Making the Arts Accessible for All
Hearing loop systems, sensory-friendly performances and the GalaPro app are three innovative ways venues are trying to improve the theater-going experience for audiences.
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Gordana Racic at Bravo, Next Act 2014. Photo by Timothy Moder.
Get in the Loop
After losing his beloved wife Gordana to a heart condition last May, Milan Racic chose to memorialize her with a substantial gift to Next Act Theater, a place she cherished as a board member and active supporter. The couples’ theater-loving roots run deep, thanks in large part to attending dozens of performances in their home country of Yugoslavia in the 1950s before moving to America.
Milan’s generous donation largely funded Next Act’s new induction hearing loop system, which essentially turns hearing aids into loudspeakers by delivering sound directly from a microphone into a patron’s ear, eliminating other background noise.
The loop system consists of three pieces: the microphone (located above the stage) to pick up the speaker’s voice, an amplifier to process the signal, and finally a loop cable, which receives the signal. The loop cable is placed around the perimeter of the auditorium, acting as an antenna that radiates the magnetic signal to the hearing aid.
So why are hearing loops needed? While hearing aids enhance sound quality in conversational settings, sound often becomes unclear when loudspeakers are at a distance, causing a performer’s words to reverberate around the room.
“It’s like trying to hear someone when the wind is blowing hard, compared to what happens when the wind stops blowing,” explains David Cecsarini, Next Act’s producing artistic director. “I’m really happy with the significant improvement.”
Dave Scroggins, owner of DRS Sound Inc. based in Kiel, Wisconsin, explains that patrons who have hearing aids equipped with telecoils (T-coils) simply have to switch their hearing aids to the ‘T” setting to enjoy the improved sound quality that a loop system provides. Scroggins and his crew installed Next Act’s loop system in September, just in time for the 2018-2019 season to commence.
DRS Sound team members installing the hearing loop at Next Act Theatre. Photo courtesy of DRS Sound.
“The loop system is very discrete when installed correctly and life changing for people who use it,” Scroggins says. “It’s been an uphill battle to get theaters to accept hearing loop systems over the less expensive FM systems, but based on user experiences, 98% of them prefer a hearing loop over an FM system.”
In 2017, the Consumer’s Guide to Hearing Aids showed that around 70% of all hearing aids could be fitted with T-coils, as could 83% of models larger than the miniaturized completely-in-the-canal aid. If patrons do not have the T-coil setting in their hearing aids, they can still use portable receivers and headsets to access the hearing loop system.
DRS Sound began as a production sound and lighting company 35 years ago, and shifted over to exclusively installing hearing loops in 2006.
“I kept getting inquiries asking me if I had heard of hearing loops,” Scroggins says. “That motivated me to dig into ‘what is a hearing loop?’ I searched it and contacted a company in Ohio and they sent me the equipment and piece of wire to test things. From there on I was basically trained via email and phone calls.”
Since then, DRS Sound has coordinated 15 one-week long trainings throughout the Unites States for other hearing loop manufacturers. The ambitious team has also traveled around the country for installations in Seattle, Los Angeles and Washington D.C.
A DRS Sound team member installing the hearing loop at Milwaukee Rep’s Stackner Cabaret. Photo Courtesy of DRS Sound.
Scroggins estimates that DRS Sound installed about 50 hearing loops in 2018, and close to 500 since they began specializing in the systems 12 years ago.
Locally, Scroggins and his team also installed a hearing loop system in Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s newly renovated Stackner Cabaret. Frances White, the Reps’ director of media relations, explains that since the $1.75 million renovation required the construction team to strip the space down to its bare bones, adding the finest listening technology only made sense.
“Our patrons have raved about it,” White enthusiastically reports. “They keep encouraging us to publicize it more. It’s been great.”
While the Rep’s two other performance spaces, the Quadracci Powerhouse and Stiemke Studio, don’t have the T-coil listening loop system, a variety of services for patrons that are hard of hearing are still available. Assistive listening devices that are compatible with the infrared listening system in both spaces are available at the Concierge Desk.
