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International Recognition For Audio Described Aotearoa

Auckland company Audio Described Aotearoa has received international recognition for its efforts in providing audio description for blind and low vision arts patrons, particularly during New Zealand’s COVID-19 lockdown.

Shaun James Kelly and Kirby Selchow in the RNZB ballet, Hansel and Gretel Photo: Stephen A'Court

At its 2020 Achievement Awards in Audio Description, the American Council of the Blind presented eight awards to individuals and organisations for their outstanding contributions to the establishment and development of significant audio description programmes.

Audio Described Aotearoa was presented the Special Recognition Achievement Award – International for its collaboration with the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB), resulting in more than 1500 people around the world tuning into four audio described online ballets: Hansel and Gretel, Passchendale, Dear Horizon, and Romeo and Juliet.

When RNZB announced in April that it would be livestreaming videos of previous productions, Audio Described Aotearoa saw an opportunity to include blind patrons in the audience.

The two companies had already worked together and so when Nicola Owen and Paul Brown, co-directors of Audio Described Aotearoa, contacted RNZB and asked if it could include an audio described option of the ballet videos, the answer was a resounding “Yes, why not?” by Pascale Parenteau, Education, Community and Accessibility Manager at the national ballet company.

Nicola recalls how “everything stopped” in March with the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the lockdown. Organisations started to cancel their audio described performances as they shut their doors.

But like many organisations, Nicola and Paul started to think outside the box and explore what was possible. “We were successful in our application to the Government’s Wage Subsidy Scheme, which meant we were able to keep going – at least for a while.”

The big challenge, she says, is where the ongoing funding will come from to maintain and develop these accessibility opportunities.

Nicola, whose partner Paul Brown is blind, started audio describing events in 2011 for Auckland Live. As the demand grew, they formed Audio Described Aotearoa in 2014. Among her first and regular clients are Tim Bray Theatre Company and the Auckland Arts Festival.

Now, they contract up to ten audio describers around the country to provide high-quality audio description for a range of events and tours.

“A lot of people in the disabled community are used to not getting out much and It feels as though online resources and events such as these audio described online performances are a great way to increase access to ballet and other artforms,” Nicola says. “After things go back to normal, it would be great if we all remember what we’ve learned through this crisis.”

Last year, RNZB’s national tour of Hansel and Gretel included three audio described matinees in schools and four public audio described performances. More than 200 blind and low vision patrons attended these performances.

“That was pretty amazing,” Nicola says. “Blind people are often surprised that ballet is an artform they can enjoy. People in their sixties who had never been to ballet said they were blown away by the description and how beautiful it was.

“There’s a sense of wonder that something that has been so inaccessible has now become accessible.

“People love the touch tours before the show but even without the tours in this new, online world, they are still experiencing that same sense of wonder.”

Another highlight over the past year was the first bilingual (te reo Māori and English) audio described performance of the play Kuia me te Pūngāwerewere. This was presented by Taki Rua Productions to students at BLENNZ (Blind and Low Vision Education Network NZ) Homai Campus in partnership with the Auckland Arts Festival and Kāpō Māori Aotearoa.

In 2019, Audio Described Aotearoa provided audio description for the English National Ballet’s Giselle as part of the Auckland Arts Festival and made the audio description scripts available for the ballet to use for subsequent overseas tours.

And in 2020, it encouraged the Auckland Arts Festival to purchase the audio description script for the ballet Snow White to recognise the work of Will McRostie of Description Victoria in Australia and further promote international collaboration between audio describers.

The company has introduced audio description for opera, chamber music, children’s theatre, contemporary dance, civic events, and gallery and museum tours.

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