Making Space for Self-Authorship through Audio Description
With Guests H. May and Liz Thomson
Nicolas Shannon Savard: Hello and welcome to Gender Euphoria: The Podcast, a series produced for HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide. I’m your host, Nicolas Shannon Savard. My pronouns are they, them, and theirs. For today’s episode, I am joined by two guests: Dr. Liz Thomson, who’s an educator, a photographer, a disabled, bi, queer, gender-nonconforming Vietnamese adoptee working in higher education predominantly with underrepresented students, faculty, and staff. Liz has taught courses in Asian American gender, sexuality, and disability studies. My second guest, Dr. H. May, is a director, stage manager, devised theatre and filmmaker. They are a professor of theatre at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and the founder of social justice theatre company Mosaic NY, which is how we met. I was in Mosaic NY’s inaugural company when I was a student. We’ll talk more about where our artistic paths have intersected since then when H. is back for a future episode all about queer-trans artistic family trees. They introduced me to theatre for social change, devised performance, solo performance, disability studies, and most relevant for this discussion, audio description. For the past few years, H. has been experimenting with modes of performance that seek to challenge theatre’s primacy of vision in storytelling and with integrating audio description into live performance. H.’s work and thinking around making accessibility a central and aesthetically rich part of the production process was a major influence in how I approached directing J.C. Pankratz’s play Seahorse this spring. In preparation for that project, back in October, I participated in a workshop on writing audio description for performance hosted by the Minneapolis Green Theatre Alliance taught by Liz Thomson. About twenty minutes into Liz’s workshop on critical race theory and disability studies-informed audio description, I had the thought this person needs to meet H. May, and we all need to nerd out together about genderbending queer crip art and creative approaches to universal design.
I am so thrilled to get to introduce these two brilliant and badass educator-artist-activists to one another and to you all listening to this podcast. Without any further ado, here’s our conversation about imagining identity conscious and collaborative and creative approaches to audio description for art and performance.
Rebecca Kling: Gender Euphoria is—
Dillon Yruegas: Bliss.
Siri Gurudev: Freedom to experience—
Dillon: Yeah, bliss.
Siri: Masculinity, femininity, and everything in between—
Azure D. Osborne-Lee: Getting to show up—
Siri: Without any other thought but—
Azure: As your full self.
Siri: My own pleasure.
Rebecca: Gender Euphoria is opening the door to your body and being home.
Dillon: Unabashed bliss.
Joshua Bastian Cole: You can feel it. You can feel the relief—
Azure: Feel safe.
Joshua: And the sense of—
Joshua: Validation and actualization.
Azure: Or sometimes it means—
Rebecca: Being confident in who you are—
Azure: But also to see yourself reflected back.
Rebecca: Or maybe not, but being excited to find out.
Nicolas: I think to start off, because it’s not the most common of practices, it might be useful to talk about: what is audio description for performance, in the first place?
Liz: Sure, yeah. Thanks, Nicolas and H. I’ll go general for audio description, and then we can connect specifically for theatre because more of my continued experience and learning has been more with the visual arts in art gallery settings. Overall, I’d say the general definition for audio description is verbally describing the visual. This is predominantly an accommodation for folks who are blind or have low vision. What really excites me, which I’m sure we’ll talk about more, is that on the more universal design and universal scale, I think it’s just awesome and helpful and effective and creative for everybody. And that’s also why I was so excited then later to work with Nicolas with their work.
Liz: So really, anything and everything could be audio described as well as what is called “alternative text” with social media: the different posts one does, while that’s not verbally audio described, it is written described for folks then who are blind or low vision. So that’s also becoming not only more of a practice, but really, it’s a compliance and it should be then a regular practice that everyone does. More in the theatre world, there also has been a pretty longstanding [practice]—in some areas, in some theatres—around then having audio description, but still not nearly enough.
Nicolas: H., I know you’ve done a bit more audio description for theatre and multimedia film projects.
