About two weeks ago, I wrote about how England’s National Theatre has been developing technology and processes to provide closed captioning glasses to audience members who may be D/deaf and hard of hearing. In the last week I saw a story in American Theatre about how People’s Light theatre in Malvern, PA had started distributing those glasses developed by National Theatre to their audiences.
I had initially just thought I would make a quick mention in a post or just tweet as a follow up to my earlier post. However, the American Theatre article included such great feedback and observations of people using the glasses, I felt the need to draw more attention.
One thing I wanted to note is that People’s Light is using the glasses as one option among many that they are offering . They originally pulled out the glasses when their existing open captioning technology stopped working in the middle of the show, but they mention they are still providing open captioning and American Sign Language at performances. Their goal is to provide these services on a consistent basis so that anyone can decide to attend on the spur of the moment rather than being restricted to a couple of signed or captioned dates.
From the observations of those interviewed, the potential range of people who might use the services appears much broader than one might expect.
There are some obvious applications. One woman who experienced hearing loss in her 40s said she stopped attending performances even though People’s Light was just down the road and hearing aids were semi-helpful in understanding dialogue. Once she saw the email about the captioning devices, she said it took her 30 seconds to decide to attend shows again. Another woman who lost her hearing 30 years ago and helped People’s Light purchase the LED screens they use to provide open captioning also took part in the trial use of the National Theatre equipment. She was equally enthusiastic about the options it opened up.
Perhaps the best testament was related by People’s Light staff:
“On the first night, we had a woman who arrived late,” Bramucci says. “It was her first time coming to People’s Light, and rather than throw her into the theatre, we had to give her the tutorial. We were in the lobby explaining to her how the glasses work while the curtain speech was playing on a monitor. When she put the glasses on her face for the first time, her face just exploded in this smile.
“After the performance, she could not have been more enthusiastic or effusive in what this meant to her,” Bramucci continues. “She felt that she was in on the experience. When people were laughing, she was able to laugh with them. She felt incredibly empowered, and she said she thought, this is what it must feel like to feel normal.”
But in terms of potential wider use by unanticipated constituencies,
Abigail Adams, People’s Light’s artistic director and CEO, felt similarly when she tested the glasses (which are now available at all National Theatre productions) during a performance of Follies. “I’m more of a visual person than an aural person, and I really liked having that text available,” she tells me. “I think it speaks to the different ways that people process information.”
People’s Light is considering how they might use the technology to provide greater access to non-native English speakers on an ongoing basis. But also, perhaps employing them in a reciprocal manner to stage performances entirely in another language and provide the English translation on the glasses.