Addressing content, technical and collaboration concerns in providing access to the D/deaf and hard of hearing audience:

Integrated theatre captioning and theatre sign language interpreting

By Alina Secară and Emília Perez (University of Vienna, Austria and Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra, Slovakia)


This article presents the potential of creative, integrated and inclusive access services for theatre performances to address specific concerns linked to traditional access provision. In doing so, it uses two case studies – one from the UK (Be My Baby) and one from Slovakia (Aj muži majú svoje dni). The UK case study discusses integrated captioning from the perspective of creative and technology potential, including the points of view of the respective directors. It focuses on integrated captioning as a tool to respond to equality, accuracy, isolation and stigma concerns, while highlighting new challenges it poses in terms of responsibility for access, expert knowledge and technology use. The Slovak case study [1] focuses on the provision of theatre sign language interpreting (TSLI), revealing the potential of integrating artistic coordination and supervision by representatives of the Deaf community. It provides an insight into how such an inclusive approach to coordination addresses the concerns related to collaboration within more traditional access models. Providing perspectives gathered from three professional theatre sign language interpreters and a Deaf coordinator and supervisor, the concerns related to involvement of access professionals, responsibility for access and access expertise are reflected upon. Using data gathered from direct access to the respective creative teams and access professionals, participatory observation and semi-structured interviews, the article provides an analysis of the effect integrated and inclusive approaches can have on the creative product and process especially when compared to traditional approaches, and highlights the opportunities for innovation and creativity integration can bring.

Keywords: integrated access, traditional access, theatre captioning, inclusion, theatre sign language interpreting, creative process

©inTRAlinea & Alina Secară and Emília Perez (2022).
"Addressing content, technical and collaboration concerns in providing access to the D/deaf and hard of hearing audience: Integrated theatre captioning and theatre sign language interpreting"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Inclusive Theatre: Translation, Accessibility and Beyond
Edited by: Elena Di Giovanni and Francesca Raffi
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1. Introduction

The rights of persons with disabilities are enshrined in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD 2006) Art. 30 and 21, according to which their access to information, full participation in cultural life, recreation, sport and leisure should be possible. Over the last decade, new legislation and regulations have been introduced at the European level to support the integration of the principles set out in the Convention. The European Accessibility Act (The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union 2019) aims to make access to products and services across Europe, including TV content, easier for people of all disabilities. As a Directive, it is legally binding and the EU states have the responsibility to transpose it into national legislation. This is complemented by the EU Directive on the Accessibility of Websites and Mobile Applications (The European Parliament and the Council of the European Union 2016) which puts emphasis on the need to develop services and applications to meet accessibility requirements for the online context.

Outside the broadcasting sphere, theatres and operas have also started a tradition of making their spaces and content accessible to as wide a public as possible. In some regions, these cultural institutions are offering not only captioning, audio description (AD) and signed performances, but also parent and baby, relaxed and dementia-friendly performances. Moreover, as creative spaces are risk-takers by excellence, theatres and operas have also recently started to challenge accessibility as a product added at the end of the creative process, and to experiment with how access could become integrated in the creative process. ADs, captions and sign language interpretations are thus becoming fundamental components explored and developed further away from their traditional format. However, given that these institutions are not subject to national imposed quotas for access service provision, no European or national official quantitative data is available regarding the spread of access services, be them integrated or traditional. Case studies and individual accounts have therefore been relied on to outline traditional access service provision (Cabeza i Caceres 2010; Fryer 2016; Secară 2018; York 2007), or document newer participatory approaches - e.g. Di Giovanni detailing the involvement of blind and partially sighted in the creation and evaluation of AD for an Italian opera festival (2018), or the integration of British sign language (BSL) signing by “projecting the signer so he was like this sort of maverick character” in the work of the UK-based company Graeae (Cockburn 2017). We enrich these accounts by providing two case studies: one describes integrated captioning for spectators in the UK and the second, from Slovakia, presents opportunities and challenges in integrating collaboration in theatre sign language interpreting. Our case studies particularly look to unveil the extent to which integrated and inclusive approaches can address traditional access provision concerns. We use the case study as an investigation method as it enables us to look at one unit of investigation in depth, treating it as “a whole rather than prioritizing certain aspects of it and paying particular attention to the context in which it is situated” (Saldanha and O’Brien 2014: 232). Moreover, qualitative methods such as interviews and participant observation allow us to get a handle on rich experience, something that is not attainable with surveys or questionnaires.