H. May: Sure. I have been getting more into audio description for theatre, and I think the component there that I have appreciated is the fact that a lot of audiences that aren’t blind or low vision have actually really come up to me afterwards and appreciated being pointed to things that they felt like they wouldn’t have picked up on on their own through the audio description. I am a proponent of trying to embed it in everything rather than just having a performance that blind or low vision people can attend. We can talk later about all of the challenges that I’ve found in doing that, mostly time. But yeah, I think for me, recognizing it as another facet of design rather than simply something there for blind and low vision people to be able to access theatre as close to the same as someone fully sighted.
Nicolas: Liz, in your workshop, you presented an approach to writing audio description that’s informed from that accessibility perspective, but also taking a Critical Race Theory and Critical Disability Studies approach to doing so. Beyond the technical skills, you also asked us to reflect on our own positionality as the person writing and doing the describing and thinking about our knowledge and relationship to the specific cultural context and experience depicted in the show. Is this reflection on positionality and cultural context a typical part of audio describer training?
Liz: Yeah, this is Liz. At least the two workshops that I’ve done—and now I have to preface it that it’s been a few years now—but the ones I’ve experienced and then also just keeping up my own continued education, they haven’t. So, I think that that piece of it is really important because when we, as either the ones writing the text to describe or whoever it is, in parallel to the qualitative research, we’re the instrument. The diversity of human beings and our experiences, as that comes through, I think being just open and transparent… Yes, we all might have biases or even unconscious things going on, but at least if we say our positionality, which is not only our own background, but it’s also then how our background impacts us, then at least folks know going into this. So yeah, I guess the short answer: not that I’ve experienced. But I think it’s still something really important to highlight, especially when more things are being audio described, whether in theatre or movies or at a conference presentation around such diverse social identities: race, ethnicity, disability, gender identity, gender expression.
I picked up, unfortunately, a lot more while watching some different streaming services. Yes, it’s great they have audio description. No, it’s very challenging when they misgender the person, especially when the person is queer and genderqueer and that’s part of their character, and it’s so obvious and clear. So now there’s a whole another layer of not only not describing race, ethnicity, but now it’s also not describing accurately gender identity and gender expression.
Nicolas: H., you have some things to say in response.
The empowering part of when we do those exercises around self-describing is because then we have authorship, we have self-determination, and we have self-agency.
H. May: I do. I’ve only attended one audio description institute and then done some reading about the origins. I need to do much more self-education. I largely have just dived in from the perspective of a director who wants to add that component. But at that institute… I’m chuckling just because we were all asked to self-describe and I think we sent in photos and then we were asked to self-describe as the first activity that we did. I was told that, really, genderqueer was inappropriate or at least unnecessary to self-introduce myself that way. Then there was the additional humor—not really, eye-rolling—for me of them saying that sexuality was not something that one could see. So yeah, anyway, it was a whole lot to unpack. But thinking about the fact that I suppose the traditional method would be more to describe the visual components of how I look that might be read by someone as genderqueer. I’ll just leave it up to the audience to figure that out. And for me, that was really troubling along with similar discussions about when or whether or if race needs to be something that we address or talk about.
I think a lot about how that reflects white supremacist ideas of what is “objective.” And what do we need to notice? And when? And when is it extraneous or superfluous to the story and not something that’s worth commenting on?
Liz: I’m sorry that you experienced that.
H. May: Thank you.
Liz: It just makes me think about… That workshop is being done, most likely, again and again.
H. May: Absolutely.
Liz: I think that that is the empowering part of when we do those exercises around self-describing is because then we have authorship, we have self-determination, and we have self-agency. For someone to tell you, “No, that’s not appropriate,” where someone else is probably going to make a joke about how their hair is usually straight, but they went to the bathroom this morning and showered, all these extraneous things, that that’s okay.
H. May: Yeah, it probably wasn’t. I might be oversimplifying a little. I don’t know that they told me it was “inappropriate,” but “things I should think about,” whether or not that was an important part of the story.
Nicolas: But the subtext is “it’s inappropriate.”
