In this episode, Mariana interviewed Amelia Cavallo, a blind, USA-born theatre practitioner, academic, and workshop facilitator who works as a multidisciplinary performer, musical director, lecturer, and consultant on access and audio description.

You can listen to the episode with the audio player embedded below. There is also a transcription underneath.

Photo of Amelia.

Transcription of the podcast episode:


Mariana: Hi, everyone. Welcome to this new episode of the Darcy Podcast, the podcast on disability, accessibility, and representation in the creative industries. My name is Mariana López, and today I’m joined by Amelia Cavallo. Amelia is a blind, USA-born theatre practitioner, academic, and workshop facilitator. They work as a multidisciplinary performer, musical director, lecturer, and consultant on access and audio description. They have also performed for disability-led theatre companies such as Extant, Gray Eye, and Birds of Paradise, as well as with regional theatres such as the New Wolsey, Theatre Royal, Stratford East, and the Royal Exchange Manchester. Amelia is also co-founder of Quiplash, a theatre company making space for disabled people across the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Recent publications include a co-written chapter with Maria Oshodi, In Theatre in the Dark, Shadow, Gloom, and Blackout in Contemporary Theatre, and Seeing the World, Hearing the Image, the Artistic Possibilities of Audio Description in Theatrical Performers, In Ride, the Journal of Applied Theatre.

Amelia: Thank you so much for joining us today. How are you doing?

Amelia: Hi, I’m doing good. How are you doing?

Mariana: I’m doing well. It’s a rainy day here in York, but not too bad.

Amelia: Yes, I’m in Sheffield, so same.

Mariana: Cool. Well, I’m delighted to have you in today’s episode. As we were just saying off the recording, it’s been a while since we’ve last met, so I’m looking forward to hearing about what you’ve been up to. I think I first came across your work when I was reading about your research and practice on the artistic possibilities of audio description in theatre, and in particular, your work in relation to embedded audio description, and the practice you’ve done with Extant. I find your work really, really fascinating.

Amelia: Thank you.

Mariana: I was wondering if you could tell our listeners about that research and the practice you’ve done in the area.

Amelia: Yes. This will be, by happenstance, a bit of a whistle-stop tour through my career, basically. [Mariana laughing]

Amelia: My first professional job was as a performer and I am registered blind. My first professional job was with Extant Theatre, which is a blind-led theatre company in the UK. I learned through working with them what integrated and embedded audio description is. In my opinion, Extant is the reason it exists in this country, definitely, and they are definitely one of the companies that pioneers it. I’ve been working with Maria Oshodi, who’s the Artistic Director of Extant and who I did that research with since 2007, so for quite a long time. Basically, I started there and then realized that I need audio description as an access need, but I also quite like it as a creative tool. Working with Extant on multiple different shows that were dealing with audio description, and also dealing with things like working in pitch black, so playing with what visual representation is on stage, if any, and then how you portray that to a sighted audience and a blind audience and all that stuff, ended up bringing about this research. Then since then, I’ve started to go into my own independent practice as a theatre maker and also as a business CEO person. My wife, Al Lander-Cavallo and I run a company called Quiplash, and we do our own flavour of integrated audio description that is absolutely standing on the shoulders of Extant, and they are the company that helped us get our start. A lot of the research that you, Mariana saw me present in that conference is stuff that I’ve since built on with the work that I do with Quiplash. Did that answer the question? I think that’s everything. [both laughing]

Mariana: Yes, I think so. We’ll come back to your work with Quiplash in a little bit. This is a reminder as well to listeners that we’ve had Maria Oshodi as a guest in the podcast, so do please go back and listen to Maria’s episode on Extant. Recently, I came across a really great online talk you gave for disability arts. You were talking about the importance of people considering crip time. I was wondering for those that might not be familiar with the concept, if you could tell us what that means, but also a little bit about how this could be considered when people are doing work on accessibility.

