Hard times on Broadway for the Hard of Hearing

Laura Grasso anxiously arrived at the Chernuchin Theater, one of the three venues of the 54th Street American Theater of Actors.  It was 7:30 p.m., which allowed her plenty of time to search for her seat and flip through the fresh-pressed Playbill before the curtain was to rise.

The theater was dim and intimate, with only 140 seats staring straight at the stage.  Her knees knocked against the seat in front of her and she tried to stealthily maneuver her elbows without disrupting her neighbors’ on the narrow armrests.  But at $20 a ticket, the compact confines of the Chernuchin were all part of the experience.

As theatergoers carefully shuffled to their seats, the audience’s anticipatory chatter buzzed throughout the black box.  She was excited for the show, the Tragedians of the City and Northwest Passage Theater Collective’s rendition of “Romeo and Juliet.”  The off-Broadway production was to stay true to the play’s authentic performance, with Early Modern English dialogue and an all-male cast.

But for Grasso, one of the 278 million people worldwide who have moderate to profound hearing loss in both ears, the experience was a disappointment.

“It was a good thing I knew the story of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ because 90 percent of the time I felt like I missed a lot of the dialogue,” Grasso said.

At a young age, Grasso was diagnosed with bilateral, moderately severe sensorineural hearing loss. SNHL occurs when there is damage to one’s cochlea (inner ear) or to the nerves connecting the cochlea and the brain.  SNHL can rarely be medically or surgically treated, and while many patients use hearing aids to increase the volume of everyday sound, SNHL has a tendency to obfuscate speech.

“No, we don’t provide assisted listening devices,” replied the phone representative from the American Theater for Actors.  He snickered, “The Theater is small.  The audience is only about two feet from the stage, it’s very loud.”  But 90 percent of Americans with hearing difficulties – 7 percent of the entire US population – suffer from SNHL, where the issue is not so much volume as it is clarity.

“It was so exhausting that I eventually just had to sit back and watch, taking it in visually,” Grasso said.  “There is a difference between active and passive listening. Passive listening is what people are able to do, like breathing, it just happens naturally, effortlessly.  But hard of hearing individuals are required to listen actively, diligently identifying and processing sound and speech in order to fully comprehend a scene.”

An experienced freelance writer and content strategist, Laura Grasso began working as the Foundation and Corporation Gifts Manager at the Center for Hearing and Communication (CHC) in New York City in February of 2011.  The CHC is a comprehensive clinic that provides hearing-related healthcare services such as hearing tests, hearing aids and assistive devices, and speech and language therapy. The CHC also sponsors outreach and public education projects to increase social awareness.

“I love theater and I would go much more frequently if it were more accessible to me,” Grasso said.

The Americans with Disabilities Act outlines that “Places of public accommodation must provide assistive listening systems, interpreters and other auxiliary aids unless it would constitute an ‘undue burden’ or ‘fundamental alteration’ of their services.”  Though some theaters like the Chernuchian do not offer assisted listening systems, most Broadway theaters do provide the technology.

But hearing loss is different from vision loss.  There is no numerical prescription – both the impediment and the treatment are individual.

“I know that assisted listening devices have helped a lot of people enjoy the theater experience, but they don’t work for everyone,” Grasso said.  Grasso saw “Billy Elliot: the musical” last year with her mother, who is also hard of hearing.  Grasso noted, “We used the assisted listening devices, but while the sound was louder, the dialogue was still muffled and slightly delayed.”

In 2003, the American Sign Language ASL version of “Big River” came to Broadway’s Roundabout Theatre Company.  Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood created the adaptation in 2001, featuring both mainstream and deaf actors who signed the entire show while speaking, singing, and dancing.

While the ASL rendition of “Big River” was a success, teaching an entire Broadway cast to sign may not be the most efficient way to make a show accessible, especially for a show where performers must dance and sing simultaneously.  However, ASL is still employed to make Broadway more accessible.  The New York City-based non-profit organization Hands On produces up to thirty ASL-interpreted Broadway and off-Broadway performances each year.

As of Spring 2010, movie theaters in the United States became obligated to offer closed-captioning.  Most theaters opt for the Rear Window Captioning System, an inexpensive individual technology that projects subtitles of both the dialogue and action of a scene from the back of the theater onto a small mirror held by an audience member.  Captioning mandates, however, do not apply to live theater.