H. May: Yeah, totally. There was a moment that I also pushed back on. We were listening to the way different visual images—so speaking of artwork, this was all visual images of artists. And I no longer remember, I’m sorry to say, my notes do not have who it was or what the context was, but this performer was described as “exotic.” I had said if we’re trying to be really specific and a lot of it being just “be as specific” or “objective” or “give the details and let the hearer draw their own conclusions,” I’m not sure that “exotic” really... It carries a lot of cultural baggage. It carries a lot of white supremacy. And it doesn’t, for me, help me conjure an image. I think the response there was largely, “that’s the way this performer described herself.” Then that also leads me to a question that actually I’d love for us to discuss—if we wind up having time, because I don’t want to hijack your podcast, Nicolas.
When I am working with artists on audio description, I generally let the actors and performers choose how they want to describe themselves. But I think there’s a small tension there sometimes. Or, how do we think about that in terms of then… If I am a director, I’m using those performers; they’re also telling a story that I am telling. And rightfully or wrongfully, I might have cast them based on components that they don’t choose to highlight in how they describe themselves. So then thinking about all of those complicated politics and power, who is doing that choice of which of the bajillion different visual characteristics we could talk about?
Nicolas: Let’s head in that direction because I think it also ties into what you were saying, Liz, about agency and allowing people to identify themselves. Yeah, let’s unpack some of that balance of who gets to be the artist in what moment, and is the audio description part of that?
Liz: Yeah. This is Liz. I think just that balance and just thoughtfulness… and just about time. So, time as a resource. I can imagine in any kind of art form as well as even a conference or a presentation—for a conference presentation, you might only have a ten-minute time limit—and we know typically with accommodations or just trying to be more inclusive and universal design, you need more time. As someone who identifies as disabled as well as just a lot of my friends and close colleagues are in the diverse disability communities, especially during the pandemic and then even before that, clearly, it’s like, “What do people need in the disability communities?” And people say, “Time and space. We need more time and space in order for us to do what we can do fully and our full authentic self and being.” Similar to what I’ve heard about interpretation, with language interpretation, also then including American sign language and then with the audio description, too, you almost need time and a half.
And that’s just for the deployment part of it, let alone everything we just talked about about the research and thinking about ourselves and thinking about how we and actors and other people are interacting with the descriptive text. Yeah, so then I guess just to balance like, okay… I have predominantly worked mostly with students—faculty and staff, too—but if I hear a student use a certain word or language, and especially if it’s about themselves and an identity and maybe it’s something that I haven’t heard for a while, or to me, it might feel a little bit older, I would not at all devalue or discount that word. Maybe after we can build more trust and community and a relationship together, it’s just depending, but I might just ask them very sincerely about word choice or how they’ve come to that identity with that word, especially if it’s a word that for other folks in the current present might be very restimulating and in a negative way.
Some folks using the F-word around sexual orientation. So maybe in the first five minutes, we’re not going to get into that, but hopefully after some trust and other meetings, we might talk about it. Because if we continue to do introductions and things like that, and they use that word for themselves… Yeah, I guess maybe when you might think about the general audience, I am going to think about other students in the room and how to both affirm the person who’s identifying a certain way with a certain word as well as the general room and consciousness.
H. May: This is H., and I think that’s great and so important and that dialogue... I was just thinking for me to ideally, if a student or an actor—I mostly also work with student actors—were not to include in their self-description something that I thought was a important portion of our storytelling, I would probably ask them about a.) why they weren’t including it and b.) if they would be comfortable adding some of that description to how they were self-describing. I think it’s also an important moment for me in those moments, when a student does not include something that for me might be an important part of their identity that I am perceiving from the outside and they are not bringing to it, to sit with that and reflect on why is it that I am bringing that into that space in that moment and just think about unpacking my own power and privilege in those moments as well.
Liz: Yeah. This is Liz. I still sometimes do it, but when I do my own audio description, especially in the beginning, I found that I didn’t say some things, and often the things I didn’t say were my privileged pieces.
H. May: Same. Can’t tell you the number of times I leave out “white” even though I’m very aware that I bring my whiteness in and I usually have a note written there for myself, “please remember to self-describe as white.” And I still forget it far more often than I would care to admit it.
