Accessibility Captioning Open-Captioned Live Theatre

Open Captions for Live Theater

Nothing says welcome like open captions at live theater for those with hearing loss.

Our guest this week is our friend Vicki Turner, whose career as court reporter and CART provider began in 1980. Vicki founded Turner Reporting & Captioning Services in 2005 and soon after provided Las Vegas with its first open-captioned theatre performance. Her list of theatre captioning credits continues to grow. So does her passion for spreading awareness of the importance in providing accessibility. Vicki makes it possible for a person to fully participate in life experiences.

How did Vicki start captioning live theater?

Vicki: A student asked, “Vicki, do you think you can caption the play for me after school?”

“Sure, I’ll give it a try,” I replied. I had no idea how that exchange with the Deaf high school student I was providing CART for at a performing arts high school would change the trajectory of my career.  

With the caveat that I had no script, no names of characters, and I’d be going in cold and writing the show live in its entirety but would give it my best shot, we took our seats in the theatre.  

I did a decent job keeping up with the actors, but what I didn’t expect was what happened during intermission. When the lights came up, I turned to the student to see how it was going, and tears were streaming down her face. “This is the first time in my life I’ve been able to understand what was going on in a play.” The impact of that hit me hard, and I was hooked. I feel a pang in my heart to this day reflecting on that moment.

Fast Forward 22 Years
Vicki Turner with her open caption equipment leaving a theater.
Vicki Turner with all her equipment.

Twenty-two years later, and countless open-captioned performances in cities across the U.S. and Canada, my heart still swells. I think of the amazing patrons I’ve met who have become friends. Also, the extraordinary talent and creativity I’ve witnessed from the front row. All of which have enriched my life. Seeing people shed tears of joy at being given back a part of their life they thought was over still touches me deeply to this day.

It’s been a long road, often frustrating, to get to where we are today. Thankfully theatres and event organizers have advanced from the days of offering a patron a script with a flashlight to follow along. Or responding to a request by saying, “Oh, we already have an ASL performance.” Also, the theatre who said, “No problem. We have a really large speaker we can place right next to your seat so you can hear better.”

Open-captioned performances are much more common and mainstream nowadays. Theaters often set a specific date for an accessible performance. They have captions for each touring show in addition to honoring individual requests for alternate dates.  

Requesting Captions

I often am asked, “How do I ask a theatre for captions?”

The first stop is the box office. Hopefully they have been educated on what open captioning is and already has a provider or vendor they utilize. If you’re met with a blank stare, then ask to speak with the person that oversees accessibility for the venue. Keep going up the chain of command until you reach the director of operations or general manager, as needed.

If open captioning is a complete foreign concept to a venue, ask for a meeting to educate the theatre. Tell them why you need captions. Bring a CART writer who is willing to donate their time. They can write captions for the meeting showing what it is. This has proven beneficial. 

Offering the name of a trusted vendor or provider to the venue is likewise appreciated.   Oftentimes, if a theatre has not offered open captioning in the past, they have no idea who to contact. Theatrical captioning is an art form that enhances the performance when it’s done properly, and you don’t want an uneducated box office to call a court reporting or sign language agency or even a CART agency that is not familiar with the ins and outs of theatre. A non-trained provider can make a huge difference in the experience you, and the rest of the audience, has.

There’s a lot of amazing entertainment available as theatres begin reopening after a 1-1/2 year shutdown. Don’t be afraid to ask for the accommodation services you need and deserve to have.  

Using Assistive Listening & Captions

Chelle: All theatres offer assistive listening systems but at a certain point in hearing loss, assistive listening doesn’t work. That’s when live captioning made a world of difference in my theatre experience. Without it, I’m lost. 

In Salt Lake City we have Hale Centre Theatre, they have a hearing loop which is the absolute best sound system for those with hearing loss. It feeds directly into our hearing aids via the telecoil which are programmed specifically for our hearing loss. This also saves picking up a receiver and returning it after. I do well in meeting rooms that have loops, however, I could not follow musicals. The music overrides speech and lyrics. They don’t offer captioned performances.

Vicki provides live-captioned performances at the Eccles Theater in Salt Lake. Open captioning is the only way I can understand what’s going on in a musical. Now I must admit musicals aren’t my thing. I went to support captions, then faded out. Plus Eccles only offered captioned matinee showings which sometimes interfered with weekend activities. 

Feeling Left Out

Several years ago, I attended a play at the Salt Lake Acting Company, without captions. It was a terrible experience. The venue and play (not a musical) was something I wanted to be a part of. They claimed to have assistive listening but I found out it wasn’t much good for my hearing loss. They have an omni microphone above the stage which doesn’t pick up dialog like individually-mic’d actors. Even though I sat up front, I couldn’t use my lipread skills. The actors often looked another way or were too far away. The management at the time offered to let me read the script…a few weeks later. That’s unsatisfying. 

A black screen showing red font on the side of the stage. It says, "This performance of Hairy & Sherri is open captioned."

Vicki contacted me in October to let me know the Salt Lake Acting Company was offering their first captioned play in October. I had to go. Management had changed and I was happy to see accessibility on their homepage of their website. Captioning was not the only accessibility option. They have an audio described performance for the visually impaired, a sensory performance and an ASL interpreted performance. Wow! I went to the captioned performance and I loved it! Captions kept me included and I could understood all the dialog. I even laughed when others laughed.

San Antonio Express-News: “Newsies” transforms a cult Disney film into a stage sensation. Courtesy Deen van Meer

Michele: My first experience with open-captioned live theatre was during the SayWhatClub convention in San Antonio, Texas in 2015. With Chelle as the convention steering committee contact, Vicki Turner graciously volunteered her services for a performance of “Newsies” at the Majestic Theatre. The highlight of any convention is having a new accessibility experience; the cherry on top was spending time with Vicki during the convention and hearing stories of her world travels and adventures in captioning live theatre.

Assignment: People with hearing loss often accept that there are things we can no longer do; then, once an accommodation comes along that makes it possible again, we are in the habit of not considering it as an option. If attending a live theatre performance is something you gave up, purpose to request an open-captioned live performance at your local theatre and invite everyone you know with hearing loss. You’ll be glad you did! Requesting open captioning for a live performance is the best way to educate the public and theatre owners about accessibility for the HoH and deaf.

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