Denver Theater Gets Serious About Hearing Accessibility

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Actress Kate Finch signs in ‘Tribes’ as Andrew Patsides (l) and Tad Cooley look on. Photo by Adams Visual Communications.

For fans of live theater, life is far richer for it, and having to do without it because of hearing loss is a sad thing.

Maybe those people should consider relocating to Colorado. The Denver Center for the Performing Arts (DCPA) is in the middle of a pathbreaking season of equal opportunity for the hard-of-hearing, both onstage and in the house. From now through Nov. 15, the center is showing Tribes, the story of Billy, a deaf man raised in a family of proud, intellectual contrarians who can hear perfectly well but don’t listen for beans. When Billy meets Sylvia, a woman who teaches him sign language, he starts questioning what it means to be understood.

The actor in the lead role is deaf in one ear and losing his hearing in the other; the actor playing the woman he meets was raised using sign language. In a reversal of the usual translation dynamic, the production translates Billy and Sylvia’s signed conversations for the hearing audience via supertitles. And of course the topic itself—hearing and deafness, both literal and metaphoric—is of particular interest to anyone who has lost hearing ability and struggled to communicate.

The DCPA production of 'Tribes' includes the use of supertitles on the set to translate signed conversations. Photo by Adams Visual Communicatinos.

The DCPA production of ‘Tribes’ includes the use of supertitles on the set to translate signed conversations. Photo by Adams Visual Communicatinos.

All that is pretty remarkable. But DCPA is also distinguishing itself in the services it offers patrons with degraded hearing. For the duration of the Tribes run, DCPA is trying out 10 closed-captioning devices for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. With a screen roughly the size of an iPhone, the device clips to the back of the seat in front of the patron and discreetly displays dialog and stage activity (e.g., “phone rings”) typed in by a live captioning operator.

In several hours of web research, I haven’t found any other theater offering such a service. Most of the nation’s performing arts theaters offer Assistive Listening Devices (basically amplifiers worn as headsets) of varying degrees of sophistication and stop there.

The Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., the leader in making theater accessible, offers two American Sign Language (ASL)-interpreted performances and at least two open-captioned performances per production. (In open-captioned performances, dialog and stage activity are printed in real time on an LED screen to one side of the stage). Victory Gardens Theater in Chicago offers one ASL performance and three open-captioned performances per production.

Other theaters with substantial hearing-accessible offerings—Broward Center for the Performing Arts in Fort Lauderdale, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland and the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, to name a few—fall somewhere in the middle. Most all of them, save Victory Gardens, are on one of the coasts.

So DCPA—forward-thinking, pro-active and located in the middle of the country—is a rare animal. Its baseline hearing-accessible offerings, laid out in this video (the hearing section begins at 2:09), are robust: state-of-the-art assistive listening devices, one ASL performance per production and an open-captioned performance for about half the productions.

We find the example set by Denver to be seriously encouraging. Neurotone’s L.A.C.E. program was created on the premise that people can improve their listening skills even after they’ve suffered hearing loss by learning how to focus on context, tone and other aspects of communication. And we firmly believe that you don’t need perfect hearing in order to be an excellent listener. But it’s also nice to know that there’s a little hearing help out there in the world when we need it.

Resources for Hearing-Accessible Theatres in the U.S.

Click here to learn more about the Denver Center for the Perfoming Arts production of Tribes. If you live in the area and wish to reserve a closed-captioned device, call (303) 893-4100 48 hours ahead of time to reserve it.

Click here for a list of theaters around the country that regularly offer open-captioned performances.

Click for a list of upcoming open-captioned performances in the New York City area

Click for a list of upcoming signed, open-captioned or audio-described (for visually impaired) performances at the Los Angeles Center Theatre Group

Click here for a brief explanation of different assistive listening devices

—Traci Hukill

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