Amelia: Sure. I think probably the first thing to do is to just very quickly unpack the word ‘crip’ a little bit. It is a reclamation of the slur cripple, and it is for anybody who identifies as deaf, disabled, or neurodiverse. If you do not identify as any of those things, you do not get to use that word. [both laughing] However, it is also something that has a field of study to it. Crip theory is an academic avenue that people can go down. It’s a branch of disability studies. If you were talking about Crip theory and the things that are in that, then you can use those descriptive words when relating to the theory. Just to throw those markers around there, if people are familiar with Queer theory and things like queer time and the way that that signals queerness and non-normative spaces, if you’re familiar with that field of study, ‘crip’ and ‘queer’ are cousins. They’re very much related to each other. They’re not the same, but they have a lot of crossover. That includes with something like Crip time. Crip time is non-normative time. Probably the easiest tagline I can think of to describe it is the time it takes to be disabled in the world, and how time moves for different disabled people. Depending on who you’re talking about, that might mean that time moves quickly. If you’re talking about people who might go into modes of hyperfocus, they might get a lot done in a very short amount of time, or they might spend hours doing one thing quite methodically, for example. It might also be related to barriers people face. Crip time is the time it takes to, for example, navigate an inaccessible transport system. It’s also the time it takes for access to functions. In relation to audio description, that almost always means that time goes slower. The speed at which most normative, like neurotypical brains can process an image, versus the speed at which one might process sound, are two very different things. Describing an image takes a long time or can. Audio description tends to have an effect of expanding something that is being worked on that is creative. I don’t want to say slow down, that’s not the right term. It just makes it more bigger. Time has to move in a different way. This is one of my favourite things about audio description. I think in audio description, the expansion of time is a superpower. Because you get to get so much context, you have so much more space to play. Even if a film is a minute, and that minute has a minute of audio description, then that minute is going to be so incredibly full, in a different way than it would be if that audio description wasn’t there. I think crip time is a really useful concept to know in a bunch of different avenues, but in particular, when you’re thinking about any embedded integrated access, or even more standard styles of access where there’s audio description in a headset or an interpreter on the side of the stage. Time functions differently when those things are in place, and that’s a good thing.

Mariana: That’s a really good explanation. It’s the first time I actually hear the use of the concept in relation to the perception of audio description. That’s really interesting. Just as a follow-up, is this something that then I get the sense, it’s very much a consideration you have when you work on the integrated access for your own performances?

Amelia: Absolutely. My current practice, what we at Quiplash, we being my wife and I, because we were the only ones running the company at the minute, and we call it queer audio description. The kind of ‘cripness’ of it is implied because it’s an access tool and it’s also us doing it. My wife is sighted, they are neurodiverse. We come at it from a bunch of different angles. But anyway, we call it queer audio description not because we don’t want cis gendered and straight people to use it, but because we want a connection of a lineage. We want it to be connected to the queer people it came from, which is me, basically. [both laughing] But one of the things that I really enjoy playing with, and again, these things are kind of crip and queer are very connected. Queerness will often play with ideas of camp, which can be many different things, including a kind of exaggeration to the point of absurdity. So I, in my own practice, especially when I’m describing myself or the things that I’m doing on stage, I like to play with how far time can stretch, how pedantic can a description get. There are a lot of people who rightly so, when they’re integrating audio description, don’t want it to be clunky. They want it to be really smooth. I want to play with the clunk. I want it to be awkward to the point of absurdity just to see what that means. I think I’ve very much inherited this from working with Extent and working with Maria. I’m very interested in form and not only what makes form, but how you can break it or shift it or change it. That includes audio description. The form in itself doesn’t need to have rules written in stone, I don’t think, to still function as good access. So I quite like, yeah, crib time is a really integral part of the way that I advise on audio description generally but also definitely how I personally use it as a creative tool.

