Every theater, every show, every seat will be accessible on demand for people with hearing loss. This is the goal of the latest accessibility initiative on Broadway. And it is a big one. The initiative, sponsored by The Shubert Organization, The Broadway League and Theater Development Fund, would allow people with hearing loss to utilize on demand captioning at every show (after the first four weeks) starting in 2018 via the GalaPro app on a mobile phone or a separate hand-held iCaption device. The idea is exciting — but the execution is still a work in progress.
Many broadway theaters already offer hearing accessibility options like infrared headsets, and occasional open captioned performances through TDF. Some even have hearing loops installed. You can find a list of accessibility options at each theater here. But adding on demand closed captioning would be a big step toward improving accessibility, allowing people with hearing loss to attend any performance they want with the support of captioning.
How Does It Work?
GalaPro uses lighting and sound cues to time the captions with the performance. This is fairly reliable, but because there are far more caption cards than cues, humans are used to perfect the syncing of the captioning with the show before the final version is released into the app. Shubert indicated that 95% synchronicity has been achieved this way.
I tried GalaPro at a performance of M. Butterfly at the Cort Theatre and the results were mixed. The app itself worked well — logging on was easy and I liked the ability to alter the size and color of the letters to make reading easy — but the synchronicity was poor. The captions were there, but they did not match up with the dialogue on stage. It made the captions distracting rather than helpful so I stopped using them.
Friends told me my experience at M. Butterfly was an outlier — probably because the show was slated to close early and therefore did not go through the full synchronicity process. I tried GalaPro again at The Band’s Visit a few months later and the synchronicity was much better.
Still A Work In Progress
Thankfully, The Shubert Organization understands that GalaPro is still a work in progress. They are still working to improve synchronicity and to develop easier ways to hold the captioning device. Currently, you must hold the device (either the iCaption device or your personal smart phone) in your hand or rest it on your lap. This can cause eyestrain and dizziness for some since you are constantly moving your eyes up to the stage and down to the captions. Shubert is also investigating alternative delivery systems such as glasses or caption readers like those used in movie theaters. I am excited to see what innovations are yet to come.
Some theater goers with hearing loss worry that this new handheld captioning system might mean the end of the open-captioned performances on Broadway we all love. Shubert says absolutely not. Let’s hold them to it.
It is exciting to see increased accessibility as a priority for Broadway. It is up to us to make sure improvements continue to be made.
Readers, have you tried GalaPro?