2. Integrated Access and Creative Teams

As creative spheres by excellence, theatres, as well as opera houses, have enthusiastically embraced the provision of access services and looked to explore the opportunities they brought for technological experimentation and widening of the audience (Burton 2009). By building dialogues with the target audience, facilitated by onstage touch tours to complement audio-described performances or live open captioning, theatres and operas were able to adapt their practices to support the communities they were serving (Secară and Allum 2011). In doing so, they were also helped by national initiatives and societal factors. Firstly, the impairment-based model of disability was challenged and gradually replaced by a social one. The social model of disability was introduced in research in the early 1980s by Mike Oliver who argued that people are not disabled by their impairments but by the disabling barriers - political, cultural or professional - they faced in society. At its core, it proposes “a cultural shift from viewing disabled people as a group deserving of welfare, to fellow citizens with full rights to participate socially, economically and politically in society” (Oliver et al. 2012: xii). It is the social environments and systems, physical structure, as well as the values of a society that impose limitations on certain categories of people, and not their individual characteristics. Secondly, societal factors such as migration and globalisation started to affect the structure of audiences for various performances and thus proved the benefits of access services for a wider public. Most theatres are facing a revolution in terms of audiences - globalisation and migration make possible a real shift in the make-up of audiences interested in the creative offer theatre and operas provide. Thirdly, and of particular interest for this article, accessibility started to excite creative teams in terms of artistic opportunities. The question asked by forward-looking theatres now is not how to add access services to satisfy the needs of changing audiences, but how far are theatres willing to adjust their working patterns and expectations to give access to, and also tap into the creative potential of working with people with disabilities. Therefore, theatre access services have started to slowly move from accessibility as post-production to integrated access. Timid attempts in this direction were recorded for television and film, in what was titled Accessible Filmmaking (Romero-Fresco 2019), or implemented in certain audiovisual translation experiments featuring non-traditional integrated subtitles - i.e. subtitles placed to suit the viewers’ natural gaze path, aligned with important characters or elements of the image rather than constantly appearing at the bottom of the screen, as is the case with traditional subtitles. In these contexts, some benefits were highlighted. For example, when watching integrated subtitles, viewers were shown to maintain their engagement with the characters on screen (McClarty 2014), enjoy a better blending of the subtitles with the aesthetics of the respective audiovisual content (Fox 2018) and, in the case of children viewers, to allocate a greater proportion of their attention to the images of AV content (Black 2020).

Integrated access happens “where the access professional (audio describer, signer, captioner) is not brought in at the end of the creative process as an external expert to wave their magic and solve the access challenges, but instead is involved from the start as an integrated member of the company or artistic team” (Fryer and Cavallo 2021). Some theatre directors are becoming interested in integrating access from the very beginning of their productions, curious to explore the creative opportunities this might bring. For example, Ramps on the Moon, a consortium of artistic teams from theatres in England was formed with an overall commitment to enrich the stories they tell and how they tell them “by normalizing the presence of disabled and D/deaf people across mainstream theatre” (Ramps on the Moon n.d.). This implies two aspects. Firstly, they try to challenge the entire creative team, the access team and the actors in how they approach access services. For example, discussing with BSL interpreters may force directors to think about the terminological choices they make, and be more rigorous in the language used, its connotations and possible ambiguities. The second aspect is linked to the representation of disability through the content of the show, and casting disabled actors in a move towards telling stories truthfully and presenting on stage the voices of all. A director can thus challenge the idea of abilities and enable, for example, a play where disabled or D/deaf actors can dance and love music, using techniques such as stage vibrations to feel the bass. Creatives know that these richer lived experiences feed the performance.

Jenny Sealey is the Artistic Director of Graeae, a company that places Deaf and disabled artists centre-stage and explores the aesthetics of access as creatively embedding a range of tools such as AD and sign language from the very beginning of the artistic process. She considers that this type of access, done from the start, is easy to achieve as “it flows from the words that the writer writes” (Graeae n.d). Amy Leach, Associate Director, Leeds Playhouse, highlights even more the opportunities this integration can provide: “From a creative perspective... it’s like I’ve had this paint box that I’ve made plays with for ages, and I’ve just discovered there was another layer!” (Ramps on the Moon n.d.).

Fryer and Cavallo (2021) focus on AD to investigate features of integrated access particularly when compared with traditional access provision. Collecting data from a variety of respondents representing audiences, artists, companies and venues, they draw a list of concerns related to content, technology and collaboration matters which arise when traditional access models are used. Leaving aside the AD specific concerns, we use a selection from their list as a framework against which to analyse our two case studies. Particularly, we look to uncover the extent to which the case studies we present address these reservations.

The case studies we present are necessarily different due to the contexts in which they are embedded. On the one hand, the UK creative sector has seen a growing number of integrated access initiatives, some of which are highlighted above. The case study we present here is a typical integrated captioning example. On the other hand, in most Central and Eastern European countries, such as Slovakia, integrated access services for live performances and cultural events, except for a few (but valuable) initiatives, are far from common and the need for inclusive access to theatres for spectators with sensory impairments in the case of major productions is often overlooked. Moreover, in such contexts, theatre managements and theatre creative teams have little experience of strategies and processes for access provision in general. Therefore, our second case study, based in Slovakia, will present a different approach to collaboration for producing theatre sign language interpreting (TSLI) as a first step towards integrated TSLI. Therefore, this case study will look to analyse the extent to which such an intervention addresses collaboration concerns arising in traditional access provision.

