Building a visual story

I’ve recently been looking at visual stories, which are short documents that introduce the reader to a new experience, like visiting the dentist. They are now available at almost all relaxed performances, as I’ve mentioned in an earlier blog. Some venues have gone further, producing video visual stories that show what it’s like to walk from the theatre’s front door to your seat.

I downloaded around 70 visual stories from the past five years to get a sense of how they were constructed. There was enormous variation, with some only four or five pages long, and others clocking in at over 25 pages. A few used line drawings and clipart, while most featured colour images from the show. The majority were simply laid out, although several had clearly been (over)produced by a graphic designer, with coloured backgrounds, lots of pictures and symbols. Two particularly good examples, in my opinion, are the visual stories produced by the Little Angel Theatre in London, who maintain an extensive archive, and the resource produced by 59E59 Theaters for Mark Thomas’ solo show Cuckooed, a rare example of an adult visual story (opens as PDF).

It’s also apparent that visual stories are often split into several documents, as for the relaxed performances promoted by Mousetrap Theatre Projects. These include: a visual story for the venue, a visual story for the show itself (including characters and scenes), a list of sensory triggers and surprises (usually but not always aimed at parents and personal assistants), and a synopsis of the story. I’m not sure about this splitting-up of documents, both because it would be easy to miss an important piece, and because the total number of pages creeps up to a very large figure. That said, I can see the appeal of keeping the list of sensory triggers separate if you want to preserve the surprise of a show.

I thought it might be useful to provide a review of good practice derived from this archive. Do let me know your thoughts in the comments section!

How to write a visual story for a theatre performance

Keep it short. It is strongly recommended that you avoid pages consisting solely of text.

For performances aimed at children aged 0 – 8: One or two sentences per image, one or two images per page, and a maximum of six pages in total.

For performances aimed at children and young people aged 8 – 15: Two or three sentences per image, up to three images per page and a maximum of eight pages in total.

For performances aimed at young people aged 15+ and adults: Two or three sentences per image, up to four images per page and a maximum of ten pages in total.

Keep it clear. Consider your language carefully to ensure that you’re not using jargon, technical terms or things that your audience don’t need to know.

Be accurate and objective. Audiences will react in many different ways to a performance, so statements such as “You will find it funny when…” may not be correct. It is preferable to keep information factual, such as “There is a scene where…”.

Offer positive options. Noise, lighting and crowded spaces are off-putting for many people, but the aim of a visual story is to allay fears by presenting a situation in a positive light. For instance, you might write, “If the music is too loud, I can cover my ears or go outside to the chill-out space.”

All responses are allowed at relaxed performances. You should focus on describing what the reader will encounter when they visit your show, not how they are expected to behave. For example, “Some people will choose to clap at the end of the performance. You can clap if you want to, or not if you don’t.”

Be flexible. Rather than saying “I must sit still” or “I have to keep quiet”, you can use statements like “I will try…” or “If I want to, I can…”

Choose engaging images with a single focus. It’s preferable to have a picture of one character in costume than your whole cast. Close-ups are better than action shots or full-length portraits.

Be explicit about timings. As well as the start time and length of the show, it is useful to know the timing of each half and the interval, if you’re including one.

Tell the story briefly but in full. You should include the finale, rather than ending on a cliff-hanger. Usually, this is done by showing an image of each scene, accompanied by a few sentences. You can give a lengthier synopsis accompanied by only one or two images, depending on the target age of the audience.

Don’t worry about spoiling the surprise. Audiences at relaxed performances will often feel more comfortable and engaged if they know that a big surprise is part of the experience. It’s absolutely fine to say things like “This is the confetti cannon that is used at the end of the performance. It makes a loud noise so it’s OK to cover your ears.”

Sensory triggers are important. Increasingly, venues provide information on the presence of sensory triggers (both positive and negative). These might include:

  • Total black-out or sudden lighting transitions
  • Flashing lights / strobe
  • Loud noises or music
  • Repetitive noises (e.g. bell)
  • Drums
  • High-pitched tones
  • Unexpected sounds (e.g. crash, thunder)
  • Background music
  • Distinctive smells
  • Balloons
  • Confetti / glitter
  • Dust / powder
  • Bubbles
  • Smoke / steam / haze / dry ice
  • Gunshots / cannon
  • Trapdoors and sudden appearances
  • Characters or objects flying in the air
  • Characters expressing anger
  • Violence
  • Nudity
  • Audience members invited on stage
  • Characters coming into the audience
  • Touch tours of the set and costumes

It is generally advisable to show images of visual effects, such as smoke. You should also try to place the effects in context, which may mean combining this page with the story synopsis, e.g. “When Mary hides from Bob, he rings the doorbell several times. This might be loud but you can cover your ears.” You can put triggers in blue or purple text.

Reassure and affirm where necessary. You may want to draw attention to specific rules, such as sitting in your assigned seat. It’s absolutely fine to use phrases such as “This is important” if so. Equally, you may wish to reassure people about a special effect such as a gunshot – in this case, you could consider stating that “Gunshots are loud, but these are not real shots and no-one will be hurt while they are acting on the stage.”

Aim to give a rounded picture without overdoing it. You may wish to include images of the actors in costume, the major scenes or scenic items, special effects, and the curtain call. It is not necessary to feature every member of a cast, every prop or every scene.

Think carefully about your format. Would landscape orientation work better than portrait? What is the most readable font, and what size should it be (no smaller than size 12)? You should avoid using coloured backgrounds, as parents and personal assistants will often want to print out the visual story. It’s also best to save the final product as a PDF, rather than a Word document, and to make sure that you use the show’s title as the filename.

2 thoughts on “Building a visual story

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