Dr Mathew Dalgleish, Faculty of Arts

Dr Mathew DalgleishMAT DALGLEISH has created digital musical instruments, new musical interfaces and sound installations for the last decade. He is particularly interested in the live electronics of David Tudor, gestural interaction and modular sound synthesis.

Mat is currently Senior Lecturer in Music Technology and course leader for the MSc Audio Technology programme at the University of Wolverhampton, U.K.

An ambiently-diffused soundtrack for visually impaired theatre-goers


Theatre is heavily reliant on the visual; whether to convey narrative or context, or to set the scene, and this poses a significant barrier to access for blind and visually impaired people. Audio description for theatre attempts to address this problem and by translating visual aspects into a spoken commentary that fits between the gaps in actors’ dialogue (Diaz Cintas and Anderman, 2009). However, while four out of ten theatres in the UK have put on at least one recent audio-described performance (Cock, 2016), audio description methods have not been thoroughly tested (Fryer, 2013). A number of issues are prompted, from increased setup time and attention issues to the potential for othering as only service users are required to wear audio description headsets. In response, this project explores the use of an ambiently diffused soundtrack as an alternative to audio description for theatre. More specifically, the soundtrack, considered a believable but innately artificial assemblage of informative and emotive sounds (Chion, 1994, pp. 67-94; Deutsch, 2008), is used to a kind of auditory interface or “way in” to the performance. Where audio description attempts to provide a single, definitive account of the visual aspects of a performance, the soundtrack implies and evokes, but allows for more open-ended interpretation. Use of the house sound reinforcement system also removes the need for specialised, relatively expensive equipment.

Background in Theatre

From the time of Shakespeare to around 1800, Bratton (2014) argues, British theatre relied primarily on the auditory: delivery was heavily vococentric (in the declamatory style), supported by minimal, static staging that did not compete with the spoken word. Despite the size of London at the end of the 18th century (Duiker and Spielvogel, 2010, p. 443), only three main theatres were allowed to operate under the patent system: Covent Garden, Drury Lane, and, in the summer season, the Haymarket (Bratton, 2014). As the only venues able to stage ‘serious’ drama, there was little direct competition, but also little incentive to change. Around 1800, however, ‘burletta’ licenses were granted to numerous smaller venues along the Strand (Trussler, 2000, p. 224). Unable to put on the classics under the terms of their licenses, these new venues were forced to innovate, going on to develop popular new (and often more visual) forms such as melodrama and pantomime, as well as innovative techniques such as action sequences (Pisani, 2014, p. 75). Approximately contemporaneously, all three patent theatres were rebuilt or moved (two as a result of fire) (Burling, 2000, p. 89). Upon their re-openings, social changes meant that, rather than rarefied art venues, theatres found themselves recast as busy meeting places filled with noisy, restless and not necessarily seated crowds. With gentle declamation ill-suited to these raucous environments, physical gesture started to play a far more important role (Emeljanow, in Roy, 2003, p. 163). New staging technologies such as hydraulics were also introduced, enabling set and props to take on more of the storytelling (Baugh, 2014, p. 20).

If the cumulative effect was that visual spectacle gradually but emphatically overtook the spoken word, this is certainly the case in the present era of extravagant productions on Broadway in New York and in the West End of London. This reliance on visual information can pose a significant barrier to access for blind and visually impaired people, of whom there are almost 2 million in the UK (Royal National Institute of Blind People, 2016) and 285 million worldwide (World Health Organization, 2014). Particularly relevant to this project is that older people are not only most likely to be affected by sight loss (RNIB, 2016) but also the largest age group for theatre attendance (Snow, 2016). Similar to a film and television context, audio description for theatre aims to make theatre accessible by translating the visual aspects of a performance into a spoken commentary that fits in the gaps between actors’ dialogue. Live delivery is considered necessary to respond to performance nuances, but notes are usually prepared in advance. The main audio description is usually accompanied by a touch tour that provides service users with tactile access to the stage and props, and pre-recorded programme notes that are not only informative, but also help to confirm the correct functionality of the audio description equipment before the performance starts. While audio description for theatre is relatively established in the UK, with around 40% of theatres having offered at least one audio-described performance (Cock, 2016), potential issues include:

  • complexity and cost of specialised technological apparatus;
  • loss of immersion and flow as auditory attention is continuously shifted between stage and in-ear sound;
  • othering effect of only some patrons using personal headset technologies.