3. Integrated captioning: A case study

This chapter presents an integrated theatre captioning case study. As method we use observation, in particular participant observation, as one author takes an active role within the observed group, namely she is the captioner. As a tool of investigation, we believe this to be particularly pertinent, as “participant observation often provides access to spaces that are otherwise inaccessible to scientific investigation, and provides a viewpoint from inside the case study rather than external to it”(Saldanha and O’Brien 2014: 223). We use information thus gathered to assess if and how integrated captioning addresses concerns arising in traditional captioning. For this, we use as a framework a customised list of content, technical and collaboration concerns identified by Fryer and Cavallo (2021).

3.1. Content

The presented case study is a theatre play based on Be My Baby, written by Amanda Whittington and set in 1964 in a mother-and-baby home. Hidden from the eyes of society, a group of young pregnant unmarried girls are brought to this home to give birth and then give their children up for adoption. The 2019 UK Leeds Playhouse production of this play was directed by Jacqui Honess-Martin.

Fig.1: Integrated captions as part of the set design for Be My Baby.

3.2. Equality

As an integral part of the production, the captions were projected on the play’s actual set and were therefore available to the audience during every performance. Therefore, equality understood in terms of difference of experience between disabled and non-disabled patrons was achieved. The integrated captions enabled greater-than-ever access to D/deaf and hard of hearing audiences to a Leeds Playhouse performance. Up to that point, the theatre offered one or two captioned performances for every main show on their programme, but Be My Baby was the first to offer all performances featuring captions. This increased the visibility of captions, normalised their presence, and provided end users the freedom to attend and enjoy any performance. It is also worth mentioning that visibility of captions for all can also be achieved in traditional environments, where LED screens are open, for all to use. When captioning is open to all, it can be enjoyed also by the undeclared audience - this was shown to represent a large section of the audience who do not wish to be identified as caption users but who nevertheless find captions useful (Secară and Allum 2011). Potential for immersion also increased, as the presence of captions integrated in the set meant that previously reported LED issues (Fryer and Cavallo 2021; Secară, 2018) such as flicker from the screens or attention related difficulties linked to the switching of attention between the stage and the position of the LED screen (usually at the side of the stage) were reduced.

3.3. Accuracy

In addition to objectivity, this element looks into the potential for integrated approaches to push beyond neutral delivery. In our case study, of particular relevance is the input from the director and the impact this had on the delivery of the captions. This created a sort of disruption, rich from a creative point of view.

The Director used the captions when making specific creative decisions. For example, the captions were used to highlight humour when the characters - teenage girls -, were trying to understand how giving birth works by reading, and not understanding, specialised literature. The instructions from the Director for the phrase “The actual onset of labour is probably governed by the endocrine secretion of the posterior part of the pituitary gland” were to display it all in smaller font “on the screen at once and leave there until all of [the actors] turn and look at the captions and then, when they resume, you clear and continue” (Secară 2019, personal email communication). Using captions to augment the action had been used before: Graeae used newstext style for its 2010 production Reasons To Be Cheerful, and Birds of Paradise Theatre Company projected text messaging to support the comedy aspect for its 2014 Wendy Hoose (Alland 2018).

Moreover, the captions supported Norma’s character played by Anna Grey from the Mind the Gap learning disabilities theatre company. Here, the Director provided exact instructions to the captioner: “you will have to pay extra attention when she is on, and you may need to pre-empt her lines (so bring them on earlier if you see she is struggling and looking at the captioning area for support)” (Secară 2019, personal email communication). Overall, in addition to their traditional role, the integrated captions carried out supplementary functions which supported the Director achieving her creative vision.

3.4. Density

Different from TV captioning which allows editions and omissions, theatre captioning is verbatim and based on the play scripts (Secară 2018). Therefore, from the point of view of fullness of information, irrespective of the captioning method adopted, this aspect is unlikely to vary. However, if we consider density from the perspective of presentation speed, integrated captions can be more problematic than traditional approaches. The current integration was implemented using existing captioning software (Jayex), but the display method changed from two LED screens to projection on a customised wall, as block text, as per Figure 1. The blocks of text were mostly between three to five lines, timed with the rhythm of actors’ delivery. This means that, at times, they were fast and lines belonging to more than one actor could appear in the same block. In traditional settings, captions are set to rolling on a LED screen which allows the captioner, via the software used, to control the speed of delivery using reading speed limitations. This avoids situations where the text is presented to the audience for an unsuitably succinct amount of time. Moreover, when the text is rolling, because each delivery begins with a label including the character’s name, identification of who is talking is straightforward. Therefore, from the density perspective, the integrated approach raises a few issues.

3.5. Technical

Creative human input and creative technologies are two essential ingredients in integrated approaches. In our case study, the captions were physically integrated in the setting, their design was customised to fit the period of the play, as well as its content. This is part of what Graeae calls “the aesthetics of access”: a process of unpacking every potential element that access has to offer which could lead to the enhancement of the whole play (Graeae n.d.; Cockburn 2017). For Be My Baby, the Designer selected a font matching that of typewriters from the 1960s, given that the play was based on letters written in that period. The Designer and Captioner customised the brightness in the captioning software, Jayex, so that the captions were projected on a clinical white-on-grey background, thus encapsulating the coldness of the setting where the play was taking place. The captions were prepared in Jayex which was also used for every performance to cue the captions live.

