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Audio Description International Conference 2002

Presented by
Audio Description International
and
The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
March 23-24, 2002


Panel on Audience Development

Facilitator: Jesse Minkert, Arts and Visually Impaired Audiences

Speakers: Margaret Hardy, President, AudioVision; Audley Blackburn, Board Member, Access Arts Austin; Anne Hornsby, Secretary, Audio Description Association, England

Jesse Minkert: Jesse detailed a project that his organization, Arts and Visually Impaired Audiences in Seattle, developed and maintains: "The Package." It's a group of services that includes AD, transportation, tickets, and on-site, sighted coordinators at theaters. He finds that combining these services lowers barriers so that more people attend live performances. It began in 1995 as a way to address the myriad issues involved in encouraging blind people to take advantage of AD offered at live performances. With the support of the Paul G. Allen Foundation, six plays were part of the original effort. After initial success, the project faltered until a series of focus groups arranged by VSA Arts of Washington, the Seattle Arts Commission, and various organizations that serve people with disabilities. A document, "Arts Enabled," was produced and it highlighted transportation, cost, and the need for a sighted guide as major barriers to attendance among other concerns. The gist of the report is that the availability of AD alone is not enough of a reason for people who are blind to overcome other barriers and attend performances.

Jesse was able to raise new funds from the Allen Foundation and the Washington Council for the Blind to offer The Package on a monthly basis at a variety of Seattle theaters, the Seattle Symphony, and the Pacific Northwest Ballet (along with backstage tours after performances of "The Nutcracker"). Jesse outlined the results of two years experience with this new package:

Jesse's conclusion is that true access involves more than simply offering AD; it must include other kinds of access techniques in order to be successful, including access to information about the service in appropriate formats. He noted that many of the people using the service are elderly, live on fixed incomes, have mobility impairments, and lack individual transportation options.

Jesse noted the difficulties involved with providing transportation. Public transportation services proved to be inadequate and now Jesse hires more expensive commercial carriers equipped to handle wheelchairs. These costs, combined with the cost of tickets, are formidable but Jesse has had success in raising funds to cover these expenses by demonstrating the clear need and a clear solution to that need.

The Package now has a solid, repeating client base and renewed funding.

Audley Blackburn: Access Arts Austin, now known as VSA arts of Texas, serves the entire state. The Austin program began in 1995 with the vision of three people to make live performance and movies accessible to people who are blind.

With respect to audience development, Audley emphasized that the blind community has not been encouraged to participate in live performances as audience or participants. Initially, the group saw its mission as providing the AD service without focusing on transportation issues, due to insurance concerns and other issues. Recalling Jesse's remarks, he confirmed that in Austin public transportation was also less than adequate in ensuring timely arrival for performances.

Audley said, "Part of audience development is understanding your audience." Audience feedback and receptivity to patrons' desires is important.

Audley's group has found that movies are quite popular and a movie is described each month. Usually it occurs on the 2nd Saturday of each month and the word gets out via email, voice mail recordings, quarterly newsletters and a monthly calendar with two months of listings. He noted that movies cost less and that that point is critical for a population that has over 70% unemployment.

Audley called on Brenda Shirk to provide some statistics regarding AD use in Austin:

Audley stressed working closely with organizations of people who are blind or visually impaired. Beyond feedback on efforts, often these organizations can provide financial support and volunteers to support AD activity. He also noted his group's work with the Texas School for the Blind as well as public schools to encourage performing arts attendance by young people.

Margaret Hardy: In the four years that Margaret led the AD program for the American Musical Theater of San Jose, it went from serving three people to providing AD for between six and 24 patrons per production at six performances per production in a program that kept 25 describers busy.

She became interested in AD when she responded to a notice about the late Gregory Frazier's AD course at San Francisco State University. The first show she had described was the 1993 production of "The Wiz" for which Gregory brought in describers. The first performance was for students and included people from the California School for the Blind. After the show, the performers met with the AD patrons and Margaret agreed with Audley that outreach to children is critical. She made inroads with teen-oriented social groups, encouraging them to have outings at the theater. She also prepared study guides for students attending described final dress rehearsals at reduced rates.