Liz: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Now years ago, but at University of Illinois Chicago (where I worked physically at the gender and sexuality center and then after I finished working there and then was in doctorate program there) but we had a really great conversation with those folks around audio description. And then there’s a whole segment and that’s on SoundCloud around colorism. If and when we then try and do more practice of describing race and ethnicity—and not just the people of color because then whiteness becomes the default—so do you say “dark-skinned person,” “medium-skinned,” “light-skinned” and not the race or ethnicity, and/or do you say Asian American? Because someone might be dark-skinned and one, you might not know their race and ethnicity and/or they could just be dark-skinned. Unfortunately, the training and some of the articles too that I’ve gone to or read, that’s about all they say about that is best practice is “don’t make whiteness a default” and that’s it. I think I’ve added, right, also don’t equate like a mocha latte. Don’t equate skin color and race to food or a drink, milk chocolate, things like that.
But otherwise, I haven’t seen a lot of guidelines around that. We watched a movie that was predominantly Asian American this past weekend. Even though yes, you could read the credits of the actors, things like that, but still in the audio description, they didn’t have anything that these were Asian American characters.
Nicolas: I’m hearing a little bit of a tension of how audio description tends to be practiced as more of like a solo exercise after the fact, someone just writing on their own, versus a lot of the situations that Liz and H. are describing are much more conversational and kind of negotiating what language gets used more in collaboration with the artists doing the describing of themselves. What does it allow us to bring out in the audio description when we do take a more collaborative approach to it and do it in conversation with artists?
Liz: Do you want to go ahead, H.? You probably have more practical experience.
H. May: I can. Though, I’d actually really love to start with Nicolas, your production—
Liz: That’s fine.
H. May: —of Seahorse, which I watched online and I have not been able... I guess before I let you talk, typical former professor, before I let you talk, I was thinking about… that’s an area where time and rehearsal, for me, it’s been really hard to find the time, particularly under an academic model of “X” number of weeks where we’re used to structuring that out and building it on an ableist model with certain things and audio description is never part of that. So trying to build it in, it’s been hard for me to do that live, which is something we can talk about in my work, but I really so appreciated that that was a live component embodied by actors in Seahorse, and I’d love to hear your process.
How do you retrain an actor to hold the inspiration, the spark for their response without lunging right into it?
Nicolas: Yeah. I had a little bit of an advantage with the time because I was directly adapting from the playwright’s stage directions. Got to credit J.C. Pankratz for that. They already contained most of the poetry, so a lot of what I was doing was reimagining. How does this change when there’s an actual person saying them in the room? Kind of playing with that idea of a collaborative storytelling model of audio description where we’re not going to pretend that the actor on stage can’t hear what’s being said, and we’ll just lean into that and let the actors explore that relationship between the audio description and the main character, which was fun to play with. We did have to do a bit of rearranging and rewriting of lines because, actually, when I initially broke down the lines, I thought I was only going to have two ensemble members, and then we ended up with three, which was exciting. They played off of each other really well, but that also meant I had to figure out how to divide those up. And then going in and revising things once we had actual props and a set.
I think it was fun to play, particularly with the designers. It was a mix of professionals and students that were brought in to work together and I just gave them the descriptions. It was like, here is the ocean and the parachute. We have a relatively tiny budget. How are we going to do it? How do we make the essence of “parachute expands in the sky” in this fifty-person room? Which was also fun with the audio description: sometimes that was adding more to the story than what’s actually there. There’s this really beautiful poetic moment of this school of fish going by and all of the stingrays and sharks at the bottom of the ocean. And my poor student had big plans for making that happen with shadow puppetry and we just did not get it done in time. We also don’t have another person to operate all of these shadow puppets because everyone’s on stage already.
So then I just adjusted staging. It was like, “Okay, you’re all looking out at it, and we’re just going to imagine this.” But I think it was fun to play with and let the actors explore, when am I more distant? When am I actually talking to the audience directly? When am I talking to the character directly and what kind of relationship do we have? Which was also playing against that idea of objectivity where we did not, for a minute, think like we are going to approach this in an objective way. I really wanted to highlight the different perspectives that each of the actors was bringing. There was a discussion in auditions—we had more of an interview style thing, which I talked about in the previous episode—but that was how I approached casting . Okay, what are you drawn to in this story, and how can I assign the lines that way? We have the descriptions of the insemination, which is drastically different when Justin, who’s a cis man was describing it versus Sam who’s a cis woman is describing it.