3.6. Ease of use

The captioning display via traditional methods, be them LED screens, hand held devices or seat-back VFD (Vacuum Fluorescent Display) involve a switch of attention from the stage to the respective unit position. Integrated approaches offer a big advantage in this area as they allow audiences to access captions by naturally conducting their gaze to where the action occurs on stage.

However, ease of use also needs to be considered from the implementation side. While the dedicated software enabling the creation and delivery of captions is not complicated, it requires a considerable amount of time. Following the Be My Baby experience, the Leeds Playhouse was eager to continue to explore the provision of captions for more performances. The labour-intensive experience of manually cueing captions during every performance of Be My Baby led to curiosity about the potential of technology. As highlighted by Oncis and Orero (2020), discussions regarding access services have mainly focused on content creation and not so much on technologies for delivering them, although technology is intimately linked to the provision of access services. Countries offering strong access services report a high reliance on up-to-date technologies. Long gone are the days when captioning for television was mainly typed using a normal keyboard or transmitted via Teletext. The EBU reports in its 2019 PSM Access Services Survey that 60 per cent (21) of organisations that replied to their survey “are actively implementing, testing or in discussion to integrate artificial intelligence, such as automatic speech recognition, into automated workflows for live subtitling” (EBU PSM 2019: 8). Moreover, 69 per cent already use speech recognition for live subtitling via respeaking and this model seems to be the most widely-spread technology to provide captioning fast and for a large percentage of content.

It is therefore not a surprise that the Leeds Playhouse decided to test a speech-technology reliant captioning solution, using smart glasses as the display method. This technology had been developed, tested and implemented at the National Theatre in London. Using “speech- following software augmented with lighting, sound and video cues derived from the production” (National Theatre 2018: 3), the system picks up automatically the lines as they are being uttered by actors on stage, and displays them as captions on the lenses of smart glasses.

Fig.2: Captions output on smart glasses for Hamlet.

The Leeds Playhouse implemented this technology for its 2019 Hamlet and Around the World in 80 Days (henceforth AW80D), two plays belonging to two different genres: a tragedy and an adventure novel. The captions had been previously prepared by the Captioner, and their respective cueing information coming from a previous traditionally-cued performance were also fed into the software. 44 members of the audience were given the glasses before the beginning of the respective performances and allowed to customise the appearance of the lines - number of lines, font, colour, position. During the performance, the captions were automatically sent and displayed on the glasses. At the end out of 35 smart glass users for Hamlet, 27 filled in a survey and 6 out of 9 did so for AW80D.

While this specific implementation is not an example of an integrated approach, feedback gathered from the users regarding the use of this technology is very relevant. We are not reporting here the results of specific survey questions as they mainly referred to the delivery, display and physical characteristics of the glasses, but would like to use some comments received to highlight aspects which could be further explored in integrated captioning scenarios.

It is true that the glasses share the shortcomings of some traditional methods. They may involve extra time as the user would have to pick them up in advance and get used to the functionalities, may be uncomfortable, and may carry associated stigma linked to identifying as disabled. However, one can imagine using this technology in an integrated approach to explore and take advantage of some of the features positively commented on by the survey participants. Some users commented that they contributed positively to immersion - “It was easier to immerse with slower dialogue. I felt a bit lost during faster sections” and “It helped me to focus on the caption on stage as I was not pulled away from it as I am with LED screen”. Moreover, they also facilitated comprehension - “Enjoyed using them and it really helped to follow the complicated plot”. They could also continue the integration work, by allowing members of the audience to customise the way in which the font and text is displayed and therefore to experiment with what works for them, as individuals. As our users said, “It was useful to be able to set your preferred text size, colour and position”, together with “I really liked the text floating in front of my vision” and “In block mode I found that the script would be too far ahead then you’d have a period of nothing, however this did not happen in scroll mode”.

Overall, there was a note of optimism regarding how this type of technology makes alternatives and options possible. Therefore, if we are to take all these ideas further, one could imagine an integrated captioning scenario where all the members of the audience would be offered glasses, as part of the play. The creative team could experiment with some of the elements highlighted above as positive. For example, one could imagine scenarios where supplementary information could be provided on the glasses to enhance comprehension of a particular element in the script, or imagine the glasses as support for humour - lines included about something happening on stage - or as a way to communicate with the public.

3.2.2. Isolation and stigma

Our Be My Baby case study was able to avoid the concerns linked to isolation and stigma which occur frequently in traditional environments. As captions were open for all, there was no need to know if someone was using them or not. The font used was large enough for access not to be restricted to certain locations in the theatre as is the case sometimes with LED units. Moreover, the play website and the programme discussed integrated captioning at length, giving it visibility and highlighting its benefits.

3.3. Collaboration

3.3.1. Creative teams

The Director Jacqui Honess-Martin and Designer Amanda Stoodley set out to use integrated captioning from the very beginning. For this purpose, they collaborated with Alina Secară, an accredited freelance Stagetext Captioner. The entire team, including actors, electricians, sound engineers, and front of house staff knew that captions were being integrated. This was also highlighted by the marketing department in all printed materials, as well as the website. Actors were responsive to the Director’s intention to actively use captions to highlight certain aspects as discussed in the section above.

