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Backstage: Harnessing the power of the written word with Stagetext

A unit in use during a performance of Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Mike Lusmore A unit in use during a performance of Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Mike Lusmore
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“My script is covered in notes saying ‘Wait!’ ” says Alex Romeo, with a chuckle. Pre-empting a punchline or a dramatic moment is every captioner’s worst nightmare, so timing is everything. Which means that Romeo, who was one of the first captioners in the UK to be trained after the captioning charity Stagetext was established 15 years ago, spends many hours with a script before she even thinks about getting into the theatre.

Once she’s formatted it for Stagetext’s software, corrected the spelling and grammar – “a lot of new writers don’t punctuate their scripts” – she watches a DVD of the performance, adding brief descriptions of sound effects and music cues as she goes. Also crucial at this stage is reflecting “the idiosyncrasies of actors and productions”.

“He’s saying it differently to how it’s written – is that a one-off mistake or is that how he’s doing it? So I do that on a scale of times a thousand, basically,” Romeo explains.

Then it’s into the theatre to see the show at least twice, inputting further changes directly into the software, making notes to herself and taking any queries that arise to the deputy stage manager. One more DVD run at home and, finally, time for the captioned performance itself. Little wonder that Romeo, who captions full-time for everyone from the National Theatre to the Royal Court, is at the theatre virtually every night of the week.

Haz Webb and Lisa Kerr in Kandinsky’s Dog Show at the New Diorama Theatre – a production captioned by Alex Romeo. Photo: Richard Davenport
Haz Webb and Lisa Kerr in Kandinsky’s Dog Show at the New Diorama Theatre – a production captioned by Alex Romeo. Photo: Richard Davenport

There are preparations to be made from the theatre’s point of view, too. The captioner needs to be booked first, which most theatres do through Stagetext, accessing the charity’s team of about 50 freelance captioners around the country. Then there’s the captioning equipment – about 60 theatres have their own or access to shared equipment, but the majority hire directly from Stagetext, avoiding the necessary £6,000 outlay on a captioning unit.

“For some shows,” explains Bethan Way, theatre programme manager at the charity, “we actually deliver [the] whole process. So we’d have a freelance technician who arrives with the equipment and then works with a member of their team to help rig that and de-rig it at the end of the performance.”

The position of the unit in the auditorium is all important in terms of audience experience. “In some theatres, that’s very straightforward,” says Way. “In other spaces, where it has to go perhaps in the centre of the stage or off to one side, there are certain seats then in the auditorium that become seats that are ideal for caption users.

“So at that stage, if it’s likely to be a very popular show, we’re having to work with different teams then, like the front of house and box office teams, to ensure that an allocation of seats is held off to book,” she goes on. “We’re just trying to encourage them to get as many caption users in as possible, and ensuring that it’s a pleasurable viewing experience is one way of ensuring that they get repeat attenders.”

It’s an expensive process, particularly for smaller organisations unlikely to see big box office returns as a result of introducing captioned performances, at least in the immediate term. But it’s worth the effort, believes David Byrne, artistic director of the New Diorama in London, who raises additional funding each year to present a captioned performance for every production at the 80-seat black box venue.

Not only does this increase the offer for caption users in London, who otherwise tend not to be able to see the sorts of emerging companies the New Diorama attracts, it also gets theatremakers thinking about access at the very start of their careers, designing sets with caption units in mind, for example.

“They do it here for the first time,” Byrne says. “It’s a safe environment where everyone is very supportive and it can be looked after and they can learn it before going to somewhere [bigger].”

Stagetext is currently working on a project, CaptionCue, which means that the cost of captioning will fall in future. Outputting captions automatically, the technology removes the need for a live captioner at the performance (though someone would still need to prepare the script ahead of time). It’s not ready to roll out yet, but it’s well on its way, 78% of audience members at a series of test performances at the National Theatre’s Temporary Theatre last February stating that the automatic captions were as good or better than manual captioning.

In the meantime, bringing captioning in-house can help to keep costs down, whatever the size of the organisation. Sheffield Theatres is currently working with Stagetext, for example, to train three staff members – a programmer, a learning project worker and a member of the front of house team – to caption shows across the organisation’s three venues.

It’s not just the Sheffield Theatres’ balance sheet that will benefit, says Claire Murray, communications and fundraising director. “It’s about our whole team being able to be engaged in how our audience is developing and changing and giving them the opportunity to learn new skills that, actually, they can take anywhere with them.”

Captioning Awareness Week runs November 9-15. For more information visit www.stagetext.org

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