Suddenly it all makes sense

 

After years of straining to hear what was being said in theatre shows, John Craddenwas introduced to the joys of captioning. And, he suspects, it is not only the deaf or hard of hearing who are getting the benefits

TEN YEARS AGO, I went to see an Italian production of Julius Caesar( Guilio Cesare) at the Lyric Theatre in Belfast. The opening speech was delivered by an actor with an endoscope down his throat, and live images of his gullet being projected on to the back wall. Another actor had had a tracheotomy and spoke in a rasping growl. Apparently this work was partly an exploration of the subversion of speech, which was probably the only thing that made any sense to me, on reflection.

I went along partly because I was curious about a line in the programme blurb, which simply stated "English surtitles". Surtitling is basically a bit like subtitling on TV except that it's generally used for operas and plays in a foreign language, and is therefore not specifically intended for hard-of-hearing audiences. The dialogue/lyrics are projected above a stage or displayed on a screen on or near the stage at the same time as they are spoken or sung.

Despite my ambivalence about this weird Italian interpretation of Shakespeare's tragedy, I enjoyed it for the simple pleasure (and novelty) of being able to catch every word of the dialogue, even if the spoken delivery of those words was a tad unorthodox.

Like many deaf and hard-of-hearing people, the world of theatre has often been somewhat closed to me. The fact that actors rely solely on the acoustic qualities of the venue to carry their voices, and usually without the clarity afforded by any electrical amplification, makes theatre a more difficult environment than, say, the cinema.

As a regular user of the 888 teletext subtitling service on the TV, it struck me at the time that a surtitling service, with only a few modifications, would throw open the gates to the world of theatregoing for those with hearing difficulties, perhaps for the first time.

Almost exactly 10 years later, I am sitting in row J in the Abbey Theatre for a "captioned performance" of Oscar Wilde's An Ideal Husband, directed by Neil Bartlett. Even though it's a matinee performance, there's a full house. There are two display screens, each sited at the front of the stage, one to the left and one to the right. Sure enough, the captions are like TV subtitles, but with one commendable difference: the synchronisation of almost every line with the actors' delivery is spot-on.

It is difficult to over-state just how much such a simple technological device improves the independence and delight of hard-of-hearing theatregoers. It also helps them to decide the quality of a play. This particular show has been lavished with critical acclaim, and thanks to the captions I'm able to say with some confidence that it deserves every bit of it.

Caroline Carswell, who is profoundly deaf, also thoroughly enjoyed An Ideal Husband.

"I thought the captioning was faultless and successfully relayed the plot's twists," she says. Carswell, who runs the Irishdeafkids.ie website, has seen all of the Abbey's captioned shows to date.

Sign language-interpreted performances have become more common in recent times, and while this is great for those whose first language is Irish Sign Language, the reality is that most deaf or hard-of-hearing people, including Carswell, are not fluent in it.

"I don't hear spoken words, so theatre was inaccessible to me until the Abbey introduced captioning," she says. "Musicals maybe, but not classic theatre. Now I'm now able to enjoy plays, even if there's still room for improvement."

She thinks the display screens were too far apart for An Ideal Husband. "Having to look sideways for the dialogue was a bit frustrating when the play offered a visual feast, with detailed sets and bright costumes," she says.

THIS IS ONLY the second year that Abbey Theatre audiences have been able to see captioned performances, which are coordinated by Arts and Disability Ireland (ADI). Last year the organisation was given a capital grant of €38,000 by the Arts Council to purchase captioning equipment, as well as programme funding to train a pool of captioners. The same grant and funding is also being used to facilitate a similar number of audio-described performances for those with visual impairments.

For now, captioned performances are confined to afternoon showings at the Abbey. But this year, ADI has been working with the Northern Ireland Theatre Association and captioning equipment firm Stagetext to train a pool of four captioners to work for theatres throughout the island of Ireland.

Freda Keenan, vice-president of the Irish Hard of Hearing Association (IHHA), helps to organise group outings for IHHA members to captioned theatre performances. She clearly remembers the first time she saw a captioned show.

"I went to the Belfast Opera House in 2005 to see Miss Saigonwith captions, and came home hooked," she says.

Keenan was among those who went to see the first captioned performance at the Abbey last November, of Bisi Adigun and Roddy Doyle's version of The Playboy of the Western World. While she was delighted to be able to see captions at last, that particular show, for her and others in her group, took a bit of getting used to.

"We found it hard to follow the captions as well as the action on stage, and the dialogue was very fast," she says. "However, the play was enthralling, and without captions we would not have been there."

Keenan says that some of her group changed seats during the show to get the screen closer to the same line of sight as the action on the stage. Others complained that they could not watch events on the stage and read the captions at the same time.

Information on Stagetext.org, Stagetext's website, suggests that people who have seen several captioned performances develop their own techniques for reading the captions: "Some like to read the bottom line where the latest text appears; others like to take in more text with a quick glance at several lines. Deaf people often made the same comment when TV subtitles were introduced but, after using them for some time, found they became very skilful at absorbing the meaning of the subtitles and watching the programme at the same time. It's the same with captioned theatre."

ALTHOUGH CAPTIONED performances are ostensibly for the deaf and hard of hearing, it's worth acknowledging the assistance they give to other audience members. These include people whose hearing is not as sharp as it used to be, anyone who has difficulty following strong accents, students who are studying the text of a play, and, of course, foreign tourists and others whose first language is not English.

Aside from Keenan's group of 24 from the IHHA, it is not known how many in the nearly 500-strong audience of An Ideal Husbandcame only because there was captioning. But I'm guessing that it was a quite a substantial minority.

• The next captioned performance at the Abbey is of The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui, by Bertolt Brecht, on Sat, Dec 6, at 2pm. For details of sign-language, audio-described and captioned performances at the Abbey, see www.abbeytheatre.ie/booking/access.html

Screen time The work of the captioner

Captioning is not just about typing in a script and timing it to the actors' words during a show. According to Arts and Disability Ireland director Padraig Naughton, there is approximately 60 hours of work involved in preparing a captioned performance, and the work begins many weeks before a show starts.

The captioner receives a video of the show plus an electronic version of the script. He or she then proofs the script and prepares it in the captioning software, making sure that words appear in a way that is sympathetic to the actors' delivery. Other elements, such as emergency announcements and offstage noise, are captioned too.

"The captioner will also see the show two or three times while preparing," says Naughton. "Timing is crucial, so as not to be ahead of the actors' lines and spoil the moment for the entire audience. On the day, the captioner will use a laptop computer connected to the two captioning display units to display the prepared script."

Each captioned performance costs around €1,000, but ADI hopes to reduce this once its pool of captioners are fully trained, says Naughton. The Abbey currently contributes €500 to each performance, with Arts Council funding making up the rest.