Captioning improves theater for deaf patrons

September 18, 2011 7:09:20 AM PDT
The 2011-2012 theatre season has started. Over the years, theatres have been providing accommodations to patrons with different disabilities.

Some accommodations are a little challenging to provide, like open captioning.

Chicago's Victory Gardens Theatre was the first in the area to offer open caption performances to theatre lovers who are deaf and hard of hearing. Last year, Steppenwolf Theatre joined the list.

On stage at Steppenwolf, captioning is viewed on an LED display.

"We take the script. We take whatever material we can get. If it is a musical, we'll learn the music by the CD and we score the script --for lack of a better way of saying it --and prepare a captioning template where we can modify as we need to go live with the performance," said David Chu of c2, an organization that provides theatre captioning.

"The first captioned performance took place at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey, and that was 1996. A year later, it makes its way on Broadway with our sponsor partner Theatre Development Fund. We've been successfully on Broadway since then, and we've grown our national foot print all across the country," said Chu.

"Our responsibility as a theatre captioner is not only preserve the integrity of the performances and give a service to someone who is deaf or who is hard of hearing, but we have to also not ruin it for the hearing audience or the people who don't need it," Chu said.

Steppenwolf's front House Manager Evan Hatfield says last year, they captioned four performances. This year, they are offering seven.

"One for each of our five subscription plays, and then one for each of our Steppenwolf young adults productions," Hatfield said.

The theater's biggest challenge is finding the right spot for the captioning display.

"We've positioned the captioning display at a specific point in the theater, and there's no one specific taste for how that is placed. So, some people like to be on the side. Some people like to be in the center. So, it's communicated to people that we want to be as flexible as possible in helping them find the best spot in the theater so they've receiving the best services," said Hatfield.

Beth Botts is thrilled to be going to theatre again.

" I have a progressive hearing loss due to an inner ear disorder. I probably started losing my hearing in my late 30s," she said. "And it was a big loss to lose music, to lose theater because I'd been a big theater goer. I used to subscribe to Steppenwolf. I subscribed to Goodman. I'd subscribed to the Lyric Opera."

Botts' first experiences with captioning was at Victory Gardens Theatre.

"And it was just a revelation to me to be able to go to the theater again after years of not being able to do that," she said.

Even though both Victory Gardens and Steppenwolf have captioning, they are different.

"The captioning at Victory Gardens is basically a slide show. My understanding is that its essentially a Power Point presentation. So, there's a fixed amount of text on slide, and there's someone sitting in the control booth who has to hit that button to make the slide change," said Botts. "Here at Steppenwolf, because I think they have a specialist theater captioners, and they prepared a lot ahead of time, they keep up they're right on it."

"The Victory Gardens captions are much larger, and they're projected on a much larger space at the side of the stage. Here, we're looking at a small LED screen that hold, I think, three lines of text," said Botts.

"I personally am a big fan of the theatres here, and we hope that it's just the first step in Chicago," Botts said. "Now, I have two theaters I can go to, both great Chicago theaters, world-renowned Chicago theaters, where I can go, and I can be part of this magical thing that happens."

Sunday is opening night for Steppenwolf's 2011-2012 season. Fr more information and schedule of captioning for both Steppenwolf and Victory Gardens theatres go to and

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