Stage, Theatre & TV1st September 2014

Bringing Parity to the Theatre Experience for Deaf Audiences

Launched in 2000, STAGETEXT provide captioned performances for theatre shows and other arts programmes

by Sarah Lawrence

Photo: Ben Blackall
Photo by Ben Blackall

As a deaf mum sitting in the theatre with my two young children during the Christmas pantomime, I used to take great enjoyment out of the visual entertainment of the show and the smiles and laughter of my kids. The trouble is, because I couldn’t hear what was being said and there was nothing on hand in the theatre to help me, my theatre experience was always limited.

Thankfully, through the employment of BSL interpreters and the introduction of captioned performances things are changing. STAGETEXT has been at the forefront of the provision of captions in many of the theatre performances since 2000 when the company was first formed. Introduced out of frustration about the lack of provision for Deaf, Deafened and Hard of Hearing people, Peter Pullan, Merfyn Williams and Geoff Brown, brought the US based League for the Hard of Hearing to the UK, to arrange a pilot captioned performance of Antony and Cleopatra at the Barbican Theatre in London. After seeing the performance and talking to the people involved, the three went on to form STAGETEXT.

So what is STAGETEXT and how does it work. The company operates three different services:

Photo: Ian Cole

Theatre captioning is similar to television subtitles. The actors’ words appear on an LED caption unit (or units), placed next to the stage or in the set, at the same time as they are spoken or sung. Unlike opera subtitles for hearing audiences, captions include additional information such as speaker names, sound effects and offstage noises.

Photo: The Royal SocietyTalks with live subtitles: STAGETEXT also works with museums, galleries and literary festivals to make their talks, tours and lectures accessible through live speech-to-text transcription (STT), also called 'live subtitles'. A speech-to-text reporter (STTR) transcribes every word a speaker says using a special electronic shorthand keyboard which allows them to type phonetically (how words sound rather than how they are spelt). The words are then immediately converted back into English by a computer software program, enabling the STTR to keep up with the speed of spoken English.

Digital captioning: They are now branching out into digital access. Six acclaimed captioned theatre productions, filmed live in a range of UK venues will be available to download online from 18 September 2014 thanks to our exciting partnership with Digital Theatre.

Photo: Simon AnnandWith an ever growing Hard of Hearing population in the UK and the recognition that many of these people would like to be theatre goers, more and more venues and theatre producers are recognising the need to offer captioned performances. For STAGETEXT, a leading provider of captions, this has meant they have been used to caption 297 theatre performances in the last year, along with 100 talks with live subtitles in theatres, museums, galleries and festivals. It was pleasing to learn that the number of captioned performances each year is growing steadily, with much of the expansion driven by audience demand and use of the service by a wider range of arts organisations.

To provide audiences with the best possible experience STAGETEXT put a lot of time and effort into getting their captions right. This means that for scripted performances, a trained captioner prepares the captions in advance, formatting the script into the captioning software. The preparation of a captioning script can take between 50 to 80 hours per show! With good knowledge of the show, the captioner then cues the captions live as the action unfolds on stage.

Critical to success is the placement of the captioning boxes for the people who will want to use them. For previously unused venues, this needs a site visit to look at the lay out and negotiation about the best positioning. Similar to Richard Turner’s appreciation of the service STAGETEXT provide, they get a lot of feedback from Deaf, Deafened and Hard of Hearing people explaining the difference it has made to their theatre going. For some people, like me, it means I can now share in this entertainment as member of my family group.

Photo: Jeremy FowlerWith the recent expansion STAGETEXT has expanded so that it now employs 10 members of staff, two of whom are Deaf. As a registered charity, they hope to continue to grow so that more and more Deaf, Deafened and Hard of Hearing people can enjoy the arts. The trick is for deaf people to support the captioned performances, so that producers can see that the finance side of providing the service still makes sense.

To find out about captioned performances sign up to their free monthly e-newsletter, linked to the latest What’s On Diary, simply by emailing (subject line SIGN UP), or by visiting the What’s on pages the website:

Photo: Benedict Johnson Photography
Photo: Benedict Johnson Photography

STAGETEXT have provided a number of short films to explain what they do. They are not available in BSL, but subtitles are available.

In this short film, Peter Pullan explains a little about how it all started, the history of the charity, and the early years of captioning in the UK.

In this short film, captioner Alex Romeo tells us all about the work that goes into captioning one show.

In this short film, audience members talk about their experience of attending captioned theatre performances.

Article by Sarah Lawrence

posted in Entertainment / Stage, Theatre & TV

1st September 2014