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Arts & Culture

With Terps’ Captioning System, a Silent Revolution Could Take Center Stage

Theatre Designers Seek to Improve Deaf Community’s Access to Live Performances

By Jessica Weiss ’05

closeup of hand holding phone in theater

Mobile devices can provide captions updated as live theater performances unfold as part of a system being developed at UMD.

Photo by iStock

Cell phones, with their distracting glow and obnoxious dings, have long been unwelcome guests in live theater performances. 

But when the University of Maryland School of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies’ (TDPS’) performance of “Are We At War Yet?” opens at The Clarice on Friday, some patrons will be encouraged to pull out their devices. 

A captioning system being developed by two Terps will allow audience members who are deaf or hard of hearing to scan a QR code to take them to a website where they can follow every line in the show. They can customize the captioning experience, including changing the size, color and font.  

“It’s a new era of inclusivity,” said Timothy Kelly, a second-year MFA student in theatre design who is leading the project. “We’re trying to remove as many barriers to captioning as possible so that we can build an industry where there are captions available at every show in the same way that when you play a DVD or stream something on Netflix, you can always just turn them on.” 

The idea originated over the summer at Andy’s Summer Playhouse, a prominent youth theater in Wilton, New Hampshire, where TDPS Associate Professor Jared Mezzocchi is the producing artistic director and where Kelly worked. When Kelly and Peter Leibold MFA ’19 learned that one performer had a number of deaf family members who wanted to attend a show, they decided to try to build a prototype system for live captions. 

“Capstr,” as they called it, works by first inputting the script into the system via a spreadsheet. Once a show is underway, an operator hits “next” to make the actors’ words appear on a website—accessed by users via internet browser on a phone, tablet or computer—at the same time as they are spoken, Kelly said. The operator can also make tweaks on the spot, such as if an actor forgets a line, ensuring a truly real-time experience.

“The comprehension level just skyrocketed,” Mezzocchi said. “It’s really beautiful to watch grandparents and parents be able to enjoy seeing their kids perform.”

Before coming to UMD, Kelly worked as a lighting and video designer in Britain, where he developed a passion for accessibility. Among his credits are shows that integrated British Sign Language and others made accessible to people with sensory processing issues, such as through adapted lighting. For a 2019 show called “Sirens,” which featured a deaf and hearing cast, his design included captions projected onto the set design, matching the style of the show. (This is called “integrated creative captioning,” meaning that every audience member experiences the captions as part of the show.)   

Kelly was drawn to UMD for the opportunity to delve further into research around accessibility, and for the resources available through the Maya Brin Institute for New Performance. Established in 2021 through a $9 million gift, the institute supports innovation and experimentation with technology in live performance. 

Kelly said he plans to continue to improve Capstr with feedback from the Deaf community. His goal is to provide captioning for every TDPS theater performance at UMD. (Users can submit feedback on Kelly’s website.) When complete, Capstr’s code and setup guides will be made available for free for other theaters to use.

For “Are We At War Yet?,” a dark Russian comedy that explores the threat of war and the psychological effects of propaganda, patrons will also have the option to access captions in the play’s original Russian. The play was written by Mikhail Durnenkov, visiting faculty member in the School of Languages, Literatures, and Cultures and TDPS and the Maya Brin artist-in-residence. 

Mezzocchi said Kelly’s work is a perfect example of how research universities can propel forward the field of theater to “do good” in ways that professional settings may not have the bandwidth to explore. 

“As theater artists we’re also here to ask questions and challenge the status quo,” he said. 

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