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Saturday January 22nd

PlayMakers tries out live captioning to make plays more accessible

David Chu says his job is just glorified text messaging.

He brings together technology and live performance by providing live captioning services to theaters around the country, including Chapel Hill’s PlayMakers Repertory Company.

The caption services were offered for one performance of both “Henry IV” and “Henry V” in February. They will also be used for “Noises Off” in April.

Live captioning will make productions more accessible to the deaf or hard of hearing, said Hannah Grannemann, managing director for PlayMakers.

Grannemann said she’s been interested in bringing open captioning to PlayMakers since she came to the theater four years ago.

She was first introduced to the practice while a student at the Yale School of Drama when the Yale Repertory Theatre started using the services offered by c2, the New York City-based nonprofit Chu directs.

This season, a $4,500 grant from the Strowd Roses foundation finally made it possible. Grannemann said she hopes to secure funding so the theater can provide caption services in upcoming seasons, too.

In the captioning process, Chu transmits text and sounds to a small screen visible to certain sections of the theater.

The job requires quick reflexes, Chu said. Although he studies the script before each performance, captioning live theater doesn’t just mean projecting the script verbatim. If an actor flubs his lines, Chu transcribes it.

“Our ultimate goal is for everyone to have the same experience,” he said.

Although the services were originally created with the hard of hearing and deaf in mind, Chu said they can benefit anyone, especially for Shakespeare performances.

“It’s a very helpful tool at a Shakespeare performance,” he said. “So much of Shakespeare is built around verbatim language.”

Live captioning allows for a dual experience — reading and watching live theater. Chu said captioning belongs in rather than distracts from the theater experience because text is so pervasive in popular culture.

Grannemann said that after the initial open caption performance of “Henry IV,” many patrons switched their tickets for “Henry V” to a day when the services were being provided.

PlayMakers marketing director Connie Mahan said she agreed that the services are valuable.

“We’re pleased to have the opportunity to give this service a try and consider adding it on an ongoing basis for the enjoyment of our audience members,” she said.

Grannemann said she has received positive feedback from a wide range of people, including non-native English speakers.

“It reinforces and helps a deeper understanding and an appreciation of the language.”

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