It is much more detailed and walking the character through the process when it’s Sam versus Justin is way more distant. And it’s like, “and he’s going through the motions we’re familiar with from the last time.” That distance was playing with that intentionally: how much does the person describing know about what it’s like to embody this? How comfortable are they with that?
Liz: Yeah. This is Liz. I haven’t, unfortunately, been able to go to plays for a while, but even before that, the ones that I have gone to that then did offer audio description was still a very... Individuals got the headsets, and it was a live audio describer, and he was great, but what I experienced, Nicolas, with your play was a whole another level. I don’t know if you’re in 2.0, but like 3.0. It does so much, but at the very basic level, in a good way, it also... I’ve seen plays advertised where “these two performances will have ASL” or “these two performances will have audio description.” Even though that also is good and helpful, but also, someone who needs those accommodation services, actually, they can go to any performance they want and still be able to request those accommodations. That’s part of the ableism is it puts the burden on the disabled person.
Why don’t we always have, in movies, open captioning? Why do you have to have another device for people who need captions as closed captions? I don’t know if other folks think it’s aesthetically… I’ve also seen the now captions also on different social media platforms be formatted differently in a little bit more of a creative way. But even when they weren’t formatted that way, they have open captions for TV in a bar setting because people can’t hear.
H. May: Right.
Liz: So that’s that universal design component, which I think then your play, it was super exciting to experience.
H. May: This is H. It gets back to me about yeah, just shifting norms so that people don’t see captioning as disruptive because they’re just used to it being there or not allowing people the option of turning it off, which is something I’ve been working on in my work. I did a puppet voting series (Just Co Vote!) that I co-produced with a former student named Anna Claire Walker and we had two versions, one of each piece that was without AD [audio description] and without captioning, and then one that was captioned and audio described. Since then, I don’t give people the option of turning it off. My solo performance film, Awaiting Tiresias, Nicolas did all of the voicing of the audio description for me, and I wrote that, and that can’t be turned off nor can the captioning on that. I’ve been trying to build that in. But part of what I was going to go back to is this whole time and total rethinking. It was just a rethinking of the process for all of us involved.
The one live performance, although it was for streaming, but I was able to include audio description during the performance itself because everything else has basically been, “I’ll do it in film,” and we can talk about that in a minute. But trying to create access where I couldn’t get it in the theatre. So I would just do my best to put it in the film version instead. But for this, it was something that I built into the process with actors, but it changes the rhythm of our performance. It changes how we teach performance. If I am teaching and training in an American model, which is all about Stanislavski or your immediate response and what’s your trigger, what starts that, you need to be very realistic and naturalistic. Well, an actor can’t leave space for audio description if we’re acting under that model. How do you retrain an actor to hold the inspiration, the spark for their response without lunging right into it?
There were numerous moments with the main performer in that where we’d need some audio description inserted and he would just get the impulse and go and then we’d say, “That’s great, but hold. I’ve got to get audio description in that moment.” So, I think it’s an alternate way of thinking about things and doing processes very differently and retraining all of us. Again, like I was saying earlier, rethinking how you’re structuring time because if I just use the traditional model of bringing someone in at the last minute, then yes, it’s crammed. It totally changes what I can or cannot describe, how or when I can do that, how much description I can do because the natural rhythms of theatre traditionally don’t leave space for that.
Nicolas: Liz, could you talk a little bit about your work doing audio description with art galleries? I read an essay you wrote on collaborating with some of the artists to write those. What was that process like, and, I guess, what came out of that?
Liz: Yeah. This is Liz. That was also really early, and it definitely took longer, and it was thought about ahead of time, so that was good going into it. I guess a little bit of the preface is yeah, now almost ten years ago, also at University of Illinois Chicago, I experienced audio description. I saw it. I saw the need and benefit for everyone about it, and so dove headfirst into it. Then I started volunteering and doing writing and then do the whole gamut, so writing it, checking in with the curator, and then voicing it, and then also having the supplies for the small gallery or for whatever to actually have it. That was one extreme. And then a few years later, I was like, yeah, this has to be a shared responsibility. More folks really need to be invested and also learn about the process, and it can’t all be me.
