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Readers Theatre Open captioning reaches more, and says more, than traditional sign language interpretation by itself. That's why TDF's Accessibility Membership has made it a key program.
Wheelchair access for theatregoers with mobility loss has been on a fast track since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990. But for the 30 million Americans who are deaf or hard of hearing, the "ramp" to full theatrical access has been open captioning. Using a text display to provide a simultaneous translation of dialogue and lyrics during a live performance, as well as a description of any sound effects onstage, open captioning is available for viewing in a designated seating area without any special equipment needed by the audience member.

The Producerson Broadway

TDF's Accessibility Programs (TAP) have been instrumental in expanding open captioning, which is more inclusive of all hard-of-hearing audiences than traditional sign language interpretation. Under director Lisa Carling, TAP has organized more than 300 sign language-interpreted performances of more than 150 Broadway and Off-Broadway productions since 1980. Since 1997, TAP has organized more than 300 open-captioned performances of more than 200 different Broadway, Off-Broadway and regional productions.

"Playwrights Horizons' open captioning program would not be possible without support from TDF and TAP Plus*," says Sue Ferziger, Manager of Foundation and Government Giving, Playwrights Horizons, New York. "It has enabled us to better serve theatregoers who are hard of hearing or deaf."

In complying with ADA's access requirements, many theatres have been quick to address the needs of persons with mobility and vision loss, partly because these are easy to recognize. Hearing loss tends to be invisible. The availability of assistive listening devices in theatres is helpful, but it's not enough. And while the occasional sign language-interpreted performance assists 1 to 2 percent of people with hearing loss who use sign language, it provides no help at all to the majority of hard-of-hearing people who use oral language and benefit from captioning.

"Open captioning has become a welcome service for Manhattan Theatre Club's Family Matinee Series at the Biltmore Theatre on Broadway, and provides an opportunity for people with hearing loss to enjoy shows that they otherwise would not be able to attend," says David Shookhoff, Director of Education at Manhattan Theatre Club.

caption unit in place
The equipment needed for open captioning is fairly simple. A portable LED (light emitting diode) text display connects to a laptop computer equipped with a special software program. From the keyboard, a live operator triggers pre-scripted text onto the display from the laptop in sync with the actors for an "in the moment" translation. For improvisational performances, the operator uses a stenotype machine to input the performers' words verbatim that then appear on the LED display. This "real time" transcription is known as CART (Communication Access Real-time Translation).

Placement of the open captioning unit is important to avoid eyestrain. It's best to position the text display at the same depth of field as the stage that people are watching and at the same eye level with the actors; i.e., at the side of the stage by the proscenium, on the stage in an unused area or, for a thrust stage, on the opposite side so viewers look across the stage to read the open captioning.


Broward Center
In addition to TDF's sponsorship of open-captioned performances on Broadway and Off-Broadway, the organization has begun pilot projects with several regional theatres to help introduced the service and build new audiences. These open-captioning initiatives include: Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, NY, 2004 summer season; Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall, Sarasota, FL, 2004-05, 2005-06, 2006-07 seasons; Westport Country Playhouse, Westport, CT, 2005-06, 2006-07 seasons; Asolo Repertory Theatre, Sarasota, FL, 2005-06, 2006-07 seasons; Broward Center for the Performing Arts, Ft. Lauderdale, FL, 2005-06, 2006-07 seasons; Carnival Center for the Performing Arts, Miami, FL,  2006-07 season; Tampa Bay Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa, FL, 2006-07 season.

Recognizing TDF's and Carling's leadership, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts and Christopher Reeve Foundation honored TAP with the 2006 Excellence in Accessibility Leadership Award.

TDF SPONSORSHIP OFF-BROADWAY For more information on open captioning for theatre, please contact: Theatre Development Fund, Lisa Carling, Director of Theatre Access Project, 1501 Broadway, Suite 2110, New York, NY 10036. (212) 221-1103. lisac@tdf.org.

*TAP Plus is an open captioning grants program managed by TDF in partnership with the New York State Council on the Arts for eligible organizations in NY State. For more information, click here.

Copyright 2007 TDF. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint please write to robk@tdf.org.