Nothing tests a good idea quite like an unexpected problem.
During the final open-captioned performance of Colman Domingo’s Dot at People’s Light, the LED screens that transmit the play’s text to the audience malfunctioned near the end of the first act. The Malvern, Pa., venue offers more than 50 captioned performances each season. Mostly it’s smooth sailing, but the possibility of such a snafu always lingers.
As the Christmas preparations of the fictional Shealy family of West Philadelphia descended into chaos onstage, the deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons in the audience faced blank screens. At intermission, technology specialists determined that the captioning could not be restored for the second act.
Luckily, the company had an ace up its sleeve. Earlier in the production’s run, People’s Light began piloting Smart Caption Glasses. Worn by audience members during a performance, the glasses project dialogue directly onto the lens, allowing the wearer to follow the action without having to glance toward the sides of the stage, where caption screens are usually placed.
The technology—pioneered at the National Theatre in London and brought to People’s Light through a partnership with Temple University’s Institute on Disabilities—had proven successful with beta testers. People’s Light was able to offer patrons the opportunity to wear the glasses for the remainder of the performance, alleviating the burden caused by the broken transmitters.
“The patrons were able to stay and enjoy the rest of the play, which is the goal,” says Lisa Sonneborn, director of media arts and culture at the Institute on Disabilities, who was present at the performance. “Open-captioning technology can be very cumbersome and clunky, but this is an always-on solution.”
Sonneborn first became aware of Smart Caption Glasses in the spring of 2018, at a time when she was turning her attention to the ways that cultural institutions could make their spaces and programming more welcoming to individuals of all abilities. Knowing that People’s Light has long been committed to promoting accessibility, she reached out to Marcie Bramucci, the company’s director of community investment, and a connection was forged. In January 2019, Sonneborn and Bramucci traveled to London, where they wore Smart Caption Glasses during a performance of Hadestown.
Sonneborn describes it as a game-changing experience: “There was a moment where the character of Orpheus comes from the back of the theatre through the audience and steps up onto the stage,” she recalls. “Wearing the glasses, I could turn and follow him, and I didn’t have to make a choice between the captions on the stage, the content, or the action. I could view them all together seamlessly and organically. That was the moment I thought this would be a sea change in how captioning is delivered.”
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’s commitment to outreach and inclusion has been ongoing for several years, and has sharply increased since Bramucci joined the staff in 2013. The company offered its first relaxed performances, designed to accommodate individuals with sensory sensitivities, the following year; the number of open-captioned and audio-described performances were also increased, and staff received training to recognize and support the needs of disabled patrons.
“My role is about identifying community needs and realizing how the theatre can be leveraged to meet those needs,” Bramucci says. “But when we talk about reaching the community, we want to make it clear that we mean the whole community.”
Yet even while People’s Light typically goes above and beyond what other area theatres provide in terms of accessibility resources, there is an ultimate goal still to be reached.
“We are trying to create a space where the audience is not restricted to one or two performances that are open-captioned during the run of any given show,” says Sonneborn. “The idea is that you should be able to book a ticket for whenever you want to see a show—or even walk in off the street, and if there’s a ticket available, you can see the show right now. That can be pretty life-changing for people who have been regularly denied access.”
Sandra Ellmore lives in Malvern, just a few miles from People’s Light’s main campus, and she loves theatre. When her kids were young, they performed in community productions, and she caught the bug alongside them. Acting in musicals and attending live theatre was a fun contrast to her daily life as the owner of a successful contracting company that specializes in garage-door installation.
Yet Ellmore began to pull away from it after the onset of hearing loss in her 40s. The introduction of closed captioning brought her back to attending the occasional movie, but the paucity of options at most other venues made live theatre a rarity. Connecting with People’s Light, which she discovered through a theatre-loving grandson, opened a door she thought was closed for good.
“I received an email about the [Smart Caption Glasses] program, and it took me all of 30 seconds to decide to participate,” she says. “I couldn’t answer fast enough, because I was so excited about the prospect of actually being able to attend live theatre again.”
Diane Bishop also jumped at the chance to be part of the pilot. A member of People’s Light’s board of directors, Bishop lost her hearing more than 30 years ago to autoimmune inner-ear disease. She has served as an advisor to the theatre on matters pertaining to the hearing-loss community, and she and her husband purchased the LED screens that allowed the company to increase its number of open-captioned performances.