Mariana: Really interesting. That brings us to Quiplash. So tell us a little bit, I mean, you’ve touched upon some of the work you’re doing. Could you expand on that and just give us examples of what you’ve been working on?

Amelia: Oh, geez. Okay. [Mariana laughing] So Quiplash started in 2019. That magical year when so many things hadn’t happened yet. We didn’t know what those things were going to be. What a nice time. So we started in 2019 with a show called Unsightly Drag. At the time, we had Quiplash as a name to house this show. It was my wife and I basically acknowledging that we have a lot of compatible skills where I’ve been embedded in the theatre world for a long time. Al, they work in communications and media and graphic design and visual arts, and also has a good admin head. We were like, “We actually probably could do a thing together and let’s see how that goes.” We were also engaged at the times. We were like, “If we hate doing this and it makes it feel like we were trying stuff out basically.”

Mariana: Yeah.

Amelia: We did this at the encouragement of Maria. She basically told us about some funds from the Live Art Development Agency, that extent didn’t have the capacity to go for at the time. She was like, “You should go for it.” So we did and we got it. With that plus some funding from Arts Council England, we created a show that was about getting myself and six other blind and visually impaired queer people learning how to do drag from three or four of London’s prominent drag performers. We also had a couple of creative access workers in there. It ended up being a very ambitious show for our first show. We premiered that at Bloomsbury Festival in 2019 and it went incredibly well in ways that we couldn’t have even imagined. One, the show was really good, and two, Al and I realised we like working together and that we had something that we felt like we were craving as queer disabled people, that we realized a bunch of other queer disabled people were really craving, which was a space where all facets of our identity got acknowledged. From there, we started to snowball into a bunch of interests very quickly that ended up fully stopping in March of 2020. Obviously, I’m not glad that the pandemic happened, but it was good that we had to stop because I don’t think we would have been able to sustain it. So what ended up happening is we shifted gears and went into survival mode a little bit. We’re like, “Well, what can we do while we can’t leave our house?” Al and I are both varying flavours of mid to high risk for COVID as well. So these are measures that we started in 2020, many of which we’re still doing. But we realised one thing that started to come to us from the work that we’d done prior to March was some questions around access consultation. So we started to get work with the producing department at the Welcome Collection to do a full audit of their 2021 digital season.

Mariana: Oh, wonderful.

Amelia: Then because those producers work with a bunch of different types of people and organizations, that started to create some word of mouth. People who’d seen unsightly drag the year before, started to call us in to do some things. From there, we just grew into this consulting and training company, which is something that we still do. We offer a lot of different types of training and consulting. That is anything from your EDI training, if you want some disability awareness or LGBTQ awareness, or intro to audio description stuff. Then we’ll also do creative access consulting, which we would call access dramaturgy, where we go in with artists or companies who want to integrate access into a show. We support them to do that in a way that means that the audio description is fully embedded. It’s as much a part of the show as any other element of it is. It’s really fun. We also trained up audio describers in queer audio description, and we’ve got a few of them that work with us regularly and that have since gone off to get their own work, which is really exciting. Then the final piece to that puzzle is that we started to, last year, get back into creative producing of our own. We still do unsightly drag and it’s sibling show, Unsightly Drag and Friends, which the main difference is Unsightly Drag was just blind people on stage, and Unsightly Drag and Friends is anybody who’s deaf, disabled, or neurodiverse, or an access worker, as long as they integrate audio description into what they’re doing. Then we have a show that we started developing with the Barbican last year as part of the OpenLab cohort called Unsightly Circus, where we’re taking our unsightly methodology, what we did with unsightly drag, and seeing if it can work in a different form. My big future goal is to have a fully integrated audio described circus show, with lots of different circus elements in it. For now, we’re just concentrating on clowning, which is the thing I know the least about. [Mariana laughing] We’ve got that show. I also have a one-person show that I started developing last year, that I’m working on this year. Yeah, things are cooking, I guess.

