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CAPTIONS COURAGEOUS Because John Waldo made himself heard, Seattle theatregoers with hearing loss now have more access--and a trend-setting model.
On Dec. 28, at a performance of The Color Purple at Seattle's Paramount Theatre, audiences will be able to read along with the lyrics and the dialogue, thanks to open captioning provided by the New York-based company C2. That may not sound revolutionary, but it could prove to be part of the beginning of a new awakening to the accessibility needs of theatregoers nationwide.

And it's in part because John Waldo, a lawyer with high-toned hearing loss, started to make a little noise in his Washington State town.

"I started corresponding with some of the Seattle theatres about a year ago, saying, 'Look guys, I know you're trying to do the right thing in terms of access by providing listening devices and sign-language performances,' " Waldo says, indicating the standard accessibility approach of most conscientious theatres, big and small. "But I told them, 'You're probably not aware that there's a pretty big hole in that donut. Most hearing aid devices don't help with high-tone hearing loss, and most people with hearing loss like ours don't do sign language.' "

He asked theatres, in short, if they could do what he relies on when watching other entertainment media: convert dialogue and speech into text.

"It can be done as primitively as giving us a script and a penlight, or as elaborately as something resembling captioning that's done at the opera, where you have it individually at every seat and you can turn it on or off," Waldo says.

His efforts referenced the Americans With Disabilities Act and its requirement to provide "reasonable accommodation" to persons with disabilities. Washington has a state law that's even more specific, Waldo points out: "It says specifically that state facilities have to make their operations 'accessible and understandable.' And that means you have specific responsibilities to the proportion of the population that has hearing loss."

The Paramount came around to Waldo's request, as he put it, "without us having to put up our dukes." Other area theatres proved more recalcitrant, so Waldo formed the Washington Communications Access Project, or Wash-CAP, to advocate for Seattle-area theatregoers with hearing loss.

Here's where New York's Theatre Development Fund, which is on the cutting edge of theatre accessibility, comes in. Waldo contacted TDF, which works with open-captioning operators as well as sign-language interpreters, and TDF put Wash-CAP in touch with C2. On Oct. 1, 2008, The Phantom of the Opera at the Paramount played "The Music of the Night," but thanks to TDF and C2, there were also "Captions of the Night." Later that month, Spring Awakening also had its words (even the dirty ones) projected. Color Purple is next in line, with more open-captioned performances planned in 2009.

Captioning is especially helpful with musicals, Waldo explains.

"In normal everyday speech, people with high-toned hearing loss can do pretty well at knowing what people are saying," Waldo says. "But in drama, and particularly in musical theatre, the interesting parts are when people say unexpected things, and any kind of noise that interferes with that, like musical accompaniment, makes it almost imposible for us to pick up on the words. For theatres that have financial wherewithal, we're advocating captioning. And for smaller theatres, we're saying, 'There's always something you can do, even if it's as simple as a script and penlight.' "

Access, as theatre advocates like those at TDF know well, is more than just a disability issue: It's literally about making the theatre more accessible and enjoyable to more people so they show up--and keep coming back.

As Waldo puts it, "Give us something so we can read what's being said, and we'll be there."

Click here for more information of TDF's Accessibility Programs.