Theatre for All

Theatre is one of the world’s oldest forms of entertainment, but in recent years I’d stopped going. My hearing loss was too big a barrier to enjoyment. Now, thanks to technology, I once again have access to theatre, and I’m loving it,

On Easter Sunday afternoon my husband and I went to see The Ferryman, the much acclaimed play by Jez Butterworth that takes place during the Troubles in Ireland. It’s a big cast with many voices. As recently as two years ago the only way I could have seen the play was if the Theater Development Fund had offered an open captioned performance through its Theater Access Program. iStock_000002637313Medium

This Sunday performance was not open captioned. But it was fully accessible to me, for two reasons.

The first is that the theater is owned by the Shubert Organization, which has installed a hearing loop. (For a list of other looped theaters, check out audiologist Louise Levy’s website.) If you have a hearing aid or cochlear implant with a telecoil, all you have to do is change the program to telecoil mode (usually by pushing a button on the earpiece) and the sound will go directly into your ear. If you don’t have a hearing aid with a telecoil, you can use the theater’s headset, which you get at the concierge desk. But really, just go back to your audiologist and ask for a telecoil. It costs almost nothing.

The second reason is captions. My hearing loss is severe enough that the enhanced sound delivered by a hearing loop is sometimes not enough especially in a multi-character play (with Irish accents). Understanding that the loop won’t help everyone, including the signing Deaf, many theaters usually also offer a handheld captioning device called I-Caption. Captions are also availably for your own phone or tablet from GalaPro. For I-Caption, you pick up the device at the concierge desk and drop it off when you leave.  It’s important to remember that captions are not available on I-Caption or GalaPro until four weeks after the show’s opening.

For the second act, I switched to GalaPro. This time I methodically set the captions up during the intermission, so they were ready to go as the curtain rose. The captions were almost perfectly synced to the dialogue and I barely missed a word from that point on.  Given the fast dialogue, Irish accents, and the need for sheer listening stamina (the play is three-plus hours), my guess is that I heard, and retained, more than most of the people in the theater. The combination of sound via the loop and sight via the captions may have made me the best hearing person in the theater.

The GalaPro app is free and available for iPhone or Android. You need to be sure you know the correct steps to activate the captions – before the play begins. It’s not difficult to set up, and the concierge desk can help, but don’t wait till the last minute to get started.

You begin by putting your phone into airplane mode and then sign onto the theater’s wifi system. Scroll down the list of shows to the show you’re attending, and fill in the password. This last step is the one that stumped me. What IS my GalaPro password? Turns out you don’t need one. The site actually tells you the password (GalaPro1). But if you wait till the curtain is about to go up before completing the setup, you’ll find yourself literally in the dark and caption-less until intermission. Yes, this has happened to me, more than once.

You can check whether GalaPro is available at the show you want to see by going on TheaterAccessNYC, another useful tool offered by the Theater Development Fund, in this case in partnership with the Broadway League. The website is just one of many TDF services that make Broadway theater accessible to almost all. In addition to open-captioned performances, TDF-TAP also offers ASL-interpretation, accessibility for the blind and for people with disabilities like autism. The TKTS booths (at Lincoln Center, in Times Square, and at the South Street Seaport) sell same-day half-price tickets. TDF also offers special pricing for students, the elderly and many other groups. See here to find out if you qualify for membership.

GalaPro does have limitations, especially in a play with very fast dialogue. I saw Theresa Rebeck’s Bernhardt/Hamlet last fall, with the magnificent Janet McTeer playing Sarah Bernhardt. The play itself is intricately layered with McTeer playing Bernhardt playing Hamlet. It’s also very very fast. Everyone once in a while GalaPro seemed to take a breather, so I did miss some lines.

I haven’t tried GalaPro at a musical but I imagine the captions have an easier time keeping up, especially with the songs, which inevitably repeat many phrases. I’m seeing Kiss Me Kate later this month, with open captions via TDF-TAP. I’ll keep an eye on GalaPro for comparison.

