All Access: Captioning Services at Ford's Theatre

Recently, we sat down with David Chu, founder of c2 (Caption Coalition), Inc.). David and his company help bring theatre to life by captioning our performances for those who might benefit from captioning, including patrons who are deaf or have hearing loss. We asked him to tell us more about his job and why he finds the work to be so valuable.

What is theatrical captioning and what value does it provide individuals?

Theatrical captioning augments a live performance with synchronized dialogue, lyrics and sound descriptions.  Captioning has traditionally been available for film and television, but we have brought it to the live stage. This adds a layer of engagement for patrons with any degree of hearing loss.

How did you get involved with this service? 

Once upon a time, captioning for live theatre did not exist (until we came long!).  The only service available to deaf patrons was ASL interpreting. While an invaluable facet of the accessibility landscape, it required fluency in ASL, which many people with hearing loss do not have. Consequently, we decided to create a service that would provide another option. Today, we work with some of the best theatre companies across the country.

A captioning screen sits on the lip of the stage before a performance at Ford's Theatre. On it reads an opening message " Ford's Theatre presents 'Twelve Angry Men'"
c2 provides captioning screens for performance usage at Ford's Theatre. Photo by David Chu.

For those unfamiliar, how is captioning different from subtitles?

Though captions and subtitles are often used interchangeably, captioning is a literal aural interpretation while subtitles pertain more to foreign language translation.

What goes into creating captioning for a Ford's Theatre show?

First, we review the script, program notes, recordings and anything else we can get our hands on to learn about the show. Then, we'll see the show ahead of time to capture the actors' individual interpretation of their roles. We will caption the spoken and sung word along with the relevant soundscape.

What tools do audience members need to use the service at Ford's?

At Ford’s, we do Open Captioning, which is when a large display is set against the edge of the stage facing the left side Orchestra level (and center-left) sections, so that the captions are in the same line of sight as the performance on stage. The benefit of Open Captioning is that the audience members do not need any special equipment or tools or devices to participate. Patrons seated in this designated section can partake in the assistance, or not. While other types of live theatrical captioning are available, open captioning to a larger display is still by far the predominant way to offer this service.

David Chu sits in the back of the orchestra section at Ford's Theatre typing onto a small devices captions which will play during a performance of "Twelve Angry Men"
David prepares captions for "Twelve Angry Men" at Ford's.

What interests you personally about providing captioning for theatre performances?

Live theatre is a collaborative art form, not only between the performers on stage, but also with the crew backstage, the technical team and the front-of-house staff.  To be included as a seamless component augmenting a performance, and preserving the artistic intent, while at the same time offering equal access to all audiences, is particularly gratifying.

In your opinion, is there a difference in difficulty between captioning a musical versus a play?

Every play and musical comes with its own set of challenges. A Sondheim musical with eight overlapping voices is very difficult, but so is a Tony Kushner play with 10 characters talking all at once. Musicals give us a chance to be much more precise with our tempo and cadence, because we're essentially "playing words" along with the other instruments.   

What else would you like to share about captioning or your work at Ford's Theatre?

Ford's Theatre is a fantastic company that produces excellent work.  On behalf of c2, we are proud to be their accessibility partners!

Allison Alonzy is Director of Visitor Operations.