Friday, August 5, 2011

Opening Up Broadway to All the Senses

Friday, August 5, 2011

Four new Broadway productions, including the Tony-nominated musical "Catch Me If You Can," will be outfitted with technology that allows blind and deaf theatergoers to more fully experience live theater.

The services will be available at "Catch Me" in early June (the production opened in April). The speed of the effort is unusual: Producers typically wait until a show is financially secure before investing in the services, which cost about $35,000.

Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

Carl Anthony Tramon of Sound Associates, at a rehearsal for 'Catch Me If You Can.' He watches a show several times with a microphone in hand to record an audio transcription of what is happening and what the set looks like.

"The concern I hear is, 'We don't know how long we're going to last,'" said Carl Anthony Tramon, managing partner of Sound Associates, a sound design and systems provider that created the technology.

The not-for-profit Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts is jumpstarting the process.

The "philosophical goal" of the initiative "is that the person who has a disability should have the same experience as the person who does not," said Sharon Jensen, executive director at the Alliance, which was founded (originally as the Non-Traditional Casting Project) in 1986 to promote racial and cultural diversity, but has expanded to include people with disabilities in casting and audience-building.

For the tools to reach that goal, the Alliance partnered with G-PASS, which implements Sound Associates' systems, including D-Scriptive, a handheld device with one ear-piece through which the listener hears a pre-recorded audio script describing everything onstage as the show is taking place, and I-Caption, which delivers the text of the script—including character names—in tight synchronization with the show on a polarized handheld screen.

Both evolved out of infrared technology originally used for ShowTrans, a device that Sound Associates developed in the late 1990s to interpret shows in several languages. D-Scriptive and I-Caption have been on the market for about a decade.

The Alliance's effort will allow the technology to be placed early in the runs of the four shows—at no cost to the producers. (The other three shows have not been finalized.) The funding comes from a grant the Alliance received from the Theater Subdistrict Council, a not-for-profit within the city's Department of City Planning. The council administers a fund dedicated to giving grants to organizations with one of three goals: expanding audiences, encouraging new theatrical work or showcasing Broadway's history.

Natalie Keyssar for The Wall Street Journal

The I-Caption device.

According to the Alliance, 1.1 million New Yorkers identify themselves as having a disability. And even if only a portion of that number are addressed with this particular technology, it said the impact can be significant. "It's not going to happen overnight because this audience has not been reached out to," said Ms. Jensen.

"It's a new way of thinking," said theater producer Margo Lion, who worked with Ms. Jensen to bring the services to "Catch Me." "The most important thing is that it becomes common practice."

The process of developing the data for the devices takes about two months, but it can only begin after all changes to a show and script have been finalized. At that point, Mr. Tramon watches the show several times with a microphone in hand to record an audio transcription of what is happening and what the set looks like. That recording becomes the basis of the spoken-word audio for D-Scriptive, but only after the company's "accessibility consultants" weigh in.

Christopher G. Roberts, an actor, playwright and artistic director of Steppingstone Theatre Company, consults from his perspective as a blind audience member.

His aim is to fine-tune the running description so that it is as helpful as possible for users. As an example, he recalled a tweak he made on "The Miracle Worker," which also used D-Scriptive. The script called for a mention of sconces, but Mr. Roberts objected.

"What is a sconce?" he said. "There is no conception of it for a blind or low-vision person." He added that the edit went on to describe the zigzag fabric surrounding the stage and other graphic observations.

Alexandria Wailes, a dancer and actress who is deaf and consults on I-Caption, says her feedback is related to issues such as illumination and font size. In her view, the technology's greatest asset is the freedom it provides. "The patron who uses the I-Caption device [can] sit wherever they wish in the house," she wrote.

On a larger scale, the asset that the Alliance focuses on is the message sent by making the technology available. Says Ms. Jensen: "This is to say, 'Yes, we want you as part of the audience.'"

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