Mariana: Goodness, that sounds very busy. [both laughing]

Amelia: Yes, it is. It could if we could take some time off, but also it’s nice to have work.

Mariana: Yeah. I guess it’s those tensions of freelancing, isn’t it, and having your own company.

Amelia: We’re established now. We are registered as a CIC finally last year.

Mariana: That’s great.

Amelia: Yes. The next step is getting some underpinning funding, but that’s a story for another time.

Mariana: If someone would like to work with you, what is the best way for them to do that, to contact you?

Amelia: You can go through our website, https://quiplash.co.uk, don’t just Google the word ‘quiplash’ because you’ll get the game, which we did not realize and we checked where it’s not an IP clash because we do very different things. But if you go to our website, there’s a contact us form in there. It tells you how you can book time with us. There’s also, if you’ve got an access emergency, you can just pre-pay for an hour of our time and book it whenever it’s convenient for you. There’s a whole system on there. But yeah, we’re most active, probably somewhat ironically on Instagram. Because the alt text doesn’t have any limits on the amount of characters you can find. You can also check us out on there if that’s @quiplasharts, you can find us there as well.

Mariana: I like the idea of this accessibility emergency. But part of my mind is trying to think what might that be. [both laughing] So loads of opportunities to collaborate with you and your services. One of the things that, because I was listening and I loved how you mentioned that it was Maria’s encouragement that led you to this first show. Coincidentally, I’m going to, because all roads lead back to Maria.

Amelia: True story. As well they should.

Mariana: Exactly! [both laughing] I was going to ask you about your work in Extant’s Flight Pass, which I came across. I wasn’t able to watch it live, but I did the digital experience the other day. I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about the piece and your involvement in it.

Amelia: Yeah. I just think that’s probably one of the best shows Extant’s ever made. I’m very biased because I was very involved with it from the beginning, but it was just so cool. That started in 2014, I think. The lineage of it is that Extant did a show called Sheer, that played with a bunch of different things, including how to audio describe elements of aerial circus. One of my skills as a performer is aerial circus stuff. I do some types of trapeze and aerial silks, and I’ve done a few different bits and bobs. That was put into Sheer, and we did play with it. I think the audio description for that was a really good strong start. But Maria and I both, and I think a lot of other people who are working on it, were really aware that there was more that could be done with it. I can’t remember how the three companies and these three women connected to start working on it, but it was Maria from Extant, Kumiko Mendl from New Earth Theatre, and Vicky Amedume from Upswing Aerial, coming together to make a show. I guess they all brought the dramaturgy side of it, but Maria was also very much minded in story and character, and obviously audio description. Kumiko brought this story of the Biwa Hōshi, which are blind itinerant musicians that were in Japan for, I can’t remember what the exact years are. Part of the story that we might be able to tell was this story of the Biwa Hōshi, and then Vicky brought the aerial circus stuff. We started researching this in 2014, and it was me originally, it was me and a couple of other performers, some of whom were also aerialists, some of whom were musicians. And during one of the R&Ds, they brought in a script writer, and his name has left me, and I feel really bad about this. He’s very good, and I’m sorry. [bough laughing] But he then realized that there was a lot of … What ended up happening for whatever reason, it was happenstance. In that specific R&D where we had a writer, we realized that all of the performers present, we were all blind, and we were also immigrants. None of us were English. So we had myself from the United States. We had a singer from Nigeria, a viola player from Japan. And actually, there was one English person, but he lived abroad for prolonged periods of time, so had the experience of immigrating to another country. And all of these kind of similarities in circumstance started to come up. So then the script started to develop into this verbatim piece that built into a story of basically, the themes that kind of came out of it were, … is there an international blind culture? Like, what do we all do, regardless of where we’re from and what languages we speak, that we can connect to each other on? What are all the things that we need that we can relate to each other on? How do we communicate with each other? How do we learn things from each other? And that felt very useful in relation to the story of the Biwa Hōshi and how they taught each other things. And then so that developed into the final cast, which is myself, another blind aerialist named Sarah Houbolt or she goes by Sarah Bird Girl in her more kind of circusy sideshow persona. And then there was the two musicians that we worked with as well. And then we made this story based around the four of us. And obviously we were very careful. So I’m white and Sarah is white. So we were not playing Japanese people. I should probably just clarify that. We were playing ourselves while being in the UK. And we had Takashi, who is the viola player, was playing the Biwa Hōshi character. He’s Japanese. And we had, yeah, and then Victoria Unaware, who is Nigerian, and she was telling her own story. And we kind of had this coming together of the four of us that culminated in this big aerial circus act. And I won’t give too much away about the story, I think, ‘cause you can still go and watch the digital one. It’s really good. But it became this whole, such a big exploration about what our physical bodies, as blind people, do in space as we travel, as we learn, as we grow. And the culmination of this was this six-minute, quite challenging aerial circus duet that Sarah and I did with integrated audio description. And then if you had been able to go to the live show, we had binaural sound in every auditorium. So they had, I think, 30 speakers that they would set up in every space. And so the sound would literally move with us. So it would move up into the air as we went into the air. There was a scene that was a retelling of one of the stories of one of the Biwa Hōshi. And it happens in the middle of a storm. And so there was storm sounds moving around the auditorium and you felt like you could hear the wave coming over you as you sat in the auditorium. It was very cool. And it was one of those ones, it was a super ambitious show, but it took Extant almost five years, or maybe, no, it did take extant five years to make. And I think the audio description worked incredibly well. And I’m not just saying that because I worked on it and saying that because that’s how a lot of blind people fed it back as well. So yeah, it was a very cool show.

