Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Oregon Shakespeare Festival to offer more captioned performances

From the Ashland Daily Tidings in Oregon:

Deaf actor Howie Seago knows how hard it can be for deaf audience members to experience plays at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

"I've had to hassle with reading scripts with a small light to follow the plays," Seago said in an e-mail sent in-between performances of "Hamlet," in which he plays the ghost of a murdered king.

Seago said he is pleased by OSF's growing efforts to offer captioned plays for the deaf community.

During the 2010 season, OSF is offering an all-time high of 11 captioned performances for deaf and hearing impaired audience members. The captions appear on a light emitting diode, or LED, board that is set up near the bottom of the stage to the audience's left.

"There are more and more deaf people becoming interested in the OSF shows and it is great to offer them the flexibility of when to see them," Seago said. "I, myself, will be now able to easily access the other shows I'm not in."

Seago recently attended a captioned performance of "Pride and Prejudice." He said it was a nice treat to be able to access the language of the play, which is an adaptation of a novel by Jane Austen.

OSF had its first foray into captioned performances in 2007, when it had captions for a play reading in the Angus Bowmer Theatre, said OSF Access Coordinator Jim Amberg.

In 2008, OSF hired David Chu to create captions for three performances of plays, Amberg said.

Chu is the co-founder of the nonprofit group c2, which has pioneered captioning for live performances nationwide.

With some experience in captioning under its belt, OSF bought an LED board and decided to have in-house staff do captions for the 2009 season, Amberg said.

That effort is continuing for plays in 2010.

Creating captions for 11 performances this year is no easy task.

Scripts have to be stripped of stage directions and everything else that is extraneous to what an audience should read in the captions during a play, Amberg said.

Then a computer program breaks scripts into 26-character lines, but it's not able to divide phrases and punctuation in a way that would be logical for readers. For example, it might separate a period from the sentence to which it belongs, Amberg said.

So humans have to step in.

"It takes a tremendous amount of adjusting the script. It takes hours and hours and hours of massaging the text," Amberg said.

To use the finished captions in a performance, an OSF staff person sits in a booth behind the audience with a laptop and manually pushes the "enter" button to get each short block of text to appear on the LED board, he said.

The person tries to push the button just as an actor says a line so that lines don't appear before the actor speaks, he said.

Amberg was the person pushing the button for a recent captioned performance of William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in the Angus Bowmer Theatre.

"'Hamlet' has 6,300 of the 26-character lines. I pushed the 'enter' button 6,300 times. You cannot lose your focus for one second," he said.

Amberg also does audio descriptions of the action in plays for blind and visually impaired theater-goers. He said that doesn't require the same level of intense concentration and effort since he can have pauses during a play.

OSF Membership and Sales Manager Eddie Wallace, who sits on OSF's Accessibility Committee, said open captioning can help not only deaf and hearing impaired audience members, but anyone who has a slight hearing loss or difficulty hearing at the theater.

"With the graying of the baby boom population, we think that this is a service that will continue to gain popularity as a large segment of the population ages and confronts hearing loss," Wallace said. "Many people aren't willing to admit they need a hearing aid and this service could help them as well."

He said opera companies added supertitles to their productions years ago.

Supertitles are like the familiar subtitles in foreign films, but they appear above the stage for operas that are staged in Italian, French, German or other languages.

Wallace said purists thought the supertitles would ruin opera performances, but now they have become the norm.

Providing captions for performances in the theater world is becoming more common — as evidenced by the fact that Chu's c2 nonprofit group has helped provide captions for more than 800 theatrical performances in over 180 venues across the nation.

However, the practice is still relatively rare.

"We are wondering if perhaps we are at the vanguard of what theatre companies may be doing as a regular service years from now," Wallace said.

OSF has had several of its open captioned performances already and has scheduled additional ones, including: