Open and closed captioning — Edinburgh Fringe and beyond

Claire Hill
Nov 22, 2019 · 7 min read
She Sell Sea Shells — Underbelly Cowgate

Thanks to YouTube, the term “closed captioning” has become the default way of referring to captioning of any kind, but in theatre it has a very specific meaning, and should be used carefully to manage expectations of deaf and hearing audience members.

“Closed captioning” means captioning that can be turned on or off by the user, ie it’s user-specific. This can be used on TV, where subtitles can be turned on or off, or YouTube or Vimeo, where there is either a subtitle file that’s been uploaded by the user, or YouTube’s auto-captioning service has been switched on. In theatre, it’s come to mean captioning that’s visible only to deaf audience members on tablets, either hand-held or seat-mounted, or via smart glasses.

Edinburgh Comedy All-Stars — Udderbelly George Square

“Open captioning”, often just referred to as “captioning” in theatre, generally means captions that are visible to the full audience, so on videos and TV this would be subtitling that’s visible by default, and in theatre the captions will be displayed on a three-line caption unit, or a plasma screen, or they could be projected on to a screen or the back wall of the theatre.

Conspiracy — Underbelly Cowgate

At the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this year, we offered open and closed captioning with various factors affecting that decision. I should start by saying that we have a strong bias in favour of open captioning, as it means that anybody, not just those who identify as deaf or hard-of-hearing before the event starts, can view the captions if they find them useful, even if it’s just one performer or one segment of the show that they find difficult to understand. Action on Hearing Loss report a 10-year lag between someone’s hearing starting to deteriorate and getting help for their hearing loss (ref here so in a mature audience there will likely be a significant number of people who will be assisted by the captions but might not identify as caption users.

Open captioning also raises awareness of accessibility and inclusivity, and means that deaf patrons are not made to stand out by having to identify themselves to staff before a show starts, and holding a tablet throughout which inevitably can create a certain level of distraction for fellow audience members and performers (although the screen has yellow text on a black background and thus is less intrusive and bright than checking email or messages).

hand holding a tablet with a strap
hand holding a tablet with a strap

We are also aware that the constant changes in perspective and focus between viewing the handheld tablet and the action on stage can be uncomfortable for the deaf audience member. This is less extreme in smaller venues, but has still been reported as a drawback to closed captioning screens. Having to hold a tablet throughout can also be a physical burden, however we do our best to address this by providing straps or PopSockets.

However, we believe that closed captioning is better than no captioning! So we provided closed captioning to tablets in a number of shows, for a number of reasons. The principal reason was layout of the venue, this was the main factor in Rust (Assembly Roxy/Downstairs), stage 5m wide, Tom GK’s Hearing Loss: The Musical (Underbelly Bristo Square/Clover), stage 4.5m wide, and Orlando (Pleasance Courtyard/Cellar Bar), stage 3.6m wide. As the standard plasma screen that was used for open captioning was 1m wide, we were concerned that there was not enough space at the front of the stage to accommodate it, with the risk that it would be obscured by the performer/s during the show if it was placed further back.

Assembly Roxy Downstairs — a narrow space

The venues mentioned above were in very narrow rooms; however we also used tablets in the Underbelly Cowgate/Belly Dancer venue, which had a 4.3m wide stage and seats arranged in a horseshoe configuration around the stage, with load-bearing columns at the front edges of the stage — although there was space around the stage at floor level, it would have been very difficult to find a spot where the plasma screen would have been visible to the whole audience. Our captioned shows in this space were Dream Machine and Double Denim: Adventure Show.

One of our shows, Ladybones in Pleasance Courtyard/Beneath, was initially categorised as closed captioning to tablets due to the 3.6m wide stage, however the performer and production team were very keen to provide open captioning to the plasma screen, and moved certain elements of the set, and the single performer made sure she didn’t obscure the screen for the captioned performances (although she did sit down close to it, her head remained below the height of the screen).

Another significant factor was whether the venue would provide a screen without charge. Pleasance and Underbelly, at all their venues, provided a plasma screen without charge to the companies, which was installed by venue staff for each captioned show. Unfortunately other venues did not provide such equipment, and thus at Greenside, Summerhall and Assembly George Square/The Box, we provided closed captioning via tablets as it was the only way to do a captioned performance without incurring hire charges for the individual company.

tablets with captions on ready for audience members to take
tablets with captions on ready for audience members to take

Generally we found the take-up of the captioning tablets was disappointing, and this is largely for the reason of identifying as a caption user, as detailed above. The most popular tablet performance was Tom GK’s Hearing Loss: The Musical, where there were three tablet caption users out of a total of eight audience members! Unfortunately there were some performances — Aditi Mittal: Mother of Invention, Full Consent To Speak On My Behalf and Double Denim: Adventure Show — where no audience member took a caption unit and thus we didn’t output the captions for that performance. Another factor might have been the handheld nature of the tablets — we provided straps for the tablets, which meant the user could keep their hand flat whilst holding it, however some sort of seatmount, like those available at the Globe or Paines Plough’s Roundabout theatre, would have been better. Unfortunately we were moving between venues with different seat configurations (eg chairs with straight and sloping backs, or benches) with very little get-in time, and couldn’t find a portable solution that would work in all the venues. Any suggestions for next year gratefully received!

We used the CaptionPlus software, created by Roger and Daryl at Sopratext, for all our scripted open and closed captioning, outputting to 7” tablets for the closed captioning, and a 10” tablet with an HDMI connection for the open captioning on the plasma screen. Another delivery software for closed captioning to handheld tablets that was used at this year’s Fringe is the Difference Engine, created by Talking Birds theatre company. This uses a similar server/router setup to CaptionPlus, but the system is based around users downloading the tablet software in advance, then connecting to the Difference Engine router once in the venue. It would be interesting to find out from the venues like Summerhall that used this system whether there was much take-up from deaf users, or whether the factors as above might put off audience members.

three lines of text projected on to a sheet to provide captions at the Free Fringe
three lines of text projected on to a sheet to provide captions at the Free Fringe
The Empathy Experiment — PBH Free Fringe

We will continue to offer closed captioning at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, as there are some venue spaces that just do not have the space for a plasma screen on the stage for open captioning. However given this year’s experience, we would work harder to find an alternative method of display in spaces which have room for open captioning — following the inspirational example of Rose Condo at The Empathy Experiment (the only Free Fringe show with a captioned performance) we have bought a Yaufey mini projector and will be encouraging companies to hang a white sheet somewhere and get projecting!

Feedback on closed captioning from theatre makers and audience members is very much appreciated, so please comment below or email with your thoughts, and help us to improve for next year.

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