Inclusivity. It’s become an industry buzzword—and for good reason. In recent years, theatres across the nation, including those on Broadway, have paused to take stock: Is theatre truly holding up a mirror to ourselves as the art form requires? As we continue to make strides towards inclusive stories representation onstage and backstage, The Broadway League and the Shubert Organization remembered the third, and crucial, partner in theatre: the audience.
Over the past 18 months, the Shubert Organization along with TDF, the Hearing Loss Foundation of America, The Association for Late Deafened Adults, and Hands On have been developing and testing new technology to solve the problem. The initiative from the Broadway League, which has been gradually implemented in theatres since January, is about to revolutionize Broadway.
As of June 1, every Broadway show will be able to build on previous accessibility by offering on-demand closed captioning and audio description at every performance beginning four weeks from any production’s opening night. In addition to the existing offerings, a new app called GalaPro app provides an alternative for both on-demand closed captioning and audio description to anyone with a smartphone.
Its groundbreaking use of vocal recognition software generates captioning for Deaf and hearing-impaired ticketholders and audio description for visually-impaired attendees which follows the onstage performance with unprecedented precision. “GalaPro uses multiple recognition software to actually cue and track what is happening, and if the show stops, it stops,” explains Mai Yamada, head of U.S. operations and marketing at GalaPro. Presenters simply upload the final script and connect the system to the house sound board, using pre-programmed light and sound cues as backup. The app creates an unparalleled real-time experience for each performance of every show in every theatre on Broadway.
“That’s what makes theatre special—this idea of sharing a story and what that means collectively,” says Kyle Wright, director of digital projects at the Shubert Organization. “If you laugh at a different time or you cry at a different time, you don’t have that.”
Approximately 23 million adults experience vision loss across the U.S. and about 48 million American adults—20 percent of the population—experience some degree of hearing loss, and Broadway has long created fixes to increase access to these audiences. Infrared listening devices, designed in collaboration with Sound Associates, Inc., have been augmenting sound for hearing patrons since 1979. In 2003, we introduced closed captioning for patrons with hearing loss and audio description for those with visual disabilities via handheld devices. TDF has offered American Sign Language-interpreted performances since 1979 and open captioning via proscenium-set screens since 1997, at select performances.
Despite the effectiveness of these programs, the convenience of the app increases accessibility exponentially. “With i-Caption devices, we really only have ten on hand and if we have a group of 100 people that come, we can only service the first ten with those i-Captions,” says Wright.
The app means the industry might actually be able to put cell phones to good use inside a theatre—without distracting other ticketholders or performers. The GalaPro team, along with the Shuberts and The League, administered extensive testing to eliminate screen glare (“It’s virtually non-existent,” says Wright.), plus, with phones on airplane mode, the app operates on Wi-Fi networks exclusive to GalaPro in each Broadway house so notifications of incoming emails and texts cannot interrupt the experience for the user or their neighbor. (Check out the app demo and more at playbill.com/accessibility.) Still, Wright knows audience education poses the largest hurdle to this tech revolution.
“In my dream world, Patti LuPone would actually record the stage announcement saying, ‘I hate phones in theatres, unless it’s helping Deaf [audiences] hear the show for the first time,’” says Wright.
Until LuPone steps inside a recording studio, inserts in Playbills explain to audiences the prevalence of phones in laps, and front-of-house staff are undergoing training to learn to differentiate between GalaPro users and phone offenders. “We want to make sure we don’t have audience members that see someone with a phone, who’s using it for the right reasons, and then making them feel bad,” say Wright.
For all their concern, Wright and company have been pleasantly surprised by audience responses throughout the testing period. “At the intermission they’ll usually say one of two things: ‘Oh is that for people who can’t hear? I’m so glad you’re doing that,’” says Wright, who tested the app in multiple houses. “But more often they say, ‘Can I use it? Because I really can’t understand exactly what they’re saying.’”
When it comes to inclusivity, GalaPro appeals far beyond its target audience. The app creates opportunity to increase the reach of theatre to those who don’t speak English and culturally diversify audiences using multilingual translations. “Especially when it comes to language translations for our shows that have a big international population, like Phantom or Chicago, we want to make sure that we can welcome as many people that want to use it,” says Wright.
The chance to expand audiences multiculturally, multilingually, and multigenerationally hits home for Yamada. “My grandmother doesn’t speak English,” she says. “So if my grandmother were to come to the States and she could come to a show and see captions in Japanese, she would be much more inclined to come to a show with me.”
“That’s the whole point of coming,” Wright adds, “is that you share this theatrical experience with the people sitting next to you who don’t have the same background. If the goal is to have intergenerational attendance and multicultural attendance in respect to language, then how well synced up it is is crucial.”
Now that Broadway is on board, there are infinite possibilities in terms of scale, audience development, and artist innovation. The technology can trickle down to Off-Broadway and regional houses, English-speakers can see theatre in other languages using English closed-captions. And this is only the beginning, as Wright emphasizes the initiative’s commitment to continual improvement.
In an art form that feeds off and creates with the live audience in the room, this initiative enhances theatre’s premium export: connectedness.
“It opens up a gateway both for audiences and new content creators and artists,” says Wright. “The impact is going to be much larger than we thought.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.