Meanwhile, the loop can work very well on its own for me. Last week I saw What the Constitution Means to Me, Heidi Schreck’s autobiographical play. I had good seats, with a good sightline to the actors, and thanks to the loop I understood every word.

I’m very lucky to live in New York, where I have easy access to the theater. Until recently, I didn’t go much because it was too hard to hear. Gala Pro, I-Caption, and looping have given me back the theater again.

Meanwhile, here’s a list of looped venues across the country, with thanks to David Myers and Jerry Bergman.

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For more about hearing health, my book “Smart Hearing.” will tell you everything I know about hearing loss, hearing aids, and hearing health. Smart Hearing_Cover_highres You can get it online at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, in paperback or ebook for Kindle or Nook. You can also ask your library or favorite independent bookstore to order it.

22 thoughts on “Theatre for All

  1. I have been reading your articles for quite a while which I have been educated and enjoyed it very much.
    This particular article caught my most attention (I have mentioned it to you in the past) because I have been fighting/struggling to have closed captioning provided to me and to those who suffers from different kinds of hearing loss at our church where telecoms does NOT BENEFIT. Have been told that it is very COSTLY…ugh! Could I pease ask you for your help or advice of what else can I do to encourage our church? Have been tempted to conduct a survey to church members to find out if closed captioning will be benefit everyone, especially the elderly group.
    Also, have been searching for a tech device that will transcribe people speaking. Have you encountered this before? Saw it at hearing loss convention in Minneapolis that they were going to put them out in the market on February of 2019 but have not seen anything. Think they need funds for assistance.
    Hope to hear from you. Great article!!! There will be more technology out there that will blow our minds which we HOPE to see that coming to reduce our frustrations/disappointments!!!
    Thank you for reading this.
    Carrie

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      • Another option is AVA – an app that provides realtime live captions of the speech that is captured by another cellphone or the church sound system. We have been trying it out at my church (UU Society of Schenectady). We have not got all the kinks out, but we have had some successes.

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      • Katherine, sorry I wasn’t clear. The AVA system offers a service for conferences, churches, other venues, where there is a PA sound system. The sound system is connected to a device (tablet or phone) running AVA. The device is connected via Wifi to the internet. Any voice input to the PA system goes to AVA where it is turned into text, which then is sent to any smartphone AVA app that is connected to the particular AVA channel coming from the PA system. Of course their explanation is much clearer: https://www.ava.me/pro/worship/ … so the point is that anyone in the congregation with a smartphone can see the text of anything being said to the congregation through the speakers. And that is true even if you are not sitting in the physical church but have an internet connection to your smartphone. Again, our experience has had its glitches, but when it works it is terrific.

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      • This is something I’ve never heard of. What device do you plug into the sound system? How do people in the congregation connect to the AVA device that is now captioning using their own smart phones or tablets?.

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  2. Thank you Katherine! Sometimes detailed very practical explanation is truly beautiful, and inspiring, like this!

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    • Thank you too! I tried GalaPro three times before I finally figured it out. You don’t have to be a tech genius to do it, but you do have to be slow and methodical, words that don’t usually describe me.

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  3. As always, Katherine’s blog sheds valuable light on the quest for more and better accessibility options for those of us with deafness and hearing loss. The GalaPro app for closed captioning was a major breakthrough for Broadway accessibility this past year, as it enables us to understand dialogue, and also song lyrics, when attending any show on any date of our choice. The Shubert Organization deserves our deep gratitude for leading the way in introducing GalaPro to the theatre community.

    Just to correct a misstatement in the blog, thus far only one of Shubert’s 18 theatres – the Bernard Jacobs, where Katherine enjoyed “The Ferryman” – is equipped with a hearing loop for wireless telecoil listening. However, The Shubert Organization has pledged to install hearing loops as each of its venues undergoes major interior refurbishing.

    Currently, just seven Broadway theatres (plus Lincoln Center Theatre’s Vivian Beaumont and Mitzi E. Newhouse) are equipped with hearing loops out of a total of just under 40 theatres.