Mariana: Yeah, and it’s great that it has that afterlife, so to speak, in the digital format so that people can still enjoy it in a different way, but still get that flavour.

Amelia: Yeah.

Mariana: And there was a part that I really loved kind of that connection between past and present stories, but also kind of those stories of immigration that you found, you all had in common. And there’s a lovely line that I remember kind of resonated particularly with me that you’re explaining. I think the line is somewhere along the lines of, I worked myself up visa by visa by visa. And I thought that was a really nice way of expressing the experience of many people as well.

Amelia: It’s harder now than when I did it. I think if I had to do it now, I wouldn’t have been able to do it.

Mariana: Yeah, but it’s really nice, that kind of connection with this itinerant kind of artists then and now. So thank you so much for sharing the insights on that. And kind of more maybe general questions. What are your hopes for the field of accessibility in the creative industries?

Amelia: What am I hoping? [both laughing] That it actually gets taken seriously on a wider scale. I feel like we get these kind of… At least with the disabled people in the industry that I talk to regularly, there’s kind of an in-joke of like, okay, what’s the fad disabled person this year? One year it’s deaf people. And I say this with all the love in the world, it is most often deaf people. And it’s because they’re very organized and good job on them. And then the next year it’ll be neurodiversity and then it’ll be wheelchair users. And I’m just like, I am waiting for a year of the blind. Like I just want a year, give us a year of the blind. I’ll start there, that’s fine. ‘Cause it’s never blind people. I don’t, and therefore it’s never audio description. And I think right now, the lack of knowledge about what audio description even is and how it’s done. People who know anything about it assume it’s too hard, too expensive, when actually depending on what type you’re using, it can be, I’m never gonna say easy. It’s access shouldn’t, access isn’t easy. People aren’t easy, so access isn’t easy. But like, it can be a little bit more reachable than people think it is. And I would just love there to be even just interest from people that don’t work in this field already. And funding for it and all that kind of stuff. Like just a year of the blind. Or even just like, there was, what was it? Last Super Bowl, there was quite rightly so, the ASL interpreter that interpreted Rihanna’s halftime show got so much praise for how incredibly, how just incredibly talented she is. And I’m just like, there was an audio describer for that too. When do they get, not to take away from any other people, but just to add onto it so that blindness is actually somewhere in the mix. Because I feel like we’re not most of the time. And so that would be my kind of main hope about it. And then, yeah, then once it’s starting to be taken up by other people, then we’ll see what happens. But we need to get there first.

