Expanding the experience

For deaf and hearing-impaired audience members and others with disabilities, the accessibility of a genuine theater experience at Oregon Shakespeare Festival is better than ever.

Since captioning its first play in 2007, OSF has continued to bolster in-theater services for its deaf and hearing-impaired audience members each season, and is discussing the potential of making further adjustments to better those services for upcoming seasons.

"We recognize that there is a need and a desire for these open-captioned and sign-interpreted performances," said OSF Media and Communications Manager Amy Richard. "It's becoming more popular as word gets out that we are doing this."

The festival has been asked to provide readable captions for performances theaterwide by the Oregon Communication Access Project, an advocacy group that focuses on making public venues more accessible to people with hearing loss.

"We've had conversations about that with them, and within the company," said Richard. "The main thing you have to consider is, how do you do that so that it's accessible and viewable by everyone, but not a distraction to those not using it?"

Richard said the theater has discussed the potential of installing a permanent caption board, also known as supertitles, to run above the stage, or installing small screens in the backs of seats. None of OSF's theaters is specifically being considered at this point in the discussions, and the project isn't at the top of OSF's list, she said.

Supertitles appear above the stage for most operas that are staged in Italian, French, German or other languages.

John F. Waldo, a spokesman and attorney for the Oregon Communication Access Project and its branch in Washington state, said purists thought the supertitles would ruin opera performances, but now captions have become the norm.

"Even so, with its current changes, the Shakespeare Festival is now by far the most accessible, for these types of plays, out of any theater in the country," he said.

Waldo, 66, suffers from partial hearing loss himself, and having experienced theater with good and bad hearing, said, "The captions are good for anyone."

"Most of us haven't been able to go to the theater for years .. so it's just a delight to see this happening," he said. "And you know what most people say to me when I walk out of a performance with open captions? 'You know, my hearing is fine, but those captions kind of help.' "

The festival plans to caption 24 performances during the 2012 season and is allowing patrons to request captions for any performance, a new addition to its services, said Richard.

Because most of the festival's audience travels to fill its theaters, OSF schedules its captioned performances in weeklong clusters, so that patrons can fully immerse themselves in the festival.

"If folks are coming to town to see an open-captioned performance, and they want to see more than one, they can. "… As a destination theater that's something we have to do for it to be effective," said Richard.

In 2011, OSF access coordinator Jim Amberg and audience services manager Radawna Wallace captioned 39 performances at the festival, and distributed about 10,000 assistive listening devices for patrons with moderate hearing loss. Additionally, the pair arranged for nine plays to be sign-interpreted, and audio-described about 100 performances for blind and visually impaired patrons.

Although some of the captioned performances weren't attended by any patrons with hearing loss, as many as 14 sat in front of the portable caption board for at least one play, said Richard.

For performances, the festival uses a portable LED board that flashes red captions from a perch below the left of the stage. A section in front of the board is reserved for the deaf or hearing-impaired.

Before a performance can be put into captions at OSF, 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.

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.

Both Amberg and Wallace were selected to receive a 2011 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Leadership Exchange in Arts and Disability Award for Emerging Leaders, but could not be reached for this article.

"Right now we're tying to provide as much as we can for our audiences with the limitations that we have," said Richard.

Sam Wheeler is a reporter for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at 541-499-1470 or email swheeler@dailytidings.com.

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