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Making Theater Accessible to People With Trouble Hearing

By: New York Times
Date: Jun 18, 2002

It was 2:10 on a Wednesday afternoon, and the lights had gone down at the Palace Theater for the first act of ''Aida.'' In a museum of Egyptian antiquities, a statue of Amneris, daughter of the pharaoh, was announcing in song ''the story of a love that flourished in a time of hate.'' To the right of the stage, just beyond the proscenium, on a black screen 14 inches high and a little more than 4 feet long, Amneris's words were being displayed in three rows of bright red electronic letters.

This was a special open-captioned performance provided for the deaf and hearing impaired, one of 24 such performances of a total of 18 plays and musicals on and off Broadway in the season that ended on June 30.

''I wouldn't be here today if it wasn't open-captioned,'' Nancy Osmun, 42, of Bethlehem, Pa., said just before the show began. Ms. Osmun is one of more than 28 million deaf or hearing-impaired Americans, the largest disability group in the country. She has seen several open-captioned performances, including ''42nd Street,'' ''Betrayal'' and ''Kiss Me, Kate.'' She does not use American Sign Language, and the theaters' infrared listening devices are not sufficient to make up for her hearing loss.

It is for theatergoers like Ms. Osmun that the open-captioning system was devised, said Lisa Carling, director of the Theater Access Project of the nonprofit Theater Development Fund, or T.D.F., which presents the performances. ''With open-captioning, the majority of people with hearing loss can attend the theater,'' she said. ''It's been encouraging to get letters from people who now are able to come to open-captioned performances who say they hadn't been to the theater in 20 years because they just couldn't hear well enough.''

The relationship of deaf people to the arts is attracting growing interest. Deaf Way II, an international festival and conference on issues involving deaf people and the arts, took place this month in Washington. It featured 400 visual, performing and literary artists, and more than 8,500 people from 108 countries registered to attend.

T.D.F. has been offering sign-language-interpreted performances on Broadway since 1980, Ms. Carling said -- there were 12 last season of 7 Broadway productions. But only about 2 percent of deaf or hearing-impaired people use mainly sign language.

Mary Silvestri of Danbury, Conn., who began losing her hearing at age 2 and learned sign language in college, has attended both open-captioned and sign-language-interpreted performances with her husband, Jim, who is not hearing impaired, and their three deaf children. ''I like both,'' she said. But she prefers open-captioning ''because I can see the actual words.''

The system used for open-captioning at ''Aida'' was introduced in 1996 at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, N.J. It was started by Donald R. DePew, a court reporter who had been providing captioning at meetings of organizations for the hard of hearing. Mr. DePew was asked by Arlene Romoff, a board member of Advocates for Better Communication, an affiliate of the League for the Hard of Hearing, to adapt the captioning system for the theater -- to in effect set up a portable version of the titles used at places like the Metropolitan Opera and City Opera.

The captioning at the Paper Mill Playhouse, of a performance of ''Gigi,'' was a success, and the next year, sponsored by T.D.F., the system crossed the Hudson to Broadway, with 24 performances of 13 productions.

T.D.F.'s ticket sales for open-captioned performances are about double those for sign-language performances, Ms. Carling said. About 100 people attended the Wednesday matinee of ''Aida'' through T.D.F., she said. In the season that ran from July 2000 through June 2001, nearly 3,000 people attended 32 open-captioned performances of 23 productions, 20 on Broadway and 3 Off Broadway, through the T.D.F. program. Last season, she said, the attendance figure was more than 2,000. For the program, T.D.F. offers tickets at half price.

To prepare a show for captioning, the script is ''cut into bite-sized portions'' and entered into a computer, said David Chu, Mr. DePew's assistant, who was handling the captioning for ''Aida.'' ''The text usually doesn't take up the whole of any of the three lines. It's easier to read that way, vertically rather than horizontally, like a narrow column in a newspaper.''

Mr. Chu attends several performances in advance to attune his timing to the pace of the show. At ''Aida,'' he sat in the first row, next to the screen, which was attached to a large black tripod. Hearing-impaired audience members were seated nearby. Mr. Chu's laptop computer, containing the dialogue and lyrics, was connected to the screen. As a line was spoken, Mr. Chu's fingers attacked the keyboard to place those words on the L.E.D. screen, usually just as the performer finished uttering them.

''When there's dancing onstage, the screen goes completely black, so it doesn't get in the way,'' he said.

At first there was concern that some nonhearing-impaired audience members might find the captions distracting. But Ms. Carling said she had found that the opposite was true.

''Nonhearing-impaired people love it,'' she said, ''especially with shows that are heavy in dialect, like 'Stones in His Pockets' or 'Beauty Queen of Leenane,' or even 'Copenhagen,' which was very heavy on technical language. People don't always catch every word, and that's also especially true with song lyrics.'' Few operagoers object, and many praise the captions as especially helpful.

Ms. Carling said that T.D.F. had a mailing list of about 2,000 deaf or hard of hearing people who are notified of performances. Announcements are also posted on the organization's Web site,, in a cultural calendar for the deaf distributed by Hands On, a New York-based service organization, and in a calendar of events put out by the League of American Theaters and Producers, the Broadway trade group.

''There's a great capacity for open-captioning to expand nationwide,'' she said. In addition to the Paper Mill Playhouse, the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, N.J., and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark use open-captioning regularly, she said. The Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington and the Philadelphia Theater Company have also started to use the process. T.D.F. also took captioning to the Royal Shakespeare Company in London two years ago for a performance of ''Antony and Cleopatra,'' she said, ''and now they have begun to do captioning on their own.''

''So many people don't come to the theater because captioning is not provided for them,'' Ms. Carling said. ''There's a huge untapped audience out there.''
New York Times