Then what you were talking about, Nicolas, is that a very small show was coming up, literally probably about twelve pieces of artwork, and they were all student done, queer students. From the very beginning, I checked in with the gallery person and was like, “Hey, can we have audio description and also have it be really collaborative?” So then trying to work with the artists, and they were open to it. The two things that helped with that is, one: it’s different work for me. I’d say it might be more work for me, but it was different work. Then also, one of the other guidelines I remember from the workshop and some text has been fine line of then describing as objectively as possible and not crossing the line. Even I remember hearing “don’t use words that end in ‘-ly.’” But if the artists are doing it themselves and they blend that between description and interpretation, then at least it’s better, I think, because it’s the artists themselves.
So what came from that is that one, the artists, I’d say nine out of ten, were really open to it, and they saw the benefit. They wanted to be accessible art to their audience, and they also did get that it made them look closer at their art. So that was super cool. They did say it took more time and also, though they didn’t do a two-hour workshop or a half day workshop, but with the guidelines, they really had a great first draft even within seeing some guidelines and doing it within the first fifteen minutes. That collaboration was really helpful. And it just reminds me that it’s so doable, it really is.
I am definitely not an expert in this, but around accessibility or just in general practice, how can we get that kind of stuff on the front end when people are submitting digital slides, or whatever they do now, for a show? How could we even, in the different art and design schools, have them be able to practice writing description about their work ahead of time so that they’re even, as undergrads or let alone masters students, they already have that practice?
Then, when a gallery is putting up a show and doing a call for work or call for artists, also in their submission form, they also do a very quick “101” of what this is and they initially then upload your five images and also include the initial descriptive text that could be revised a bit later, but at least you get some initial raw text for it. Then that saves a lot of time and work and money, most likely, further down the line. It probably did take more work than if I had initially done it just by myself, but like a lot of things, it was definitely worth it. It definitely expanded folks who knew about audio description more. One of the questions on the assessments was like, “Would you do this again later on even if you weren’t prompted?” and I think most of them said yes, so yeah.
H. May: It’d be very cool to see if they actually are. I love that idea of starting with that training as just a standard practice and norms, which again, I think is such a part of this, getting people to think in that way and recognize something as just part of the creative artistic process rather than something that gets wedged in by somebody else after the fact.
The thing that I find with audio description, for me, is I like the control of it not being objective. I like writing it because it’s another form of the storytelling. What am I pointing people to? What do I want them to take away? Whether they’re low vision or fully sighted, how do I want them to experience what they’re seeing?
Nicolas: Tying together these themes of resisting the demand for objectivity and exercising agency and self-description and universal design, I want to talk a bit about H.’s short film, Awaiting Tiresias.
Quick synopsis: Awaiting Tiresias is a journey into solitude, an exploration of the boundaries between diagnosis and identity, a search for community and amusing on what it means to have vision. Filmed with subtitles and audio description, Awaiting Tiresias is an accessible embrace of impending darkness and a love song to liminality. Join the storyteller for a run through the woods, pass time with them as they wait for answers in a medical office, listen for lessons taught by our ancestors, and learn to embrace the power of interdependence. H. uses a GoPro in order to carry audiences with them through their physical and mental landscape as they face a constantly shifting terrain. Challenging the primacy of visual imagery, this film asks audiences to listen as much as to watch.
In Awaiting Tiresias, I know you’re also playing with gender and genderqueerness and fluidity both narratively and, in some ways, visually. I’m wondering a little bit how did that approach to the visuals and also how you described them, did you find that allowed more of your own subjectivity to come out? Did that allow for more play with the various themes that you were playing with with identity and particularly disability experience?
H. May: Yeah. I think that’s a great question, and yes. One of the main reasons I wanted to shoot in first person was I didn’t want to be objectified at any point in the film. I didn’t want people reading what they wanted to read onto me physically. So it’s, I guess, the “fuck you” to audio description in some ways because I’m not trying to objectively describe any sort of visual. I don’t want to be read visually because what I’m trying to suggest is that we live in a space, or at least I do, of a lot of tensions. And yes, gender fluidity and identity fluidity and the way I experience myself and the way I experience my world is different every single day. We think about that from a disability perspective. I think the biggest thing I didn’t understand about disability for most of my life was it’s not like a switch that gets flipped and then you’re all on or all off—you’re disabled or you’re not. Yeah, my vision, my blindness impacts me differently depending on where I am, what the cloud conditions are, how much can I see, what’s the lighting like, all of those things.
