When we think of innovation in theatre it tends to be on stage – directors such as Ivo van Hove or companies like Complicite entirely reimagining what we see, hear and experience, reinvigorating the classics or completely reinventing theatre as a sensory experience. Yet before the curtain rises, some of the most impactful innovations can fundamentally alter the audience experience. Whether these are more spacious seating, gender neutral toilets or better disabled facilities, technology can help theatres to solve some of their biggest access issues.
The National Theatre is about to revolutionise how audience members with hearing loss interact with their shows. Launched alongside their 2018-19 Programme, smart caption glasses will ultimately let users watch any play in any seat in any of the three National Theatre performance spaces and have subtitles projected onto the lens in front of them, allowing them to see everything the actors are doing without having to turn their heads to caption boards to read the dialogue.
In a collaboration between the NT’s Technical Department, live-subtitling expert Professor Andrew Lambourne, professional services company Accenture and smart glasses firm Epson, the glasses work by pre-programming the play text and technical production information including sound effect and lighting cues, and using phonetically responsive speech-following software to instantly deliver the right subtitles to the glasses using the theatre’s Wifi service.
At the launch event, a bunch of eager journalists issued with a pair of glasses were shown a 15-minute excerpt from Exit the King in the Olivier starring Rhys Ifans and Indira Varma, in which the subtitles were projected onto the lens as the play unfolded. With a tap of the control panel, users can change the height and size of the subtitles, so they appear either above, below or directly across the action as you prefer, while also adjusting the text colour, alignment and brightness. You can add borders or a call-out box if the production design makes it difficult to see the white text.
As Ionesco’s absurdist drama played out, mid-scene it was possible to alter the way the glasses displayed the information to you, moving from single line displays to a rolling text option which allowed you to see several lines of dialogue at a time – particularly useful when fast-moving sections had multiple voices speaking at once. The single display occasionally got stuck and cut a few lines as it tried to catch-up, while the focus was very slightly blurred, so you may have to physically adjust the frames to suit your face, but the National’s Executive Director Lisa Burger emphasised the responsiveness to the words spoken on stage rather than the programmed text.
Representing the public testing group who spent a year trying out the glasses, Dave Finch spoke about his love of theatre and the imperfections of existing facilities including hearing loops and captions. The smart caption glasses are a “major advancement to what I’ve been used to” Finch enthused explaining how his hearing loss affects his experience of theatre and the difficulties of trying to distinguish between different types of sound. The development process has been incredibly responsive to the test group, he went on to explain, listening to feedback not just on the visual and technical experience but also on comfort and fit of the frames themselves.
Jonathan Suffolk, Technical Director of the National Theatre announced that 90 pairs of glasses will be available to pre-book for free for any performance of Hadestown or War Horse (both playing from November) in the first instance, and then for every show in the new season programme from January. Pre-booking will be required initially but ultimately glasses will available on demand for anyone who needs them, and with a four-hour battery life they will endure even the most faithful Shakespeare production.
Using the speech-following software, eventually the glasses will also be available for free-spoken events such as NT Platforms and discussions where pre-loading is impossible, and in support of Rufus Norris’s national agenda, Burger announced that the glasses will also be available for five nights of the Macbeth tour as well as other shows beyond London.
With plans to develop audio-description and translated language options for international audience members, Suffolk insisted that competition will eventually drive innovation in the sector, allowing this radical new technology to transform the way we view theatre, making vital inroads into barriers to theatre attendance for the hearing impaired. For theatre lovers like Dave Finch this is a huge step forward, allowing him to attend any production at any time, harnessing new technology when the curtain rises so he can finally sit back and enjoy all those on-stage innovations as well.
Maryam Philpott | Images: James Bellorini Photography