights activism in the UK appears to be a “lot more advanced” than in other places, including the Bay Area.

Claire Cunningham performs in ‘The Way You Look (at me) Tonight.’ (Robbie Sweeny)

As a body-based artist, Curtis’ exploration of the relationship between artist and audience bodies is a fundamental part of his practice. So for him, describing said bodies so that the visually impaired can follow the action is a logical continuation of his work. In the piece he’s currently creating in Berlin, (in)Visible, he incorporates audio description into the piece organically, with input from visually impaired performers and consultants such as UC Berkeley’s Georgina Kleege and nationally recognized access activist Tiffany Taylor.


Kleege points to Curtis’ emphases on multi-sensory perception and accommodation as one of her main motivations for consulting on the project, as well as his performances. Through Gravity, she hopes to help foster a growing awareness of accessibility for all—and not just in the larger theaters. In fact, with a grant from the Haas Foundation, Curtis’ company can offer other Bay Area companies the opportunity to host audio description services at their shows for a reduced cost through the end of 2019.

Kerry Mehling featured as “Grace” in an audio-described production of Deborah Slater’s Solos Lost and Found at SFIAF. (Deborah Slater)

For Solos Lost and Found, we huddle onstage together; describers, describees, and described—to. A haptic tour is a multisensory experience; the performers are all careful to describe themselves to us in detail—haircolor, skin color, body build, and attire. We’re then invited to touch and manipulate a pile of woolen blankets, a small, fabric coated, wedge-shaped tabletop, a long wooden staff, and performer Hien Huynh, as he does an armless headstand on the tabletop. Finally, we’re all fitted with headsets through which we’ll get our audio description during the show.

Audio Description headsets used by Jess Curtis/Gravity. (Courtesy of Jess Curtis/Gravity)

How Does it Work?

Much of Slater’s work is scored with spoken text as well as music, which means that the describer—in this case Stephanie Hewett—can’t talk over the description. For a dance piece, having to wait long seconds, even minutes, between a description of the action, gives the description a disjointed feel. Fortunately, the spoken text of Slater’s piece is sufficiently evocative of mood that I get a feeling for the storyline and emotion, even with my eyes closed. Ultimately though, as a fully sighted person, I’m aware that I can only guess at the overall efficacy of the description. Fortunately, there are also two folks with low vision in attendance, and after the performance, we convene with Hewett, and program director India Davis, to offer our feedback.

The two visually impaired folks auditioning the audio description service at Solos Lost and Found are Mike Berger and Alicia Connor. Mike, who happens to be Slater’s husband, has seen the work before while fully sighted, so for him the frustrations with the description lay in the details. What expressions did the performers make? Why did the audience laugh at a certain moment? Could there have been a way to make the description more interpretive without placing value judgments on the piece?

The second descriptee, Alicia Conner, a nutritionist and an advocate for the LightHouse for the Blind and Visually Impaired, described herself as low-vision, but still very visual. The description didn’t always work, she says, but she felt having it helped to enhance her experience overall. She, too, was frustrated at having missed the same motivation for laughter that Mike had, but they both expressed optimism for the development of the service. Everyone’s conclusion is that it’s a program we’re eager to see continue developing.

Meegan Hertensteiner dances in an audio-described production of Deborah Slater’s Solos Lost and Found at SFIAF. (Deborah Slater)

For Slater, the process of working with the audio description component was completely new, and while she, too, feels there are still things that could be improved about the service—more time for the describers to familiarize themselves with the piece, more ways to describe the emotional rather than the strictly physical content—she’s hopeful that in the future it might help Mike, and others, experience new works of hers that he isn’t already familiar with.

“It’s really cool that Jess is taking this on,” she emphasizes. “It’s an art form in itself, to transform what you’re seeing into meaningful text.”

Gravity Audio Description Services will be available next at Into the Woods, presented at the Woodminster Ampitheatre in Oakland, Sept. 5.


(in)Visible will receive its U.S. Premiere at CounterPulse in San Francisco, runnning Oct. 3-13.

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