From the very beginning it was understood that this was a collective effort and that extra resources were needed. For the delivery of captions, the captioner was joined by her students enrolled on the University of Leeds MA Audiovisual Translation Studies programme, to prepare, set them in the Jayex software, and cue them live during every performance as shown in Figure 2.

Fig.3: Students outputting live the integrated captions for Be My Baby.

Moreover, from day one immediate feedback was available from users, which also included but was not limited to traditional caption users.

3.3.2. Responsibility for access

In a traditional environment, the Captioner usually liaises with the theater Access Manager and LX department for practical details, and with the Deputy Stage Manager to obtain the latest script updates. There will also be interactions with the target audience, usually done during interval or after the performance via emails and questionnaires in collaboration with the Communication team. The Director is very rarely involved. In integrated scenarios this changes dramatically. In our case study the Director put captioning at the heart of the production and also influenced the decisions taken about its implementation.

3.3.3. Access and expertise

In traditional environments, it is the captioner who takes the important decisions about the form and style of captioning, using all the information available, as well as good practice guidelines and her expertise. In the integrated scenarios this aspect can create tensions and therefore it is crucial that real communication happens. While investigating the implications of integrated access for professional audio describers, Fryer (2016) claims that, in integrated scenarios, the describer is no longer autonomous, taking decisions independently based on audience-related research and own experience, but is part of the creative team which also has a say on how the AD is delivered. This was also our experience, where the creative decisions, at times, went against captioning good practice - for example, bringing a long block of text in at once rather than scrolling it as it is being spoken, so that important esthetic functions are also achieved.

3.4. Discussion

Overall, the presence of integrated captioning as part of the Be My Baby play was positive for the theatre in general, highlighted also by the excellent reviews the play received. The Guardian awarded it five stars (Brennan 2019), and The Stage noted: “Be My Baby is also another fine example of inclusivity work that Leeds do so well. Anna Gray from learning disability theatre group Mind the Gap slots into the ensemble effortlessly, and there’s some ingenious captioning written in the style of case notes” (Murphy 2019).

We analysed above how, by embedding the captions into the fabric of the performance, certain concerns linked to equality and accuracy were lowered or eliminated. The creative team was able to use captions to enhance key messages of the play. They enabled the Director to highlight specific functions such as humour, aesthetically enhanced the setting by being projected in a font which mirrored the time when the action was taking place, supported an actress with learning disability, and normalised the presence of captions on stage. This process also strengthened collaboration among very different agents involved in the process, from the creative team and captioner to engineers and front of house staff.

However, while integration has many advantages, it is also worth considering its challenges. One is the extent to which it required the captioner to transgress the established practices of their fields. She had to compromise when it came to expertise and established new working guidelines especially to accommodate a multitude of functions, such as an aesthetic one. In the process of collaboration, the captioner had to reduce autonomy and responsibility for access.

From a technical point of view, integration brought positive contributions to concerns linked to isolation and stigma as captions were easily visible to all. They also supported an easier reading experience, not requiring a switching of the attention between a separately located display unit, such as an LED unit in a traditional context, and the stage. However, from an implementation point of view, integration came with challenges. Even if known software was used for its preparation, its presence for all performances meant manual delivery every time, which posed a huge resource issue. It is with this challenge in mind that new technology such as smart glasses were tested to investigate options which could push boundaries in terms of caption delivery. As Di Giovanni outlined, when trying to define the audience, “the most appropriate adjective seems to be diverse” (2018: 189). We believe this also applies to creative teams which are looking for practical solutions for integrated access. We suggest that when it comes to technology, the key is offering the creative teams a mix of choices, ranging from traditional methods such as LED screens and projections on customised walls, to newer displays such as smart glasses and discuss how they could be used to support both the needs of the audience and the creative vision. Providing aesthetically and practically embedded access relies on both technologically-advanced tools and traditional methods. A combination of new technology and traditional methods, in a collaborative sphere seems to be useful when presenting to the creative teams the options at their disposal for integrated captioning.

4. Theatre Sign language interpreting: A case study

Ganz Horwitz (2014: 1) describes TSLI as a “multiphase process”, reflecting “specific linguistic and paralinguistic requirements” in order to provide a D/deaf audience with a theatrical experience “equivalent to that of hearing audience members”. Richardson (2018), who researches TSLI in theatres in the UK, is however rather sceptical in this respect and suggests that interpreted performances may actually not work for Deaf spectators. In traditional settings – often using a single interpreter placed on a platform, approaching TSLI as a transfer of what is said onstage – “interpreters resort to the neutral conference style of interpreting” (Richardson 2018: 8) and lack access to the theatrical artistic expression which might provide a bridge between the original and source discourses beyond the linguistic and cultural characteristics of the transfer (see e.g. Gebron 2000; Turner and Pollitt 2014; Ganz Horwitz 2014; Richardson 2017; Rocks 2011, 2019). Current approaches in this respect point out the benefits of TSLI integrated directly onstage and into the production process from its very beginning (Ganz Horwitz 2014; Richardson 2018, 2020); many examples of good practice in this respect can be identified for instance in the UK. In some regions, however, its application remains challenging and very rare, especially in the case of major theatre productions.