Mariana: Yeah. And yeah, that’s a really, really great answer. And sometimes I’ve had the experience as well is that when people get into it, they start really enjoying it as well. So creatives might think, oh, actually we can use this in really interesting ways. And then they start getting more excited. And hopefully they tell others so that they can also get excited about it.

Amelia: Yeah.

Mariana: And also a question about, as you say, caring about that access, providing that access. And the last question is really, what is, because you sound like you’re very busy. So what is next? Are there any exciting plans that you can share with us?

Amelia: Yeah, I’m trying to think. So Quiplash is in this really fun stage that many artists are in where we’re like, we’ve applied for things. Are we getting money? We don’t know yet. So 2024 is either gonna be just like mega in terms of Quiplash doing a bunch of our own creative projects. It’ll be still mega, but maybe less mega. [Mariana laughing] So one thing I can say, if anybody is going to Mighty Hoopla in June in London, we will be there with Unsightly Drag and Friends, and it’ll be a lovely hour show in the middle of the day on the Sunday. Please come along and give us some love. If you wanna, it’ll be on the cabaret stage, which is a really chill, good vibes stage. And I tend to think pretty much everything that gets booked on that stage is good, but we will, as far as accessibility goes, we will have audio description ‘cause we always do. There’s, it’s always worth keeping tabs, if you’re on Instagram, on my drag king persona, King Tito Bone, and just seeing what they’re up to. There are things in the works that I can’t say yet, but Tito was probably gonna have a pretty busy summer. [Mariana laughing] Fingers crossed. And then, yeah, I mean, we are just working with a bunch of different artists. If you are in and around youth theatre and you go see Zest Theatre’s new production, we’ve been supporting them with that. We’re working also with Meera Patel, who’s doing classical Indian dance, and she’s integrating audio description into her work. It’s really good. We recently worked with an artist named Louise Ahl, who’s another dancer. We end up working with dancers all the time. I’m really dyspraxic, so I have no idea how this happened, but I’m not mad. And so, yeah, Louise has a show called “Skunk Without Hay is Son,” and it’s an audio-described dance piece where she sings the audio description. It is the most beautifully, wonderfully wild thing I’ve ever worked on or experienced. I think she, I don’t know what the kind of plans are for her, but other than that, it should, that show should pop up, and I highly recommend. If you wanna see some radical interpretations of integrated audio description, go check that show out. It’s so good.

Mariana: Oh, wow, there’s loads of exciting things and loads of recommendation for things to attend. And of course, people are going to be busy contacting you to collaborate with you. [both laughing]

Amelia: Be patient with us. We’re only two people and a cat, and the cat doesn’t do any admin.

Mariana: Oh, that’s a shame. [both laughing] You should train the cat.

Amelia: She’s our HR department. It’s fine.

Mariana: All complaints go to the cat.

Amelia: And she just tells us to rest and have snacks, which is good advice, really, so yeah.

Mariana: Yes, yeah, I think that’s, I could roll with that advice, I think. Well, we’ve reached the end of the interview, and thank you so much. This has been really, really informative, really insightful, really engaging. There’s loads of things I had no idea about, and loads of things I think that listeners will take that they can apply to their own work of accessibility, if they’re already doing it, but also people that might be new to accessibility, particularly audio description, that they hopefully, as you say, will start thinking about more. So thank you so much for joining us today.

Amelia: Thank you.

Mariana: And for sharing such wealth of experience in a magnificent career in the field. So thank you so much.

Amelia: Thank you!

Mariana: We have reached the end of this podcast episode. Thank you so much for listening, and we’ll be back soon with a brand new episode next month.