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.