Our second case study originates from exactly such a region. In terms of access provision for D/deaf spectators in Slovakia, except for very few integrated signed theatre initiatives, TSLI is mostly provided as an add-on, post-production service, and the integrated TSLI access model has not been used in any major theatre production in the country so far. Observation of TSLI practice in the last decade however reveals a significant shift from the very traditional approach (Hefty 2022) which usually involved subcontracting TSLI at the last moment, with very limited TSLI preparation, limited (or no) artistic delivery, often having one interpreter simply transferring what is said. More recent Slovak practice is increasingly advancing towards a collaborative inclusive approach, emphasising the artistic dimension of the process. With such an approach it attempts to address common TSLI concerns which Richardson’s research (2018) concludes as a failure to conceptualise the interpreter as a performer and a failure to create a meaningful translation of the overall performance, often failing to deliver an artistic experience. As a suggested solution, Richardson (2018) calls for cooperation with representatives of the target audience, creative TSLI processes, professionalisation and integration of TSLI interpreters which could mitigate the risk of insufficient access. Focusing primarily on access for blind and visually impaired audiences, Fryer and Cavallo (2021) in this respect reveal concerns regarding the aspect of collaboration between access providers and theatres identified in traditional access provision settings, illustrating how collaborative efforts with creative teams and inclusion of access professionals and target audience representatives can help to address issues parallel to those raised by Richardson (2018).

Collaboration is also the focus of this case study, aiming to identify the potential of collaborative strategies in TSLI in a professionalised, inclusive, although not fully integrated, access model. The case study addresses a selection of collaboration concerns adapted from a list compiled by Fryer and Cavallo (2021), focusing on the provision of TSLI by a professional TSLI group advocating for an inclusive and artistic approach to access provision. As for the data collection method, semi-structured interviews were conducted with Slovak TSLI lecturer, coordinator, supervisor, actor and Slovak Deaf community representative Michal Hefty, and with three hearing Slovak theatrical sign language interpreters active in the same TSLI group. Hefty himself is a representative of the Slovak Deaf community, a professional artistic and theatre sign language lecturer with over 15 years of experience, supervisor and coordinator at the Slovak Centre of Deaf Culture – Myslím, Deaf actor, and university graduate in drama education for the Deaf. For almost a decade he has been active in initiatives providing inclusive access to cultural events – mainly music festivals and live performances. Semi-structured interviews were conducted also with the three Slovak female theatre sign language interpreters (I1, I2, I3) whose professional profiles are provided in Tab. 1.

Tab.1: Professional profiles of interviewed TSLI interpreters.

Due to restrictions resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic, all interviews were conducted online via video call on the Zoom platform, with one respondent at a time. A Slovak sign language interpreter was present at the interview with Michal Hefty. Both sets of interviews focused on professional, organisational and artistic aspects of TSLI in Slovakia, in a specific professional TSLI group managed and supervised by Deaf coordinators and artists under the management of the Centre of Deaf Culture – Myslím. The information obtained via interviews was used to assess how the analysed TSLI approach (explicitly advocating for an inclusive and artistic approach to access provision) addresses the selected collaboration concerns arising in a traditional access provision.

The perspectives of the interviewees were documented via the case of their TSLI work on Männerhort (Men’s Daycare) written by Kristof Magnusson – a dynamic situation comedy portraying four middle-aged men lost in their world and in themselves. Its Slovak adaptation Aj muži majú svoje dni was first staged in February 2012 at the New Stage Theatre. The same theatre re-introduced the play in November 2020 – this time to both Slovak hearing and Deaf viewers.

4.1. Collaboration

Fryer and Cavallo (2021: 73) perceive collaboration as a point of difference between traditional and integrated approaches in access provision, focusing mainly on theatre creative teams and their perspective. Their research reveals a preference towards integrated access provision in close cooperation with the theatre creative productions, aiming to mitigate the risk of insufficient access, but also to ensure the overall artistic experience. We elaborate on this aspect, attempting to encompass the access provision and artistic potential of collaboration between TSLI teams with members of the Deaf community, Deaf artistic supervisors, coordinators and managers and the strategies deployed. Our case study provides insight into how professional, systematic cooperation (and coordination) with Deaf supervisors and Deaf artists helps to address concerns related to more traditional access models, especially in terms of maintaining (and not disrupting) the communicative and aesthetic value of a performance.

The concerns identified by Fryer and Cavallo (2021) regarding the traditional approach in this respect can thus be applied to our context in three main areas: 1. Concerns related to creative teams and involvement of access professionals; 2. Responsibility for access and selection of access strategies; 3. Access and expertise. We will address each of the areas based on the findings from our case.

4.1.1. Creative teams and involvement of access professionals

The professional state theatre New Stage first introduced the situation comedy Aj muži majú svoje dni in 2012. Back then, the theatre did not provide access to Deaf spectators in general. Eight years later, New Stage decided to change the status quo and initiated negotiations with TSLI providers.