Background in Music and Technology

Since the first concerted efforts in the mid-1960s to the present, interface research has been spectacularly successful, fundamentally changing the way in which people and technology interact. While interface research has focused on the visual, non-speech sound has also been explored, primarily in relation to sonification, auralisation and audification (Hermann et al., 339-340). However, such literal translations are largely not applicable to the theatre context that involves emotive as well as informative content. Thus, one notable use of sound is the ongoing Enhancing Audio Description (EAD) project by Lopez et al. (2016) that explores how the experience of audio description can be augmented and enhanced by sound design and spatialisation techniques. Also of note is Fuel Theatre’s Fiction (Rosenberg and Neath, 2016); a binaural audio play delivered primarily via headphones, supplemented with ambient sound effects and visual projection.

A theoretical basis for this kind of work is found in the context of film sound. For instance, Michel Chion (1994, p. 40) describes the soundtrack as an assemblage of different types of sounds that enable different modes of listening. He makes broad distinctions between different types, for instance, diegetic/non-diegetic sound, and empathetic music/anempathetic music. Additional sub-categories are then outlined: "ambient sound (territory sound)", internal sound, and on the air sound (Chion, 1994, pp. 75-76). Of particularly importance to this project is ambient sound, as the ability of its presence to delineate the identity and nature of a place is closely related to how an important role of audio description is to convey information about the site or setting of the performance.

Haptic feedback has also been explored as a replacement for visual information. For instance, as early as the 1960s, Paul Bach-y-Rita et al. (1969) developed the concept of sensory substitution and offered a practical demonstration in the form of a chair fitted with a low resolution tactile array. A more recent development is the Animotus: a haptic cube that provides the individual holder with discreet navigational feedback (Spiers et al., 2015). It was subsequently integrated into a bespoke adaptation of Flatland, performed inside a darkened former church space in March 2015.

Aims & objectives

This ERAS project aims to explore the use of an ambiently-diffused soundtrack as an alternative to audio description in theatre. Objectives of the project include:

  • the creation of an original soundtrack for Bert, a semi-autobiographical comedy by writer and comedian Dave Pitt;
  • finding and recruiting 25 blind and visually impaired people who are willing to attend the play and be interviewed about their experiences;
  • gaining an understanding of how a soundtrack can be used to enrich audience experience;
  • developing a better understanding of barriers to access for blind and visually impaired people at the theatre more generally.


Following a literature review of relevant areas around theatre, music and technology, a draft soundtrack was created in close conjunction with the script. The soundtrack was then more fully realised during rehearsals with the cast and director, and synchronised to lighting cues. An evaluation study was carried out in March 2017 to start to explore the potential of the soundtrack as an alternative to audio description. This involved two performances on the same afternoon, with 25 blind and visually impaired participants recruited via the Beacon Centre for the Blind, randomly allocated to either the first or second performance. Each performance had four elements:

  • touch tour (optional);
  • pre-recorded programme notes delivered via audio description headsets;
  • the main body of the performance:
    • performance one - first half soundtrack (only), second half audio description (only);
    • performance two - first half audio description (only), second half soundtrack (only).
    • group interviews held immediately after each performance, conducted by an experienced facilitator.

The structure of the performances is intended to enable participants to experience not only the new soundtrack but also conventional audio description for theatre. The performances and interviews were recorded using video and audio respectively.

Findings and Future Work

Interview responses suggest that participants typically enjoyed some aspects of audio description for theatre, but can be dissatisfied with the technologies used in its delivery for reasons of uncertainty around correct functionality, quality of experience and comfort. These issues appear to be diminished by the use of a loudspeaker-diffused soundtrack, as setup time is greatly reduced and no individual equipment is used.  Additionally, that the soundtrack is tightly integrated with lighting cues not only aids audio-visual synchronicity, but also requires no extra personnel.

Participants relate to the soundtrack differently to audio description, using more emotive language to describe their experiences of the soundtrack. However, so different are the two methods that, as one participant commented, it may be possible to use them in a complimentary way: for instance, Foley sounds and audio description for literal information, and music for emotive content.

All participants were offered the opportunity to take part in a touch tour, but all chose not to take part. Reasons for not wanting to take a touch tour included wanting to make the most of the social time before the performance and, particularly, a range of mobility issues. This emphasises that disability is often multifaceted, and highlights the need to more fully consider the site of the performance and its suitability as a venue.

If the touch tour could be made more accessible, it may also be possible to improve the experience offered by incorporating sonic aspects (i.e. the soundtrack could extend from the performance into the touch tour). For instance, if transducers were embedded into props or into the set, these could become physically activated by sound, thereby greatly extending the variety of tactile sensations that can be produced.


This project has been funded by the ERAS scheme at the University of Wolverhampton. Thanks to Neil Reading and the staff of the Arena Theatre, Hayley Millard and the Beacon Centre for the Blind, Matt Bellingham, Roz Chalmers, Debra Cureton, Richard Glover, Vidar Hjardeng, Jill Morgan, Dave Pitt and James Prosser.


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