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ASL Interpreting or Captioning at Broadway Shows: A Deaf Patron’s Perspective

13 May 2015, by Auslan Stage Left in Articles

This article was first published by Kaitlyn on The Creative Pensieve

Photo Credit: Theatre Development Fund.  Image Description: 2 ASL interpreters and Open Captioning at "Cinderella"

Photo Credit: Theatre Development Fund.
Image Description: 2 ASL interpreters and Open Captioning at “Cinderella”

A few weeks ago, I posted on the message board over at Broadway World asking members of the theater community which shows they have seen ASL interpreters or Open Captioning (OC) at, and thus a debate started on the logistics of both in the theater.

This posting was in response after noticing that Theatre Development Fund (TDF) seemed to be cutting back on the number of ASL interpreted shows, favoring OC shows (with the exception of Disney shows, which still provides ASL interpreters on a rotational basis with their shows). Was this for monetary reasons? Or the shifting demographics of the Deaf/Hard of Hearing population? Or the complex logistics of using sign language interpreters? Or perhaps a combination of all three?

One poster mentioned that OC was easier to support at theater based on logistics of placement, rehearsal time needed for ASL interpreters, environmental accommodations and adjustments and so on. In short, OC was the most ideal communication accommodation.

Another poster replied with “To Deaf/HOH patrons, there is a WORLD of difference between interpreted shows and the open captions.”

That got me thinking. The poster was right. Looking back on my experiences with both mediums, I’ve had both positive and not-so-positive experiences with both. But do I favor one over the other? Yes.. and no…

In the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, there is an abundance of both ASL-interpreted performances and OC performances (the schedule can be seen here), more so than the entire NYC tri-state area. Given the choice between a Thursday OC performance and a Sunday matinee interpreted performance of a Broadway tour playing at a Hennepin Theatre Trust theater, I most often will choose ASL over OC.

Here’s why.

I love musicals. I do attend the occasional play or ballet performance, but I invariably always end up in the front row of a musical, especially the Broadway touring musicals. Before attending the show, I get the script and listen to the cast recording until I have the lyrics down. Call it a form of auditory rehabilitation.

One would think, with my love of the English language, I would prefer OC as it presents a word-for-word transliteration of what is being said (or sung) on stage? Not so the case. I’ve shied away from OC performances until I attended a performance of End of the Rainbow at the Guthrie Theater. This particular performance offered both ASL interpreting and OC on the same day, which was a real treat. The captioning display was set just above the interpreters, which meant I could watch all of them at the same time – which I did for the musical numbers. Not so much for the dialogue – too much bouncing around trying to keep up with the conversation ball.

Yet I ended up watching the interpreters more often than the captions.

Perhaps it was just this particular show? I decided to give OC another chance to strut its stuff.

Picking the national tour of Mary Poppins as my guinea pig as I had already seen the tour several years prior, and knew the show extremely well, I attended the Thursday OC performance. The display was set house left just beyond the proscenium arch. A bit further out from where interpreters would normally stand.

The show started, and out of habit, I instinctively looked for the interpreters. I soon found out why I dislike watching the OC display – the scrolling captions reminded me too much of news-style TV captioning (which oftentimes lag behind and are full of misspelling) as compared to film or TV show captioning which uses a pop-up style that I preferred. The scrolling captions also had an unintended benefit of lulling someone to sleep with its steady stream of words.

Whenever the cast broke out into song-and-dance, I would glance at the captioning display then look over to where the interpreters would normally stand. Right – no interpreters tonight. Only during intermission did I find out that the interpreters were indeed there, hiding out in one of the loges overhead. Armed with the knowledge that interpreters were prepping the show up above, I sat though Act II watching the show, glancing at the display, then look upwards in hopes of catching the interpreters in mid-sign. Once “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” rolled around I watched eagle-eyed to ensure the captioning spelled the atrocious word correctly.

It did.

I returned on Sunday for the ASL interpreted performance. Within the first song, I quickly fell into my old steps of keeping an eye on the stage and the other eye on the interpreters. These two interpreters had already interpreted the show for the previous tour, and improved their skills this time around. Always nice to see the before and the after results.

So, why do I still prefer watching ASL interpreters over open captioning? Both has its benefits, and both do provide access to the show.

But the access itself depends on one’s interpretation of access. Captioning does provide access by streaming the dialogue and lyrics. But there’s a catch. It lacks the theatricality that interpreting provides.

Words are only words without feeling or inflection behind it. Sure, one could hear the inflection and meaning behind the words being delivered, but for one who is profoundly Deaf, this does not help to the same extent that it helps individuals who are hard of hearing or lost their hearing later in life or possibly got a cochlear implant and might not rely on sign language. They know what it sounds like, and the captioning provide a guideline to fill in the blanks.

But for someone who is highly visual, captioning only provides the framework of the show. One might argue that films and TV does the same – so why? The difference between TV and film as opposed to the theater is that TV and film are static – they never change – and the fact that we viewers can see their facial expressions up close to garner that information.

At the theater, if one is not seated in the first two or three rows, facial expressions becomes a blur, and we lose that supplemental information that brings words to life. Also, when one looks at the captioning display, they lose a few seconds of stage time and might miss those facial expressions. With TV and film, this is not an issue as one can see the captions right on the image itself as compared to at the side of the stage.

This is where the ASL interpreters come in. What captioning can’t provide, the interpreters can. That is, if the interpreters are excellent and know what they’re doing. They add the element of theatricality to translating the words and songs and provide the needed emotions and inflections that are absent from a captioning display. They can channel the actors’ intentions and broadcast to the Deaf/HOH audience in order to make the connection between stage and audience. Also, when one looks away from the stage, they still get the information from the interpreters.

Sarcasm, excitement, terror, fright, love – all those feeling that bring words to life – the interpreters can convey them. Captions can’t. There is the occasional modifier that accompanies a line of dialogue, but they are few in between.

And now musicals – how can captioning show what the music sounds like? All I see on the captioning display are the music notes along with a modifier (ie. [upbeat music] or [drum roll] or possibly [crescendo].

For the Deaf person, what does a crescendo sound like?

In interpreting for musicals, interpreters deal with multilayered information – the words themselves, how they are said/sung, and the music style used as well as slight characterization to determine who is talking/singing.

I would love it if captioning could somehow convey the same amount of information that interpreters deliver. In an ideal world, I would attend performances where both are offered at the same time during the same performance so one would not have to choose between the two. Want the theatricality? Look at the interpreters. Need to know the word-for-word English lyrics for songs so one could sing them afterwards? That’s where captioning comes in handy.

The two go hand-in-hand quite nicely, yet those treats are far few in between. It’s usually one or the other – and sometimes only one choice, that of captioning. Again, if I had to choose one over the other, I would go with ASL interpreting as it rewards the Deaf/HOH with a richer and fuller experience as a whole.

But then that is just one perspective from one Deaf patron. One size does not fit all.

I do welcome other perspectives on the interpreting and/or captioning front, so do share them in the comments below.

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