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National Theatre launches ‘transformational’ captioning glasses for deaf audiences

Open Access Smart Capture's glasses will enable D/deaf to read live captioning during a performance.
Open Access Smart Capture's glasses will enable D/deaf to read live captioning during a performance.
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The National Theatre has unveiled new technology that will enable D/deaf audiences to see captions for performances in front of their eyes using special glasses.

The move, announced today, could transform the theatre experience for D/deaf and hard of hearing audiences, the NT has said.

The glasses will enable D/deaf and hard of hearing audiences to read live captioning on the lenses during a performance, removing the need for captioning screens in the auditorium.

NT director Rufus Norris said the glasses mean that for the first time, D/deaf audiences will be able to attend any performance during a production's run, rather then rely on the limited number of captioned performances – up to four per show – that are currently scheduled.

Developed by the NT with its innovation partner, consultancy firm Accenture, Open Access Smart Capture is being introduced during a year-long pilot.

If it is a success, the result would be "transformational”, Norris said.

"If you think about it for even a minute you can understand that if we can get this right and develop this type of technology, the possibilities in terms of broadening our audience and really serving the people of this country are pretty fantastic," he said.

The glasses boast 97% accuracy in the timing of the captions, and can also facilitate audio description, for audiences with restricted vision.

Norris said the plan is to roll out the technology during the next year, meaning it will be be 'always on' in all three of the NT's theatres by October 2018. It will start in the Dorfman this month at performances of David Eldridge's Beginning before expanding to the Lyttelton and the Olivier.

It is hoped that audio description will be available for all performances by April 2019.

The project is one of two new initiatives being introduced by the NT around accessibility, the second being an online video database showcasing D/deaf and disabled actors.

Called ProFile, it has been developed in partnership with Spotlight and is available for film, television and theatre professionals.

ProFile has been in the pilot stage for the past year, and has now launched. It is free to use for actors and free to access.

It is part of a drive to tackle the under-representation of disabled actors working in the profession, Norris said, adding that the theatre industry is often criticised for being "nepotistic".

"Of course, that's just the reality of of trying to work with people who you trust and know. So one of the key objectives is to expand that database, and that list of 'my mates', so to speak," he said.

He added that ProFile also hopes to remove some of the barriers for D/deaf and disabled performers, for whom travelling to auditions and meetings can be difficult and expensive.

Norris was speaking as he launched the NT's new season of work for 2018.

The programme includes the UK premiere of Stefano Massini's The Lehman Trilogy, charting the rise and fall of the famed banking family. It will be directed by Sam Mendes and has been adapted for UK audiences by Ben Power.

Sophie Okonedo has been announced as joining the previously announced Ralph Fiennes in Antony and Cleopatra, while David Hare will return to the NT with the world premiere of I'm Not Running, set among a fictional Labour party.

New work also comes from Polly Stenham and Patrick Marber, who adapt classics by August Strindberg and Eugene Ionesco respectively.

Stenham's Julie, a reimagining of Miss Julie, will be directed in the Lyttelton by Carrie Cracknell, starring Vanessa Kirby.

Meanwhile, Marber takes on Ionesco's Exit the King in the Olivier, which he also directs. It will feature Indira Varma and Rhys Ifans.

Colin Morgan will star in a new production of Brian Friel's Translations, directed by Ian Rickson, while Joe Hill-Gibbins will direct Rodney Ackland's Absolute Hell.

Other new plays come from Natasha Gordon and Laura Wade, whose Home, I’m Darling will be a co-production with Theatr Clwyd and will be directed by its artistic director Tamara Harvey, making her NT debut.

Co-productions also include The Great Wave by Francis Turnly, produced with the Tricycle and directed by Indhu Rubasingham.

Elsewhere, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins' An Octoroon transfers to the Dorfman from the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond.

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