The Rep also offers one Thursday evening performance interpreted in American Sign Language for each Quadracci Powerhouse and Stiemke Studio production. Another option for the Quadracci Powerhouse is captioned performances, where a screen to the side of the stage displays supertitles of the lines being spoken.
“We want people to come to the Rep again and again,” White says. “The more services we can add to make them feel comfortable and welcome in our space the better.”
For parents with children on the autism spectrum, asking their family to sit quietly in the dark for the course of a two-hour production may seem out of the question. But children’s theaters around the country, including First Stage and Children’s Theater of Madison, are trying to change that.
“One of the best comments I’ve ever heard from a parent was that, ‘this experience redefined what we thought we could do as a family,’” shares Erica Berman, director of education for Children’s Theater of Madison.
Both First Stage and Children’s Theater of Madison offer two to three sensory-friendly performances each season. During these performances, certain sensory elements are adjusted to be less intense for people who are sensitive to light and sound. For instance, the house lights will be kept on at all times during the production for guests to safely move around the auditorium.
Children enjoying a meet and greet with performers of Children’s Theater of Madison’s sensory-friendly performance of “Seussical.” Photos courtesy of Children’s Theater of Madison.
Giana Blazquez, director of First Stage’s Next Steps and K-4 Program, explains that the performers are notified that audience members might be making noise and moving around during the sensory-friendly shows. Actors greet families in the lobby before the performance, while introducing themselves and the names of their characters to the children.
“We want to make it very clear to the children that we are just acting and it’s not going to be a scary thing,” Blazquez says. “We try to make sure the experience has as few surprises as possible for the students, so they can stay as regulated as they can.”
Before attending a sensory-friendly performance, parents are encouraged to download a detailed social story available on First Stage and Children’s Theater of Madison’s websites. These packets lay out the full experience of what attending the production will be like, from where their family will park to what hallways the children will walk down to get to the auditorium. The social stories also include a synopsis of the show, with moments that may seem surprising or loud underlined.
First Stage offered a sensory- friendly performance for “The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane” during the 2017- 2018 season. Photo by Paul Ruffolo Photography.
Despite these precautions, Children’s Theater of Madison and First Stage understand that children on the autism spectrum may still feel overwhelmed during a production. That’s why quiet areas equipped with coloring books, beanbag chairs, and other toys to help the students regulate are ready at any moment.
“Even if a student only makes it through 15 minutes of a performance, the fact that they made it to the theater is still a success,” says Megwyn Sanders-Andrews, Children’s Theater of Madison’s access for all coordinator. “The art is still art. Our goal is to make sure all families can come in and enjoy our offerings.”
For more information on sensory-friendly performances, visit ctmtheater.org or firststage.org
There’s an App for That
While you may initially feel like you are breaking a cardinal sin in the theater world, several touring Broadway productions are giving patrons a hall pass to break out their phones during a performance.
Last November, when the national tour of School of Rock the Musical made its way to the Overture Center in Madison, the venue tested GalaPro for the first time, with impressive results.
GalaPro, short for GalaPrompter, is an app that allows Deaf, blind/low-vision and non-English-speaking audience members a way to conveniently follow a live performance. The app offers individual multilingual subtitles, closed captioning, and audio descriptions at the click of a button.
Photo via Facebook.com/pg/GalaProApp
To activate the app, users simply switch their devices to airplane mode and connect to the free GalaPro Network. This ensures patrons do not receive notifications during the production that may distract other audience members. Users have the freedom to adjust font size and brightness on the closed captioning to fit their preferences.
“This new technology is really exciting to think about down the road,” says Jacquie Goetz, Overture Center’s VP of Operations. “Eventually if everyone jumps on board we will be able to, as a theater community, offer a wonderful library of scripts and shows through the app.”