Broadway series captions the moment [The Virginian-Pilot :: ]
(Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, VA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 15--Before the audience entered Chrysler Hall last month to see the musical "The Addams Family," Lois Boyle set her LED board on a tripod to the far left of the stage.
Then she made a tiny station for herself at the foot of the stage steps, with chair, table and computer.
Her modest setup hinted of things to come -- a way for people with hearing loss to catch every word said or sung during the musical.
If certain advocates on behalf of people with hearing loss hold sway this year, more captioners like Boyle will be setting up in more theaters locally.
Throughout the matinee, she would man the board, scrolling through the text at the pace of the dialogue as spoken on stage, which requires intense focus.
"I try to get it in rhythm," said Boyle, a court reporter by trade.
In preparation for her task, Boyle had uploaded the Broadway show's script into her software and deleted stage directions. She sat through the show the night before so she could tweak the text, adding descriptions of sound effects such as ringing phones and typing in sideways V's, called chevrons, to represent a new speaker.
"It is tedious," she said. "It takes hours."
When Don Doherty strolled into the theater, he glanced at the section of seats set aside for people with hearing loss, and at a discounted price. That's 24 seats in the orchestra, starting several rows from the front and to the far left.
Doherty, president of the Virginia Beach chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America, had come from his home in Moyock, N.C., to see the show.
"It's very much a strong advocacy of our chapter to bring Broadway shows to people who can't hear," said Doherty, 67, who enjoys theater and has attended most of the captioned musicals at Chrysler Hall since the service started in fall 2011.
He sat on the aisle behind Barbara Reilley of Virginia Beach, who said she first realized she had hearing loss when she saw the ABBA musical "Mamma Mia!" in London more than a decade ago and couldn't make out what was being said or sung.
Last December, she attended the open-captioned performance at Chrysler Hall for "Mamma Mia!" and finally understood all the words in the show.
"It's just fantastic that Chrysler Hall and (Broadway series producer) Jam Theatricals is making it available," she said, grinning broadly. "It opens up a whole new world."
As the lights dimmed on "The Addams Family" and Doherty took his seat, he was among just nine people who occupied the special section.
Gay Jones, box office supervisor for Scope and Chrysler Hall, said that since the city's Broadway series began offering open-captioned performances, most touring musicals have gotten one captioned show, on Saturday afternoons. This season, all shows offer that service.
These offerings draw an average of 10 patrons, Jones said. Some of those may be hearing people, since each patron can bring one companion at the discounted price.
Both Doherty and Boyle said many people with hearing problems can't afford even the discounted tickets, and many more still haven't heard of the opportunity.
Throughout "The Addams Family," the eyes of Doherty, Reilley and others in the section shifted from the 4-foot-wide LED board to the stage with only slight head movements. No tennis-match whiplash here.
They smiled pleasantly at some of the show's silly jokes, while clusters of hearing people laughed heartily. They shook their heads and grinned at times, and occasionally chuckled.
Reilley, 78, laughed when a character told a teen to quit texting and read a book, in the midst of a musical featuring ghoulish characters giddy for darkness and graveyards.
Doherty told her at intermission, "I test myself trying to listen to the dialogue. When I can't, I switch to the left," to the LED board.
Reilley told him she relied on the board entirely.
As the show ended and the audience left the theater, hearing people said they had appreciated the captioning, too. (The board can be seen by most of the orchestra section.)
"I liked it," said Amy Jennings of Hampton. If she couldn't grasp a bit of dialogue or lyric, she said she would glance at the LED.
Juli Schuszler Semanski of Gloucester said she found open captioning "less distracting" than the sight of a sign language interpreter onstage.
"What, the LED board? That was nice," said her husband, Joe Semanski. "I looked at it a few times. It moves nice. Doesn't hang up."
Before departing, Doherty acknowledged he never broke into uproarious laughter. "Some of the punch lines I laughed at and some of them I didn't.
"But I have a chance whether I want to laugh, if I think it's funny or not."
Doherty's organization isn't the only one promoting open captioning in theaters and spreading the word to people with hearing loss.
Shirley Confino-Rehder, who leads two local organizations devoted to accessibility for people with disabilities, said one of those groups has made it a goal this year to press more local theaters to offer captioning.
That would be the Norfolk Mayor's Commission for Persons with Disabilities, which she chairs.
Confino-Rehder helped start open captioning at Chrysler Hall by finding a group -- Theatre Development Fund in New York City -- to pay for the service during the first season. Since then Jam Theatricals has paid for open captioning.
The 1990 Americans With Disabilities Act, as amended in 2011, identified more options of effective communication at performing arts events.
An appropriate communication method is required if a person with disabilities requests it.
The law states, however, that if the cost of the service will place an undue financial burden on a smaller group, it may be exempt.
For people with hearing impairment, open captioning is now among the listed methods, as is signing. The problem with the latter is that too few people know sign language, Confino-Rehder said.
Lisa Carling, director of accessibility programs for the Theatre Development Fund, said this week that as many as 99 percent of people with hearing loss do not know sign language. "We've known that for a long time," Carling said.
Her organization is helping spread the practice of open captioning, because it is useful for all audiences. TDF provides captioning for about 40 New York-area theaters and, in a less condensed way, throughout the country.
Other local theaters have not joined Chrysler Hall in offering open captioning regularly. One exception is Virginia Opera, which has offered "supertitles" above the stage for many years, chiefly because operas are mostly sung in other languages.
But on the whole, Confino-Rehder said, "venues are not listening. They're ignoring it. Or they'll say, 'Next year.'
"People who are disabled are no longer waiting for next year."
Teresa Annas, 757-446-2485,firstname.lastname@example.org
Open vs. closed
Open captioning is a text display of all the words and sound effects heard during a live program or performance.
Closed captioning is a text display of the audio such as in a television program; the captioning is embedded in the television signal and only becomes visible when you use a special decoder.
Source: Lois Boyle of Boyle Reporting & Captioning Services
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