Captioning Live Theater: Accessibility in the Arts

By: Verbit Editorial

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Accessibility was in the spotlight in October of 2022 when an actor in the Broadway production of “Hadestown” stopped the show to reprimand an audience member for being on their cell phone not once, but twice. The problem? It wasn’t a cell phone – it was a closed captioning device. The incident led to several weeks of discourse about the need for more comprehensive education for performers and patrons about the kinds of accessibility technology they can expect to encounter during a live theatrical performance.

Due to recent advances in assistive technology, performance venues have been able to expand their offerings for audience members who rely upon accommodations. These tools are helping people equitably engage with a performance. While many venues still offer ASL interpreters for select performances, they aren’t available for every show. Captioning technology has made it possible for attendees who are Deaf or hard of hearing to participate fully at any performance they may choose to attend. Here are some of the ways theater captioning technology is helping make live theater more accessible for all.

What is a Captioned Performance?

A captioned performance uses real-time captions to represent spoken dialogue and other important audio elements during the show. The visual representations of the spoken text allow audience members who are Deaf or hard of hearing to follow the plot of a play or musical.  

Captions can be incorporated into a performance in a few different ways depending on the venue or production’s specific needs. In some cases, captions will display on screens near the stage or on small monitors in specific sections of a theater. Other venues provide handheld captioning devices in-house or offer captioning tracks via an app on viewers’ smartphones.  

Open vs. Closed Captions

It’s important to understand the different kinds of captioning in order to determine which captioning solutions might best suit a specific performance or venue. Open captions are visible to all audience members. No one can enable or disable these captions based on their preferences. Closed captions, on the other hand, are those that users may enable or disable at will.

For this reason, on-screen captions above stage or to the side of the stage would technically be considered open captions. Alternatively, captions an individual views on a manually controlled device would be a form of closed captioning. It all comes down to how much control an audience member has over their captioning options.

How Does Closed Captioning Work in Theaters?

If a performance venue doesn’t offer open captions, audience members who need the accommodation must use a closed captioning device. These devices are designed to convey in real-time the spoken dialogue of the performance.

Those seeking to closed caption in theater venues will need to transcribe the audio of the performance to text. Those captions should include all pertinent dialogue, song lyrics and any other elements that directly contribute to the plot. Once the transcript is ready, it’s possible to convert it to theater captions that sync with the performance audio’s timing. The venue can then make these captions available on captioning devices. Audience members can all then access this solution at their own discretion.

How Do You Get Closed Captioning in a Theater?

The answer to this depends on whether a theater provides its own captioning devices. In these cases, audience members who require assistive technology can simply request a captioning device upon arrival at the venue. It’s important to note, however, that many theaters only have a limited number of these devices on hand. As a result, some venues will not be able to offer enough devices. Fortunately, there are ways to effectively accommodate a large number of individuals if they require captions at same performance. 

For instance, the more standard means of offering closed captioning in theaters is by using certain recently-developed smartphone apps. Users can download these apps to their own devices and easily access the caption track for the performance. With these apps, anyone in the audience can enjoy captions from the comfort of their own seats.  

Other Uses for Captioning in Theater

In recent years, we’ve seen an increase in theatrical productions incorporating open captions into their production design and storytelling efforts. This innovation was on full display in the 2015 Broadway revival of “Spring Awakening” developed by Deaf West Theatre. The production featured several actors who were Deaf or hard of hearing and incorporated American Sign Language throughout the performance. There were also a number of scenes that took place exclusively in ASL.

During these scenes, open captions also displayed on a large screen above the stage. These captions allowed audience members who did not understand ASL to follow the narrative. This use of theater live captioning was an intentional artistic choice as it shifted the norm.  The production required those audience members who don’t know ASL to rely on the same assistive technology that those who are Deaf or hard of hearing often must use.

Caption Your Work with Verbit

With continued investment and education into closed and open captioning, theater patrons and performers alike can become more attuned to the needs of diverse audiences. Captioning live performances supports key accessibility standards and guidelines. However, it also makes it possible for venues and production teams to offer more equitable viewing experiences for all.  

Verbit offers a full suite of accessibility solutions including captioning, transcription, translation and audio description. These tools improve accessibility for a wide range of live and recorded content. By embracing recent advances in technology, Verbit is able to support even large-scale captioning projects without compromising on accuracy or efficiency. Reach out to learn more about Verbit’s captioning solutions and to discover how assistive technology can help make the arts more accessible to all.