Captioned Broadway performances do exist, if you’re willing to seek them out.  The Theater Development Fund’s Access for Young Audiences program invites hard of hearing students to select, free Broadway matinee performances that are outfitted with both ASL interpreters and open-captioning on large screens on either side of the stage.

While Laura Grasso has not attended an ASL-interpreted or open-captioned Broadway show, she has experienced the technology in other live arts venues.  The CHC hosts a comedy night as a fundraiser for its outreach projects, public education and clinical services for the hard of hearing population in New York City.  This event is the only completely aurally accessible comedy performance in the city, boasting both ASL sign language interpretation and open-captioning.

“The comics are hilarious,” Grasso said.  “They make the accessibility part of the show by having the sign-language interpreters translate really silly or vulgar jokes.  And I didn’t find the ASL or captioning distracting because of their integration with the performance.”

Grasso is excited to attend “Tribes,” an off-Broadway play that explores the life of a deaf man and his struggle to be understood.  After receiving pressure from the hard of hearing community, the theater added open-captioned showings through the Theatre Development Fund.

Yet such synergy of accessibility and story line is unrealistic for most Broadway shows, and both ASL interpretation and open-captioning can be distracting to mainstream audiences.

The concept of closed-captioning has crept its way into a few progressive theaters that line the lighted Broadway.  Sound Associates, Inc. has provided assisted listening devices to Broadway audiences for over thirty years and recently developed I-Caption personal closed-captioning for deaf and hard of hearing patrons.

Sound Associates, Inc.’s I-Caption is “a state of the art wireless visual aid that provides verbatim closed captions in real time for live theatrical performances or public events.  This fully automated system displays dialogue, lyrics, and sound effects on a handheld display, assisting the hearing impaired patron to better understand the plot of a theatrical production or public event.

“The beauty of live performance is that no show is the same,” said Mark Annunziato, Vice President of Operations at Sound Associates, Inc.  “I-Caption is automated, timed to the show. The technology utilizes show controls like lighting, sound, music and set change cues to stay in real time with the show.”

The technology exists – but real implementation of the technology is another story.  Currently only four of the forty Broadway shows are fully equipped with I-Caption.  Not surprisingly, these four theaters house the most popular and profitable musicals: “The Book of Mormon” at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre, “Jersey Boys” at the August Wilson Theatre, “Wicked” at the Gershwin Theatre, and “Mamma Mia!” at the Cadillac Winter Garden Theatre.

“It’s not cheap,” Annunziato said of the technology, which runs between five and six hundred dollars per device.  “Production has to pay for the implementation of I-Caption.  Some shows like ‘Jersey Boys’ expect a long run and can upfront the costs, but that’s not usually the case.”

Captioning for movies is different, a lot easier and a lot cheaper.  Movies are in time code — they run digitally or on film at a set time.  Captions can just be added as a layer on top of the media because everything happens in specific time and space.

Mandating I-Caption for live theater would require a lot of money, both to pay for the technology itself and to hire specialized staff.  Most movies undergo at least a year of editing before they are released in theaters.  I-Caption has a much quicker turn-around – implementation can only begin after a Broadway show has gone through technical rehearsals with lighting, sound, music and set change cues organized.  And once the show opens, cues often change – lead actors switch, a music number is added, among other possible changes – and I-Caption must adapt as well.

In 2005 Sound Associates, Inc. was presented with the Secretary’s Highest Recognition Award from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  Yet seven years after the inception of I-Caption, 90 percent of Broadway theaters remain aurally under-accessible.

“We keep making advancements to lower the costs,” Annunziato said. “We’re fine-tuning the technology so that we can speed up the process of implementation from a few months to a few weeks. It’s not a moneymaking venture; it’s about opening doors to audiences through technology.  We feel that every performance should be accessible for everyone, at every show, in every seat.”

“I do hope to see a Broadway performance with I-Caption technology because I would really understand what was going on,” Laura Grasso said. “Yet like subtitles of a film, I worry that the captioning would be visually distracting from the action of the scene.”

I-Caption has received its share of criticism from theater patrons.  I-Caption devices are near field (close), and a person’s eyes have to adjust from looking at the screen to looking at the stage.  Critics claim that ASL interpreters or open-captioning near the stage are less distracting and do not disclose if audience members have disabilities.

Recently, Sound Associates, Inc. has been working to equip Sony’s new subtitle eyeglasses with I-Caption services for live theater.  Though still a physical device, these new subtitle specs are sure to spark a new wave in live theater accessibility.