In the interview, Hefty states that the theatre was highly interested in providing access to the Deaf, although the initial discussions focused on more general matters related to provision of TSLI, its organisation and preparation. Hefty describes the initial discussions with theatre management as highly significant, since in his experience Slovak theatres, which (mostly) have little or no experience with provision of TSLI, are not only unsure on how to approach TSLI integration but often lack specific knowledge regarding the artistic preferences and communication needs of a Deaf audience. For this reason, he emphasises the need to involve access professionals from the beginning of TSLI planning, as well as the importance of access professionals being affiliated to the community of the target audience.

In this particular case, besides discussions with theatre management, subsequent discussions with Hefty as a TSLI coordinator were also attended by the director. Hefty states the high interest of the director; he refers to his “curiosity about the TSLI process”, “its artistic dimension”, however, as the TSLI was provided once the play was already being prepared and rehearsed, the TSLI was approached as an add-on. Due to the time constraints, the rehearsals of the creative team and TSLI teams were mostly separate, with the exception of the final stage of preparation when TSLI was tested during rehearsal with hearing actors and the director. For the process of translation and preparation, the TSLI team used the recordings of the play, recordings of rehearsals and occasional discussions with the creative team. Artistic aspects of the translation and interpreting were supervised by an artistic supervisor of the TSLI group.

In this respect, Hefty often highlights the importance of the creative performing skills of theatrical interpreters in order to transfer not only the meaning but also the expressive value of a work of art, and, with this in mind, he explicitly calls for close cooperation between creative teams, sign language interpreters, and Deaf supervisors and coordinators in order to achieve benefits beyond the performance itself. Hefty’s view can be applied to further pragmatic aspects, such as addressing the target group to promote accessible performances where supervision by members of the Deaf community integrated into the creative team also demonstrates a commercial potential. Such a strategy was used in cooperation with the management of the New Stage theatre, which produced a special advertisement of the play targeting both hearing and non-hearing viewers involving one of the hearing actors and one of the TSLI interpreters inviting viewers via a joint interactive comedic dialogue in spoken Slovak and Slovak sign language (see Fig. 3).

Fig. 4: Invitation to the Aj muži majú svoje dni (Divadlo Nová Scéna 2020, YouTube channel).

The interpreters’ responses confirm Heftys’ views. Regarding the cooperation with the creative team in the observed case, all interviewees expressed a positive experience in communications with the members of the creative team, although they all described the interactions as minor, not only due to the restrictions and complications stemming from the Covid-19 pandemic but also referring to them as standard in the case of cooperation with major Slovak productions. Although none of the interviewed interpreters marked this aspect as problematic, I1 and I2 expressed positive experiences with other projects applying a more integrated approach. Both I1 and I2 confirmed that from their experience the integrated approach in Slovakia is applied in minor or experimental productions only.

Despite limited cooperation with the theatre creative team as such, the interviewed interpreters addressed several aspects related to the artistic performance dimension of the service they provide, demonstrating a strategy to maintain the aesthetic element of the performance, as well as illustrating their own creative efforts. Although none of the interviewed interpreters is a trained actor, all of them are trained theatre sign language interpreters (see Tab. 1) and their responses reflect to what extent they are aware not only of the communicative but also artistic challenges of TSLI provision (see, among others, Richardson 2017, 2018, 2020; Ganz Horwitz 2014). Their views shed light on how these can be tackled by a professionalised TSLI group under the supervision of and in close cooperation with Deaf supervisors and artists.

Firstly, the higher expressivity of TSLI in comparison with other types of SLI was mentioned alongside the awareness of its presence on the verbal and performative levels. I1 pointed out that “theatrical dialogue is more expressive than normal” and that “in TSLI, the emotion and expressiveness is more significant”. I2 stated that it is “very important to study an actor’s performance and the interaction between actors, since this is something that is being interpreted as well”. I3 concluded that “TSLI is more expressive – in terms of gestures, interaction between interpreters, intensity, artistic performance” and their team is “aware of the artistic element in the presentation of the characters and importance to reflect it”.

Secondly, all of the interviewees addressed the importance of the portrayal of a character, their moods, emotions and development. I1 believes that TSLI “must reflect the characters on the stage, their emotions, and characteristics, how they change, otherwise the TSLI would be dull”. I2 specified the need to “transfer not only what is said, but also the overall spirit and expression the actor is conveying on the stage”. I3 pointed out the importance of authenticity in TSLI: “I was interpreting a man, a crude one in general, and that needed to be transferred to my interpreting and expression”.

The last identified aspect addressed the degree of artistic expression, its balance and maintenance. I1 shared her experience from other performances when “the actors were surprised that we also act and use our facial expressions and expressiveness”, adding that “the actors thought that it was their task alone”. I2 specified that the degree of expressivity “is the responsibility of the coordinator and supervisor, who tell us when to add and when to reduce”. I3 confirmed they try not to overshadow actors’ performances but underlined that they “cannot interpret just the words without expression” as “that wouldn’t work”.

