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The Power of Open Captioning

Date: Aug 16, 2011


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Caitlin Parton is a law student at the City University of New York who spent her early twenties interning with a U.S. senator. She's also a lifelong theatregoer, and the theatre is richer because of bright, passionate fans like her. Not that long ago, however, the theatre wasn't very accommodating to Parton or the hundreds of audiences members like her.

Parton, 26, identifies as deaf, and though a cochlear implant gives her partial hearing, she still hears less than most people. When she was young, that seriously hindered her theatregoing.

"My mother is an actress and her father was a Broadway producer, so I grew up having an appreciation of the performing arts and attending Broadway performances with my mom," she recalls. "I would enjoy them, but she would sit next to me and mouth what people were saying so that I could lip read when I missed it. We would watch movies of musicals before we would go to see the production, so I'd be familiar with it, but there would just be so much that I would be missing."

Audience members like Parton inspired Theatre Development Fund's open captioning initiative. Part of TDF's Accessibility Programs, open captioning displays electronic text on a screen that sits near the stage during a performance. That lets audiences read what actors are saying or singing and see descriptions of important sound effects.

[To see a video of open captioning in action, just go here.]

Parton was in the audience for TDF's very first open captioned performance in 1997: The Broadway play Barrymore starring Christopher Plummer. "I just remember being wrapped up in it and following every line of dialogue," she says. "I remember Christopher Plummer being a tour de force in it, and it was just amazing to not have to turn to ask 'What did he just say?' I was right there with everybody else."

Since then, Parton has seen dozens of open captioned performances in New York, but the service exists in many other cities. Some theatres mount open captioned performances on their own, and some get support from TDF's National Open Captioning Initiative, which reaches audiences all across the country.

"TDF is making this the norm," Parton says. "Other cities can start to see, 'Well, New York's doing it. We should do it, too.' I was living in Washington, D.C. for about two and a half years after college, and I went to see a couple of performances at the Kennedy Center that were captioned. I would not have gone if they hadn't been captioned, and I had really been missing the theatre."

Last season, she was especially glad to see open captioned performances of two Off-Broadway plays by Tony Kushner. "They were being produced and talked about all over the country, and I could be part of that dialogue," she says

Now, after almost 15 years, open captioning is integral to Parton's life in the theatre: "I can't imagine seeing a play or a musical without it," she says. "I've tried, and I just really don't do as well. It's really wonderful to be able to go and see a production with captions. It's life-changing."



Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor