An introduction to theatre captioning

Photo of Theatre Script. Copyright Natalie Soper 2015

Captioning, and in particular theatre captioning, is not necessarily directly related to translation – it tends to be used to provide access to audience members who are hard of hearing. Captioning is different to video subtitling and opera surtitles (which often do have an element of translation), as captions give extra information, such as indicating who is speaking as well as sound effects, in order to give the best experience to the viewer who may not be able to hear these aspects otherwise.

As I moonlight as an usher at the Theatre Royal Plymouth, and as I am a self-confessed language dork, I’ve always been interested in the process of creating captions for theatre audiences – so I decided to take some training and become a volunteer captioner at the theatre.

Weirdly enough, as soon as I decided to look into captioning training, it appeared three times in the news over the past month. First, Stagetext, a UK charity that specialises in captioning for arts and culture, is organising its first Captioning Awareness Week this week, from the 9th to the 15th November.

Secondly, Stagetext has also started to pilot automated captioning to great effect. As theatre captioning is currently done manually, this resonates with the challenges we face in the translation industry, with improvements in automated translation threatening to undermine work normally carried out by humans.

Thirdly, and most interestingly for translators, Theatre in Paris has been making innovations in the arts world by being one of the first companies to provide English captions of French theatre productions, in order to make them more accessible to non-French-speaking audiences and tourists.

As these three events have coincided with my independent decision to find out more about captioning, I decided that the universe must be trying to tell me something! So, I went along to the Theatre Royal Plymouth to see what captioning was all about.

How do you create captions?

Captioned theatre is still relatively new; it was only introduced to the UK in 2000. Captions are created by writing the theatre script in a format that cuts out the stage directions and limits the number of characters per line so that the text fits into the caption box (an LED screen where the audience will see the finished result). Then, other factors need to be added in to enhance the viewer’s experience, such as sound effects, music, changes in volume, and noting particular accents or voice affectations that the characters may have.

Once your script is correctly formatted using captioning software, you would then need to watch the performance live a few times, so that you can make your own notes on any changes in the script and to note (and rehearse) any issues with timing. Theatre captions are delivered live, line by line, so it is up to the captioner to ensure that they don’t deliver lines too early and risk giving away any the plot – or worse, the punchline!

What challenges might a captioner face?

You’ve managed to nail the timing of delivering your captioned lines, but don’t rest yet: the many facets that make a theatre show great also have to be conveyed in writing on the caption box. Some factors that a captioner might have to consider include…

Music: as well as conveying what kind of music is playing in a performance (e.g. [DRAMATIC CHORDS], [FANFARE], [EERIE MUSIC]), song lyrics should also be written – but some aspects of songs, such as repeated lyrics or alternating singers, can be confusing to read on the caption box, which only allows around 3 lines of 35 characters at a time to be displayed. The captioner needs to decide what layout best keeps the flow of the song, and when is it best to type [LINE REPEATED] rather than actually scrolling through repeated lyrics.

Accents/intonation: A character with an accent can be introduced with a note of how their voice sounds: e.g. [NORTHERN ACCENT] or [HAUGHTY VOICE], but of course, only if this is integral to the plot – if the performer is speaking with their natural dialect, then it wouldn’t be included. You could also further emphasize a character’s accent in your writing, such as “f’heaven’s sake!” or “art tha’ th’ nasty gamekeeper?” – but then again, overkill on this might make it hard to read so quickly.

Ad-libbing and script changes: In new theatre productions, changes to the script are sometimes still being made half an hour before curtain up, which means that it’s impossible for the captioners to keep up! Another common challenge is when actors go off-script (which often happens in pantomimes) or, even more confusing: when it appears that they have gone off script, but the scene is actually scripted! In this case, having the captions all prepared may leave the viewers doubting that what they’re seeing is improvised after all – which means that the captioner needs to judge whether to include the lines, or leave them out.

Technical problems: From actors forgetting their lines, to missed sound effects, and of course, standard computer problems – there is a myriad of things that can go wrong during a performance. As the saying goes, the show must go on – and most things can hopefully be brushed over!

In all, theatre captioning presents a lot of interesting challenges, both linguistically and technically, in order to make a performance as enjoyable as possible to audience members who are hard of hearing. I look forward to learning more about the process, and eventually being allowed to caption a performance all on my own! Perhaps, soon, theatre captioning for foreign audiences may also gain popularity.

People don’t often consider the hard work that goes into captioning, and lots of theatre captioners, as well as sign language interpreters and audio describers, do their service completely voluntarily. But it all becomes worthwhile when you receive a message of thanks from a viewer, describing how much they appreciated feeling included and being able to laugh along with the rest of the audience.

It’s #CAPaware week in November! To find out more, check out Stagetext’s website.

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