The Art of Making and Breaking Silence: Thoughts from Theatre Audio Describers

Until I started doing ethnography and “thick description” became a necessity, I had scarcely known silence in my everyday life. Yet as a blind anthropologist, my researcher’s gaze, or lack of, fell time and again upon the unsaid. Things that I could not see and did not hear spoken of, be they people’s bodies and faces, architecture, or features of landscapes, became the silences that I had to crack.

The heroes of my fieldwork, theatre audio describers, are experts at breaking silence. They do this while preparing and delivering verbal descriptions for sight-impaired audiences, who would otherwise risk “missing out” on the visual detail of a production. Much like my initial experiences of ethnography, visually-impaired theatre-goers are told that their reduced vision means they will confront many unfathomable silences on stage which they will struggle to fill independently.

Of course, my acute awareness of silence in the field may be the result of internalising similar ablest assumptions, suggesting that my body was not and could not be properly attuned to the demands of fieldwork practice. Having been taught and idealised the canonical texts of Social Anthropology, along with their visual detail, I could not help but view my field notes as woefully incomplete and my methodology to be inadequate.

Frustrated with myself and determined to fill these silences, I tentatively turned to my informants for their descriptions of the visual phenomena we came across- inside and outside theatre. I asked questions I would not normally ask in my daily life, broaching topics I had rarely heard discussed out loud. While those around me were already accustomed, through their job, to describing architecture or performers’ attire and body language, they seemed much more reluctant to elaborate on someone’s skin colour. These otherwise precise and highly descriptive theatre professionals skirted around words like “brown” and “black”, preferring to use vaguer alternatives like “dark skin complexion”. Whereas I had initially been frustrated by silences, I soon enjoyed hunting them down, using silence as guide to find more aspects of the social life surrounding theatre which were only seen and not heard.

One audio describer I met, Megan (not her own name), reminds me that articulating certain things out loud can take you out of your comfort zone. She laughs as she remarks: “I have felt uneasy when describing sexual or violent content. This is when I am grateful that I am sitting off to the side of the theatre in a booth, as being removed from the main auditorium helps me distance myself from it all”.

Another describer, Francesca (also not her own name), laments how some colleagues let their own discomfort and need for political correctness get the better of them, calling what are evidently violent sexual encounters “making love”, for example. “Not only is this paternalistic, but it could also damage the vital trust that visually-impaired listeners have for audio describers”.

It is hardly surprising that describers feel uncomfortable in these contexts. The act of voicing something, in both colloquial and academic understandings, has been recognised as deeply agentive and therefore personal. Although I have never asked my informants to describe sexual behaviour, talking with Megan and Francesca helped me realise that any request to verbalise the ‘seen and not heard’ may demand informants to risk disrupting certain boundaries and hence needs a firm groundwork of trust both ways. Where it is not feasible to provide a booth or appeal to their morals to be honest, I knew I had to devise other strategies to create and maintain this connection. All ethnographers who want to know anything from their informants must surely build up a strong rapport. However, I learned that those who may rely on informants to break silences more frequently will need this relationship to begin as early as possible and last for all of the fieldwork.

As much as Audio Description seeks to fill silences, it is actually the art of staying silent. Audio Description must be inserted between actors’ lines and, most crucially, should remain mute during dialogue. This can be difficult in a play with extensive dialogue, and so some ruthless decisions have to be made about what stays and goes from the Audio Description script. If the production includes valuable sound cues, describers don’t speak but leave visually-impaired audiences to use these when making their inferences about action. A thunder clap, ringing doorbell, or animated party are thought to be self-explanatory and effective enough. If the Director has opted for minimalist sets that deliberately leave much to audiences’ imagination, describers would avoid calling out specific rooms but elaborate on the furniture and backdrop used, hoping to give their visually-impaired listeners the same invitation to wonder.

Francesca suggests that it’s “terrible” for audio describers to make interpretations for their listeners, because it deprives blind and partially-sighted people of the subjective, independent theatre experience they signed up for. Indeed, like visually-impaired theatre-goers, the silences arising from my sight loss have forced me to consciously develop and attune other sensory tools to immerse myself in the worlds presented to me. No fieldwork can be independent, but I agree that encountering a unique kind of silence has caused me to search inwards for solutions, discovering my individual experiences, ideas and potential contributions. Silence, in short, has made me a better ethnographer.

Harshadha Balasubramanian graduated from the University of Cambridge in 2016, having specialised in Social Anthropology. She is currently working as an independent scholar before pursuing graduate studies.