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Dialogue Screens at N.Y. Theaters Are Helping Hearing Impaired


NEW YORK — Until she retired 10 years ago, Vita Licata was a theater fanatic. As an advertising representative for the show-business publication Variety, where she handled theater accounts, Licata saw most productions staged in New York.

Then, shortly before her retirement, doctors found a tumor in an ear. An operation to remove it, followed by progressive nerve deterioration, caused her to lose much of her hearing in both ears.

Now 79, Licata can still hear sounds, but she often can't understand what people are saying, particularly when several are speaking at once.

For a time, going to the theater--with its cacophony of dialogue, music and applause--was becoming an increasingly frustrating experience. "To pay $95 to go the theater and not understand anything they're saying--it wasn't worth it," she says.

Fortunately, Licata's withdrawal was short-lived. She was at a lip-reading class in Manhattan when she was told about a program, sponsored by the nonprofit Theatre Development Fund, that could help her enjoy shows again.

The idea is simple. At one play or musical a month, the group sets up an electronic screen--about 4 feet by 1 foot--that spells out what is being spoken on stage. The screen, which is placed on the right side of the stage, scrolls through the script, displaying three lines of red digital letters at a time. Where appropriate, sound effects and intonations are described: "a loud thudding noise," or "in a sweet, polite manner."

The system is known as open captioning because, unlike closed captions on television, the display is visible to the entire audience.

Since she heard about captioning, Licata has again become a fixture at theaters on and off Broadway. In the past season, she saw captioned performances of "Thoroughly Modern Millie," "Fortune's Fool" and many others.

"If there wasn't captioning, I'd be sunk," she says. "It's really a saving grace for a lot of people."

At each captioned performance, the Theatre Development Fund sets aside 100 to 150 half-priced seats for the deaf and hard of hearing. It spends about $1,100 to caption each show; the cost goes down if the fund works the same show again.

The program, budgeted at $18,500, is meant to help people who have difficulty hearing but who don't know American Sign Language--about 98% of those who are deaf or hard of hearing, according to Lisa Carling, director of the fund's Theater Access Project.

It's of particular benefit to people like Licata, who still have some hearing but have trouble separating sounds and discerning individual words and are not helped by traditional hearing aids, which merely amplify sounds.

"There's a big gray area, where people hear some but they didn't get it all," Carling says. "It's very frustrating to miss what the punch line is."

Carling launched the program in 1997, after hearing from theatergoers that signed performances and hearing aids (both of which are offered by the fund) weren't enough. She's been a director at the group since 1984, shortly after giving up an acting career for the relative stability of nonprofit work.

For the most part, Carling reports, audiences have been thrilled with captioning. At a recent captioned performance of "Thoroughly Modern Millie," reviews were mostly glowing--although more than one audience member complained that neck-craning was required to take in both the captions and the action on stage.

Overall, "it's very good, depending on where you sit," said Sheldon Itzkoff, who was attending the show with his wife. "If you're sitting up close, and the caption's off to the side, sometimes you miss things. I twist my head a lot."

Carling says she's aware of the problem but that little can be done short of putting the screen in the middle of the stage--a solution not likely to appeal to performers, directors and producers.

Among hearing audience members, few report finding the captions distracting. At "Millie," several said they didn't even notice the electronic screen.

Those who did see it admitted to stealing glances at the captions periodically, especially during rapid-fire song lyrics.

The display is controlled by a caption operator sitting several rows from the stage, hunched over a laptop computer. The software, originally developed for court reporting, allows the operator to scroll through pre-entered text in time with the performers.

Managing the text isn't as easy as it sounds, though. The operator must be careful not to give away punch lines before the cast speaks them, for example. And it's always difficult to manage overlapping dialogue.

"At every show, there's a new wrinkle," says Donald DePew, a freelance court reporter and frequent caption operator. He helped Carling develop the captioning program five years ago.

"What do you do in a musical when three or more people are singing simultaneously? Can you follow one thread of what's being sung or can you interweave? The challenge is you're not giving the audience the full treatment and you want to," he says.

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