She contacted agencies, made speaking engagements, and produced a video on AD with special funding. On the video, one silent scene from a production of "Phantom" is particularly illustrative of the power of AD and has been an important aide in building funding and audiences for AD.

The AMTSJ produces its own shows and that allows for greater AD preparation and opportunities for AD patron involvement on stage and backstage. The company also makes pre-show announcements regarding the availability of AD to build general awareness of the service and at the end of each show, performers acknowledge the describers as they might recognize an orchestra conductor. Prominent signs in the lobby announce the service and the programs and season brochures feature AD availability. A range of performance dates with AD is offered increasing availability for AD patrons. Margaret also encouraged the inclusion of AD information in media advertisements for each show.

In 1998, Margaret became President of the Bay Area-based AD service provider AudioVision, founded by Gregory Frazier. AudioVision provides AD for the professional theaters in San Francisco, often offering AD at only one performance and averaging 20 patrons in attendance.

The San Francisco Arts Commission has contracted with AudioVision to record descriptions of art exhibits at the San Francisco Airport and other public art exhibitions throughout the city.

Anne Hornsby: Anne offered a range of suggestions for marketing AD services. Recalling Jesse's comments, she emphasized going beyond simply doing the AD. She mentioned Braille programs and schedules, large print and audiotaped information, touch-tours, and even dog-sitting services during performances.

As Audley did, she also emphasized feedback from users as an extremely important in providing what your customers want. This will guide you in selecting the shows that your patrons want to see and describing them on the days and times desired.

With respect to discounts on tickets, Anne suggested that they be offered to sighted companions as well. Also, noting mobility issues, Anne discussed how people are informed about access information and highlighted possible particular needs: Do you need white strips on your stairs, or across glass panels? Do you have a tactile plan of your building? Do customers know where to park, where the cafe and toilets are?

She noted that most AD problems arise from the equipment. Somebody must take responsibility for checking receivers before, and ideally during, the performance. Be clear about where customers will collect it from and make sure your staff knows how it works.

Anne focused also on the needs of the describers: scripts, access to shows, equipment, etc. and suggested that a contract with the describer, detailing responsibilities is a good idea.

Theater staff must also be trained in the area of access awareness. Have you challenged any prejudices or preconceptions your staff might have?

She then outlined a promotion or marketing plan beginning with the establishment of specific objectives: Are they to improve the quality of an existing service? To launch a new service? To increase numbers? To attract new people? Lapsed attendees? Are you seeking to raise the profile of the service? Are you trying to attract funding?

In considering all of this, she stressed the inclusion of the blind or visually impaired person and his/her companion too.

Anne described how to then focus on target markets, such as blind/visually impaired individuals, groups of blind/visually impaired people, organizations for blind/visually impaired people, the mainstream sighted audience as a conduit for information, the press and other media, and funding decision makers.

In considering marketing tools, Anne reminded that most conventional methods are only accessible for sighted, and usually only well-sighted people. Consequently, each means of communication must be considered according to each target group.

She suggested including audio described dates on posters, leaflets, (consider whether or not to have a separate access leaflet), advertisements, and direct mail. Sighted people can pass the information on and some visually impaired people can read type if it is in a large or clear enough font. Use photo opportunities of patrons doing a touch tour, or people with guide dogs in the theater. Use quotes from people who have used the service to help sell it to others. Build a database of local, regional and national contacts and stay in touch with the organizations that serve people who are blind or visually impaired. Similarly, of course, build a database of attendees, as this can be one of your most valuable marketing tools. Use it and the phone to build personal contact with your patrons.

As Margaret Hardy discussed, it's important to go out and talk about the service to schools and groups and have a display created that will inform people about the service. This applies to the use of new technologies as well--web sites and e-mail.

Finally, Anne emphasized the monitoring of your AD service: Keep a record of how many people are using the service and who they are; Have some kind of show report which highlights successes and problems; Talk to users to ensure feed-back and market research; Establish a user group of advisers. Users of the service will tell you how to improve your service and how to find more people like them.

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