At AbilityNet’s accessible technology event TechShare Pro 2018 on 30 November 2018, delegates heard how the theatre industry is working to create shows that can be more fully enjoyed by those with hearing or sight loss.
One person’s experience of theatre is different to the next. Like any piece of art, how we enjoy and interpret what happens on stage comes from our own unique perspective. There has been some provision at theatres for deaf audiences in recent years, including signing, hearing loop inductions, infrared systems, and captioning screens either on or near the stage. These aren’t common, however, and for some shows, captioning is often only visible in a limited number of seats and involves looking away from the main action. It can occasionally be distracting for other audience members or performers too.
Smart Caption glasses at National Theatre
Firstly, there was big news from the National Theatre in London, who, from the end of this month will offer Smart Caption glasses to audience members at every single performance. Using augmented reality, the glasses will provide those who are deaf or who have hearing loss with a scrolling written version of the script within the glasses.
Jonathan Suffolk, technical director at London's National Theatre spoke at the event about how limitations around captioning led to the launch of ‘Smart Caption’ glasses at the National. The theatre, along with Professor Andrew Lambourne (who specialises in textual information processing) created the glasses which were designed and produced by Epson.
In the short film below, Suffolk explains the tech, which has been four years in the making: He says: "The glasses use a speech following software engine designed by Lambourne, which listens to the performers' voices, along with lighting and sound cues derived from the production, to create a live timecode which is used to trigger and broadcast lines of captioning text. This is then transmitted over wifi into the glasses. We developed the method of broadcast and the user interface with our innovation partner Accenture."
The glasses have proved popular, with 51 people using them within two weeks of launch in October 2017. “We've had 100% customer satisfaction so far, which we're really surprised about,” said Suffolk. “We thought people would think the glasses were heavy; they are a bit cumbersome - but although they're early tech in terms of deployable, reality glasses, we're giving people a 90-97% accuracy, so it’s an immersive experience."
Bringing smart captioning glasses to cinemas
Now Suffolk and his team are looking at taking this assistive technology into cinemas for National Theatre's live broadcast and for use by cinema audiences more broadly. They also hope to work with the subsidised arts sector and potentially the West End to get the glasses used in many more venues.
Excitingly, for blind audiences and those with sight loss, the theatre is also working on audio description, so that those with vision impairment can directly receive verbal information about what is visually happening on stage.
At the opposite end of the theatre world - in terms of size and budget - we heard from the equally determined Philippa Cross, general manager of Talking Birds theatre company. At the Google-sponsored, sold out event, Cross talked about the creation of the Difference Engine. This tech is for deaf audience members and those with hearing loss, but is also broadening to offer audio description for audience members with sight loss.
Talkng Birds and The Difference Engine
Based in Coventry, the small theatre company frequently puts on shows in unusual venues like monasteries and recently a cattle market. It views accessibility as part of the creative process within such venues. The team has experimented with various accessibility options including captioning systems, infrared and even speaking into a mic from backstage to give audio descriptions. But, they’ve often found the options were expensive and didn’t work well in intimate spaces.
In recent years Talking Birds has been collaborating with Coventry University to develop an inexpensive captioning system delivered through a smart phone app - this is called the ‘Difference Engine’.
“When the iPhone came along. And (at the same time) the Arts Council had a fund for artists and digital we thought: hold on a minute, that's an opportunity - could we deliver captions, and audio description, to things that people already have in their pocket?” said Cross. “And that's when the Difference Engine came into being. We commissioned somebody from Coventry University and he made us a prototype using captioning and audio description built-in."
The team is still developing and testing the technology. Eventually Talking Birds aims to enable theatre companies to use the Difference Engine as a downloaded app on a tablet computer. The app will send a scrolling script to smartphones during shows. Currently, the company is supplying laptops and Raspberry Pis loaded with the required tech and software to get captions sent to smartphones during shows. The team is also excited at the moment to be experimenting with audio description.
There’s a lot of interest in the Difference Engine, with 30 companies trialling it in the last year. Disability-positive theatre company Graeae took the captioning system on tour for a month last summer and were one of four companies to caption every single performance at Edinburgh Festival last year, according to Cross.
“As Philipa said, we were delighted to use the Talking Birds app this summer. That was wonderful; we are always looking to find new ways to use technology,” said Richard Matthews, head of marketing at Graeae.
Graeae: Putting disabled artists centre stage
Graeae was keen to use the Difference Engine because the London-based company’s mission is to put deaf and disabled artists centre stage and give equal casting opportunities to disabled actors and to non-disabled actors.
There’s a lot the industry could learn from Graeae, which creatively embeds British Sign Language (BSL) captioning and audio description into all its productions. “For example, we’ll build in a character who will sign through the show. Those things aren't a bolt-on or plonked on the side of the stage or above the stage, but are part of the artistic fabric of the production, so if you took any of those elements away, the show wouldn’t be the same.”
In addition, Graeae always uses deaf or disabled artists to do audio description, to make sure they are giving opportunities to disabled artists as often as possible.
Matthews added: “We also never release content through any of our public channels without it being audio described and without it being captioned. We use a brilliant website called Rev.com which captions videos for one-dollar a minute. Then a free piece of software called HandBrake, which you can download from the web and use to burn the subtitles into your videos.”
Find out more about Graeae's work in this impressive compilation film.
Graeae finished by giving a snapshot of what innovative accessible theatre could be like in the future. “We want to look into the possibilities of incorporating different senses into shows,” said Matthews. “We want to see whether there is a way that we can bring smell into our productions, for example, so that audiences who are blind or for deaf can access the production using another sense. It's what we call the layering of access and giving different people with different access requirements different - but equally rich - experiences.”
There’s quite obviously still plenty of room for innovation in the the accessible theatre world. We look forward to learning about new chapters in the inclusive theatre story this year and seeing who is breaking new ground.
What works for you?
If your theatre company is doing something pioneering around accessibility using technology, we’d love to hear about it.