Both Ellmore and Bishop had positive experiences wearing the Smart Caption Glasses. Bishop, whose hearing loss is in the severe/profound range, usually wears an assisted-listening headset during performances at People’s Light. “With the headset, I was getting maybe 50 percent of the dialogue,” she says. “The glasses allowed me to experience the play completely.”
Ellmore concurs: “My specific hearing loss is in the higher vocal frequencies,” she says. “Even with strong volume in my hearing aids, there were times when I had trouble catching the words in sequences when dialogue was quick. That’s when I knew I had my backup, and it clarified so many things that would have prevented my full enjoyment of the show.”
Their reactions mirror the stories Bramucci heard from pilot participants in post-performance conversations. One patron—an infrequent theatregoer—said that she planned to become a subscriber once the glasses became available at all performances. Other audience members praised the wide variety of customizable options, which allow wearers to control text size, color, and placement within the lens.
“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.”
Bishop credits thorough preparation for the strong response to the pilot program. Bramucci and People’s Light staff members conducted focus groups with deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to anticipate potential concerns, and partnered with several local chapters of the Hearing Loss Association of America (HLAA). Bramucci personally attended several HLAA gatherings to better understand the level of comfort chapter members felt with regard to seeing live performances.
“Marcie did a lot of footwork with the HLAA, and it’s already causing a buzz,” Bishop says. “It means a lot that somebody from a theatre is paying attention to this problem, and people are very appreciative and grateful.”
Ellmore believes that having Smart Caption Glasses available as a consistent option will bring individuals with progressive hearing loss back to the theatre, and that it may serve as a bridge for deaf and hard-of-hearing people who have avoided the performing arts due to a lack of accessibility.
“I hear so many stories about people with hearing loss avoiding entertainment venues and social events,” Ellmore says. “It’s often tempting to do that, because stepping out can mean going beyond your comfort level. I decided I was not going to let hearing loss define my life. Yet I was still afraid to venture to live theatre. But now, I feel 100 percent comfortable that I will be able to enjoy a show and not experience huge gaps of understanding. I left the theatre with such a feeling of satisfaction. I can enjoy live theatre again! I realized how much I missed it.”
People’s Light intends to offer Smart Caption Glasses at all performances by January 2020, beginning with the company’s production of Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children. Since the theatre recognizes that the glasses might not be the ideal option for every patron, up to eight performances of each production will continue to be open-captioned, according to Bramucci.
“The purpose of the glasses is not to say it’s a one-size-fits-all solution for everyone,” she says. “It’s a personal thing, and everyone responds differently. Some folks prefer captioning, or to have a device in their hand transmitting the text, or to attend a performance with [American Sign Language] interpretation. It’s really about choice.”
The company also continues to consider potential uses for Smart Caption Glasses beyond the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community. Adams hopes technology will be developed that will allow the glasses to provide real-time translation services to patrons who are not fluent in English.
“We are really nudging the National about it,” Adams says. “It would be our dream that we could do that for every production going forward too. We don’t have a time frame for it yet, but it’s clearly the next step.”
The need for better bilingual resources is underscored by the theatre’s premiere, in an upcoming season, of Eisa Davis’s play Mushroom, about the lives of farm workers in nearby Kennett Square. The play is written in English and Spanish, and Adams and Bramucci want to create a welcoming environment for patrons who are not native English speakers. Regardless of technological upgrades to the Smart Caption Glasses—which are made by Epson and cost around $1,200 a pair—Adams tells me that the current open-caption infrastructure will be used to offer Spanish-translated performances in the near future.
For Sonneborn, the regular availability of tools like Smart Caption Glasses signals a new approach to accessibility that looks beyond the minimum accommodations required by law.
“I think of our cultural venues as cornerstones of the community,” Sonneborn says. “This is where a lot of important conversations begin. What does it mean when we’re excluding people from those conversations? When we talk about the [Americans With Disabilities Act] or compliance, we’re kind of missing the point. The point is that we want everyone to be able to engage in the experiences we’re offering. We hope that more institutions will begin to think of access in that way.”
The ultimate goal, however, is to make people feel welcome.
“We want to ensure that every member of our community feels like ours is a space for them,” Bramucci says. “With any of this work, we are making up for past harms. There are experiences that people have had that were incredibly negative, and even if we weren’t a part of that, we are implicated in it. We are not only providing a particular service, but we understand that we need to go above and beyond, and that’s something we are very happy to do.”
Cameron Kelsall is a writer based in Philadelphia.