Shakespeare in captions

It's embarrassing to admit this in Ashland, but I have a hard time understanding Shakespearean language in plays.

So I was glad to get an assignment to go watch a performance of "Hamlet" featuring captions for hearing impaired and deaf patrons.

I wrote an article about the Oregon Shakespeare Festival offering 11 captioned plays this season, then decided to write more about my experience with the captions in this column — from the perspective of a person who can hear, but not always understand, Shakespeare.

During OSF's captioned plays, actors' lines are lit up in red on a light emitting diode, or LED, board that sits near the bottom of the stage, on the audience's left side.

I was a few minutes into "Hamlet" before I could figure out how the reader board worked. The top line of text shows the words being delivered by the actor, while the bottom line of text shows the words that were just delivered.

This sentence, when finished, would look like this:

"would look like this.

This sentence, when finished,"

The trick is to read only the top line as it flashes up. Personally, I would prefer to read two lines of text at a time, especially since reading only one line usually means reading a sentence fragment.

But quibbles aside, once I got used to the reader board, it opened up Shakespeare's language to me in a way that I had never experienced before.

I've read Shakespeare plays, which makes the language easier to follow. The problem is without actors in front of me, it can be hard to keep all the characters straight.

With a captioned play, I could see the actors portraying their characters, plus read their words.

Most of the time, I could just listen, but when I didn't catch what an actor said, my eyes dropped to the reader board and — presto — there were the words in glowing red.

Being able to understand everything made the play easier to follow, and more importantly, it brought out the poetry in Shakespeare's words.

The entire effect was to create an experience that was both immediate and accessible.

That effect was heightened by the fact that OSF Artistic Director Bill Rauch, who directed "Hamlet," set it in modern times. The older actors wear suits and ties, while the younger ones — including Hamlet himself — wear jeans and T-shirts and listen to hip-hop music. Actor Dan Donohue, who does an exceptional job playing Hamlet, seesaws between grief and rage at the death of Hamlet's father, and a contemporary blend of sarcasm, cynicism and comedic wit as he subtly ridicules the murderous and powerful King Claudius.

OSF Accessibility Coordinator Jim Amberg said the section of seating closest to the reader board that is reserved for the deaf or hearing impaired rarely fills up — in part because some people have trouble admitting to themselves that they have developed hearing problems.

If you are not hearing impaired or deaf but would like to be seated near the reader board during captioned performances, call the OSF Box Office at 482-4331 to see if seating is available. You can find a schedule for this year's captioned performances at

If you would like to read any of the plays from this season, the Ashland Public Library keeps scripts on hand.

As for future performances of Shakespeare's plays at OSF, you can find me in front of the reader board.

Staff writer Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-479-8199 or

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