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Shakespeare for Everyone

Date: Jul 20, 2009


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By Linda Buchwald

"If music be the food of love, play on." So begins the beloved Shakespeare comedy Twelfth Night. On Monday evening, July 6, audience members at the Delacorte Theater who were deaf or hard of hearing could read these words on a screen as Raul Esparza said them.

The open captioned performance of the star-studded Twelfth Night was made possible through a TAP (TDF Accessibility Programs) Plus grant, a partnership between TDF and the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA). The program was launched in 2000 in an effort to make theatre more accessible to audiences of people with hearing loss. Theatres from anywhere in New York state can request up to $5,000 for shows open to the public.

This year, 17 out of 30 arts organizations received TAP Plus grants and about two-thirds of the applicants were from New York City. In the nine years since the program started, 39 recipients have been from New York County and 37 from upstate, but TAP director Lisa Carling is aiming for a wider reach. "It's our wish that more money go upstate," she says.

Applications are evaluated based on the needs of the community, marketing plan, and budget. The Public Theater submitted an application for this summer's Shakespeare in the Park productions, Twelfth Night and The Bacchae. "It received one of the highest ratings because captioning at the Delacorte would serve the community and increase awareness," Carling says. "The Public Theater is a perfect example of an arts organization wanting to be inclusive."

Andrew Hamingson, executive director of the Public, says that open captions are an extension of the theatre's mission-"theatrer for everyone"-and that Shakespeare in the Park was an obvious choice. "That's where we have our largest and most diverse audience because the shows are free," he says. "When we look to how we can affect the most people, the Delacorte is an easy decision for us and we feel that that's where we can receive the most people that can make use [of this service]."

Elizabeth Stump, 26, attended the open captioned performance of Twelfth Night. Stump, who has a cochlear implant, has been attending captioned performances since she found out about them in 2005. Though she is able to read lips, the captions make a huge difference, especially in plays in which characters speak with accents or sing. "Even with the CI, I still need to lip read, and with songs, which are so fast and muddled, it's tough to do so. So of course having captions for them in plays is a blessing," she wrote in an email. Captions proved to be especially useful for this production. "I enjoyed the show's plot, the scenery and costumes, the acting and singing," she wrote. "The captioning was essential for me to understand what was said, particularly because this was Shakespeare and his poetic mode of speech is so different from our everyday style."

Lewis H. Goldstein, 66, has been a member of TAP for about ten years, and occasionally attends non-captioned performances. "Captions make life easier," he wrote in an email. "I have attended shows without captions since my hearing loss. Most are difficult to follow." This was his first time attending Shakespeare in the Park. "The great weather, the full moon, the costumes, the acting all led to a really great evening with my friend Robyn," he wrote.

This is the fifth year for TAP Plus open captioning Shakespeare in the Park. Carling says that captioning keeps getting better as they experiment with different locations for the monitor and the widest seating area possible. Hamingson is aware that it is still a learning process, but is happy with how the evening went. "We've gotten a few letters thanking us. I think we've learned how to be more efficient and effective," he says.

For the open captioning of The Bacchae, Hamingson is planning for even better readability. He hopes that this will be an annual tradition for Shakespeare in the Park and expand it to other Public productions. He says, "I really feel that we're providing a vital service to an underserved community and I want to figure out how to do more of it. This is really a pilot program for us and we want to learn how to do more of it in the years to come."

For more information on TAP Plus click here.

For information on the open-captioned performance of The Bacchae click here.

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