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  4. Thanks for this amazing information! Is there a contact person within the Shubert Organization who could be reached for duplicating this technology in other venues?

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  5. Soooo grateful for this!! My wife saw Ferryman last week, but I passed. I get most of the dialogue in small theaters with my CI’s but I knew that the Irish accents would just be too much. Did not know about the loops and the app. Thanks so much! I will be freer to attend from now on.

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  6. I liked your blog so much — God, it’s informative! What more does a one need to know?

    But how did you like The Ferryman? What did you think of it?

    >

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  7. Hi, Katherine. Thanks for writing such an encouraging article!

    Being pretty knowledgeable about hearing assistive technology, though, I did see some points to clarify:

    1) If people with hearing loss attending a performance at this theater do not have a hearing device with a telecoil, they would need to ask for the theater’s loop receiver (not a “neckloop”) or whatever else the theater provides that might provide them better access to the audio. (Some theaters may still keep their FM or infrared assistive listening systems and if they do, they will provide receivers that have headphones or earbuds.)

    2) It may not be inexpensive to add a telecoil to a hearing aid that did not come with one built in, especially one that was never designed to accommodate a telecoil.

    However, many hearing aids come with built-in telecoils that were never activated by the audiologist or hearing aid dispenser, so in that case, the service provider can be asked to set up the telecoil program(s). Because there may be two different kinds of telecoil programs available, it would be important to discuss what kind of telecoil program to use. (One program is designed for use with telephones and the other has a broader frequency response for use with assistive listening systems.)

    3) After one switches the phone to Airplane Mode, one usually then needs to turn on WiFi *unless* the Gala Pro app somehow turns on the WiFi automatically. I thought I’d point this out in case this step was one of the reasons you had trouble activating the captioning before the intermission.

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    • Thanks Dana, Very helpful comments.
      I fixed the neck loop reference. It should be “a headset” and it might, as you say, be IR or FM. One other problem I have is that I program my hearing aid via the phone and once I’ve got the phone on Airplane Mode, the hearing aid program won’t work. (It says it needs Bluetooth access).
      Not activating telecoils is indeed an issue. I can’t imagine why an audiologist would skip that step. But there are also hearing aids, like the Lyric, that are too small for a telecoil.

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  8. I share your joy about GalaPro and hearing loops. Together, even with my profound hearing loss, I did not miss a thing when I recently saw “Come From Away” by the Broadway Touring Company at the Performing Arts Center of the Fox Cities (Appleton WI). Twelve of us from HLAA Fox Valley Chapter attended the performance. Our PAC, according to what we were told, is the only PAC outside of those in NYC that have installed this APP. We were asked to test it before they committed to go through with the procedure to purchase it. What a thrill for all of us! It will be installed permanently for all the Broadway plays that come here. This PAC is in a city of 75,000 people. From the day this PAC was being discussed as a ‘possibility’, the founders created an ‘access committee’ that consisted of people with a variety of disabilities. It was built fully accessible. Had HLAA not had an active chapter here, it’s likely that those of us with hearing loss would have been left out. Originally, they installed the top of the line Infrared equipment when it was built. That included both headsets and neckloops. That was 20 years ago. Eight years ago, we suggested they install a hearing loop in the main theater. They installed loops in both the main theater and in a secondary theater after having a fund raising campaign that many HLAA members gladly participated in. We are so fortunate. I want to encourage everyone who misses theater because of hearing loss to be active educators and advocates. It’s too easy to sit back and give up things we once enjoyed. The technology is there. Most venues have no clue how many people would return to live theater if they were able to enjoy it once again. I should also mention that my husband, who has a very mild hearing loss tried it, along with the hearing loop. He too was astounded. “Come From Away” is a very fast paced musical. He said he enjoyed it more than he would have because of GalaPro. Definitely a ‘WOW’ experience for all of us. We now hope to establish a theater group for our HLAA chapter. Thank you for sharing your experience Katherine.

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