So, long-winded answer: yeah, first person then allowed me to take someone through that without them just taking that first look. “Boom, I know who this person is. Done.” And instead it says, “No, I want you to really sit here in this space that you don’t know, and you’re just going to have to be present here with me, including my random meandering thoughts and darkness that doesn’t really go anywhere.” Yeah, it definitely was a challenge to the way that storytelling often happens and the visual components of storytelling, but also the visual components of how we read and shut down and prescribe identities. I guess to get back to the audio description question, that was actually a little bit of a challenge because part of me didn’t want the visual component to matter at all for that storytelling, but it does.
It is my first-person vision, in many ways, of the world. So trying to think through what am I telling, and what is important? I guess the thing that I find with audio description, for me, is I like the control of it not being objective. I like writing it because it’s another form of the storytelling. What am I pointing people to? What do I want them to take away? Whether they’re low vision or fully sighted, how do I want them to experience what they’re seeing? Strongly encourage anyone to look into Kinetic Light Dance’s work with performance and dance and how they do audio description. They are queer, disabled dance company, do amazing, amazing work as disabled dancers. So powerful. Their most recent performance is called Wired. They’re literally hanging from their wheelchairs on wires from the grid and dance. They’re unreal, but anyway, to get back to the point, and they do three to four different audio description tracks.
One is more objective dance language about the kind of literal movements as they would be described to dancers. One is poetry, and the poetry is not really a literal attempt to describe what’s happening. It’s, again, evoking the mood, the dimensions, the rhythm, the tempo, the strength, the pull—all of those things, right?—through poetry. I don’t remember the other two. It might be something like more spatial, but not necessarily dance language. But yeah, it’s a bunch of different tracks. You can choose which to listen to or you can listen to one that has all the tracks, which is a lot, but you can totally choose how you want to experience it. Then they also have a section of their performance space where they hook up wiring such that you can also get vibrations if you go sit in those chairs.
But their work is transformative because it really says, “No, we’re disabled artists and audience members, and we don’t want this kind of objective neutral.” I sometimes think of it as a somewhat infantilizing idea of what disabled audiences need or want from the theatre. We just want them to have some sort of simulation that is as close to the same as what a sighted audience would have. Instead, it’s like, “No. Well, what could we all get from understanding different ways of approaching the text, thinking about how it sounds, thinking about what’s happening tactilely or kinesthetically?” They were really huge in helping me be like, “Yeah, it’s okay to want that from an audio description. I don’t have to want objectivity.”
Nicolas: From a queer perspective, objectivity ends up missing a good portion of what’s going on.
H. May: Totally, and this is the fun stuff.
Nicolas: That wouldn’t have worked with doing the audio description for Seahorse. We have these moments of just silliness and camp that objectivity just doesn’t work. Really important that it’s like this is a “bedazzled chalice.”
H. May: Absolutely.
Nicolas: I could have said, “It says princess on. It is pink. forty ounces.”
H. May: Yes.
Nicolas: That turn of phrase makes it fun!
H. May: Right. Yeah, exactly. Perspective is it’s embedded in everything we do, so I don’t know why it shouldn’t also be embedded in AD [audio description]. The “objective” idea of audio description also reminds me of the tendency to, again, infantilize disabled folks, so not describing sex acts or not describing someone making a vulgar gesture because we couldn’t possibly describe these things. It’s like, well, if everyone else is getting that information, then in fact, you still need to be describing it. We’re not babies.
Nicolas: Match the tone of what’s happening—
H. May: Yes. Absolutely.
Nicolas: —which often is also not very objective. The intention is to connect with the audience on a personal level. Or maybe that’s just the queer person in me who’s skeptical of people who wield objectivity as something that’s possible against me, specifically.
