Descriptive Gillian raises awareness of blind theatre

Gillian Stanley who provides voice description services at Sheffield theatres
Gillian Stanley who provides voice description services at Sheffield theatres

They carry out a vital role, helping blind and partially-sighted people follow live drama at Sheffield theatres.

But for audio describers such as Gillian Stanley, while the task is rewarding, it can sometimes also prove frustrating.

Gillian’s role involves providing carefully-worded narration to complement actors’ dialogue, conveying the performers’ actions and demeanour.

However, the former teacher and caterer, who has been an audio describer for around two decades, said performances for the blind at the Crucible and Lyceum can be hampered by low attendances - and said she wanted to raise awareness of the events to raise numbers.

“On average we describe to about seven or eight people - very occasionally, usually for unsuitable plays, we don’t get anybody. The maximum number we’ve had is 15.

“It’s down to a combination of factors, but we do suffer from a lack of publicity. If ever I’m at the theatre and I see somebody with a white stick, I always approach them and say ‘Are you aware there’s an audio description service?’

“Often they say ‘What’s that?’ Or some people confuse us with sign language. It’s an awful shame that disabled people are denied a pleasure that they could enjoy. It’s an extremely rewarding job.”

Gillian, aged 70, from Ranmoor, taught home economics at Tapton School until 1989, then spent time running her own catering business.

The married mother of two - and grandmother of five - also once indulged her ‘passion for drama’ by treading the boards herself with the Hallam and Ecclesall theatre companies.

“I went to an open day at the Crucible about 20 years ago, and they had stalls all around Tudor Square.

“One was for audio describers and I thought, ‘This looks like my cup of tea’,” said Gillian, who is one of seven audio describers at Sheffield Theatres.

“If it’s a touring company’s show, we go to the first performance, and if it’s an in-house production we can go several times.

“Then we receive a script and a programme, which I go through the following day and mark it where I think it’s important to put in some description.

“We try to give the blind person as much information as a sighted person can have, without giving the plot away, and we try to keep the commentary varied, so instead of saying someone walked out of a room, we’d say they strode out, for example.”

Gillian said that audio described theatre can be just as entertaining as the experience someone with full eyesight might have - but some productions are more of a challenge than others.

“Two of my colleagues described The 39 Steps recently - it was an up-to-date spoof version, and very fast-moving. The Full Monty was another interesting one! Also things can go wrong in live theatre, which keeps you on your toes.”

n Call Sheffield Theatres on 0114 249 6000 for more information about the audio described performances.