H. May: Yeah, exactly. It’s a good reason for that skepticism.
Nicolas: The last couple of questions that I like to wrap up with here… On Gender Euphoria: The Podcast, we have two main theses that queer-trans folks are everywhere and we have always been here. In that vein, I’d like to ask each of you to give a shout-out to a member of your queer-trans artistic family tree.
Liz: This is Liz. I will raise up three folks, a longtime high school friend who also, we still fortunately are in touch, Larry Daly; and then also a former colleague, Moisés Villada; and then also another former coworker, Jacob Mueller. All of them have made such impact on me in different ways, and also just thinking of their multiple and intersecting identities and just also really early on when I was still needing to do and continue to do a lot of self-education and work around the very diverse transgender, genderqueer, gender non-binary communities and even then later for myself.
H. May: This is H. and it’s hard for me to limit. My short version is I will say Joan Lipkin because I was doing a lot of work for Joan on her AC/DC Series in St. Louis. She brought in amazing queer performance artists that I got to work with and watch and rock my world. So I’ll shout out Joan. I always shout out Tim Miller, but we can talk more about that when I come back. Then I have two other odd folks, not odd. You’re one of them, Nicolas, as working with you has definitely been part of my own queer family tree, and we can talk about that for sure more.
But then the last one is the subject of my dissertation, Francis Leon, who is a highly problematic, a white minstrel performer known as a female impersonator. But the more I investigate Leon, I would argue that there’s a very good chance that Leon, in contemporary days, would identify as trans. Thinking through Leon and all of the ways that race and their own privilege and racism influenced their ability to take on, be themselves, just I think a lot about my own work, and I just can’t let Leon go. I read that dissertation a bajillion years ago, and recently, I’ve gone back into the archives to start digging around and thinking through, yeah, Leon’s work as well as the work of a Black minstrel that he performed with for years, Thomas Dilward, who was an amazing performer in his own right and often forced to perform in women’s costuming as part of the performance. He was also a Black little person. So just thinking about all of the intersections of disability and race and gender identity and queerness and how messy and tangled and, yeah, just those intersections for me are really hard to sit in but also really rich for trying to continue to think through all the things for lack of a more profound, articulate way of putting it.
Nicolas: And we’ll close out with a moment of gender euphoria from Liz.
Liz: In everyday life, I love that I can shop in menswear as well as womenswear, often in large boys’ wear. I’m a size twelve and a large boy for shirts. I’m sure there’s a better word, but it just gives me more options. And those options then make me feel better, and it is more expansive. My parents used to make clothes, their own clothes. I don’t even have a sewing machine, and I can barely sew a button—and just thinking of another artist, queer, genderqueer Asian American artist, and they do fashion shows and also with audio description very embedded in and they do make their own clothes for the shows, and they collaborate with disabled folks and genderqueer and folks, that would be exciting. That would even give me more agency and self-determination, but right now, that’s not my skillset. But that’s what excites me and that I don’t have to choose one gender fashion over another.
Definitely, that wasn’t the case, at least in my personal experience. Not only as a kid of not having the agency to choose, but also even if I said something like that, I don’t think my parents in a suburb of Indianapolis, I don’t think they would’ve said, no, I couldn’t get that boy’s shirt, but I think it’s still in the seventies and early eighties, it wouldn’t have been as easy.
This has been Gender Euphoria: The Podcast, hosted and edited by me, Nicolas Shannon Savard. The voices you heard in the intro poem were Rebecca Kling, Dillon Yruegas, Siri Gurudev, Azure D. Osborne-Lee, and Joshua Bastian Cole. The show art was designed by Yaşam Gülseven. This podcast is produced as a contribution to HowlRound Theatre Commons. You can find more episodes of this series and other HowlRound podcasts in our feed on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and wherever you find your podcasts. Be sure to search HowlRound Theatre Commons podcasts and subscribe to receive new episodes. If you love this podcast, post a rating and write a review on those platforms. This helps other people find us. You can also find a transcript for this episode along with a lot of other progressive and disruptive content on howlround.com. Have an idea for an exciting podcast, essay, or TV event that the theatre community needs to hear? Visit howlround.com and submit your ideas to the Commons.