4.1.2. Responsibility for access and selection of access strategies

In the analysed case, interest in providing access was initiated from the side of the theatre production, and the strategies were selected in joint discussion between the theatre management, director of the play and Deaf TSLI coordinator. Initial discussions with the theatre led to joint selection of the genre and particular play, as well as the placement of the interpreters. In this respect, Hefty himself expresses his general preference for integration of interpreters on the stage and provision of shadow interpreting, despite being aware of the problematic aspects of distribution of attention in the case of off-stage interpreting. For Hefty, the selection of adequate placement in practice is conditioned by several factors such as the spatial parameters of the theatre and stage, the dynamics and mise-en-scène of the performance, as well as the number of actors present on the stage and their involvement. For Aj muži majú svoje dni, static TSLI was chosen after discussions with the theatre management, the director of the play and the coordinator. Although the play is performed by only four actors, the space on the stage at the New Stage Theatre is limited and the performance very dynamic. Four TSLI interpreters were therefore placed at the bottom of the stage, in a central position. For Hefty, such practice is common in the case of more mainstream Slovak productions, often for organisational reasons related to limited time, opportunities for rehearsals, and the busy schedules of actors often cooperating with more than one theatre in the country.

Fig. 5: Aj muži majú svoje dni – rehearsals (Hefty 2020, personal collection).

For the interviewed team of interpreters, the selection of the placement and type of interpreting is the responsibility of the Deaf coordinator. Based on their responses, after evaluating the stage and dynamics of the performance, the coordinator selects the most suitable type and approves it in consultation with the director. The performance in our study featured four actors – and “it is usually the maximum number of actors in a play for which our teams usually consider shadow interpreting” (I1). The coordinator, however, opted for static interpreting. I1, I2 and I3 confirmed that the reason for such a choice lay in the extensive dynamics of the comedy, as well as the rather small stage of the theatre. For I1, the choice could have been related also to the intention of the creators “to maintain a certain autonomy”, which is more common in the case of larger theatres and productions.

In terms of preparation for the TSLI, the whole process of TSLI organisation, translation of the script, fine-tuning of strategies and TSLI rehearsal fell under the responsibility of the TSLI coordinator and the TSLI supervisors. This would be in congruence with Richardson’s view (2018: 11), which points out the inability of theatres to assess the quality of the provided service, as “monolingual theatre staff do not possess the skills to assess effectively the translation rendered by the interpreter” and because they are “limited in their ability to consult with their Deaf clients without additional interpreter support” (2018: 11). In our case the translation was supervised by a Deaf coordinator and supervisor who revised the linguistic, communicative and expressive issues of the performance elaborated by the interpreters. This strategy was confirmed by all three interviewees to be a standard procedure in their experience. I1 specifies that “the final decisions are made by the coordinator and supervisor who verify whether the interpreters’ solutions will be intelligible to the Deaf spectator, but also whether they will work for the audience from an artistic point of view”. The applied strategy thus: 1. shifts the expected translation transfer expertise and responsibility to the TSLI team; 2. applies an inclusive approach directly involving the representatives of the target group in the TSLI process; 3. contributes to the creation of a TSLI process that closely fulfils the needs and expectations of the target audience. Such a model was valued positively by the interpreters. As stated by I1, “coordination of the whole process from the very beginning to the end should be steered by the Deaf, it is the only way that makes sense. This is their area, interpreting into their language and they can therefore best define their requirements and needs”.

4.1.3. Access and expertise

Referring back to the previously introduced findings, in the analysed case decisions on access provision were fully deferred to the expertise of the TSLI coordinator. Although the TSLI was approached as an add-on, not via the fully integrated model, Hefty states that the artistic impression produced by interpreters is one of the very essential elements supporting artistic accessibility in TSLI in any circumstances. As he says, “professional TSLI significantly differs from other non-artistic interpreting situations, although theatre productions often do not have any awareness of this and are commonly surprised that theatre sign language interpreters are acting as well”. Based on the results of his reception research, Richardson confirms (2018: 9) that “Deaf respondents have a preference for interpreters who demonstrate good acting skills and are physically matched to the action on stage”. For Hefty, aesthetic value in the TSLI process is very important, but has to be transferred in a manner that is intelligible to a Deaf audience. This is one of the factors underlying the importance of the work of Deaf coordinators with an artistic background, present throughout the whole process (arrangements with theatres, selection of suitable interpreters, translation of the script, adjustment of artistic expression strategies, consulting on approach to specific meanings – e.g. songs, music, sound effects, rehearsals), and Deaf supervisors entering the preparation process at a later stage (fine-tuning translation of specific meanings and situations, fine-tuning artistic expression strategies, ensuring the meaning and artistic intelligibility of translation for a Deaf audience). Furthermore, each interpreter regularly referred to concepts of inclusion, accessibility and the needs and requirements of Deaf culture in artistic settings, although none of the interviewer’s questions addressed these directly, in order not to prejudice interviewees’ responses. As the common denominator in terms of their TSLI training was their TSLI preparation with Deaf coordinators and supervisors, the benefits of such a strategy might be assumed.

4.2. Discussion

The presented case study provides an insight into TSLI provision by a professionalised TSLI group led by Deaf coordinators and artists. It contrasted this approach with traditional access models, focusing on access-provision concerns regarding collaboration among the entities participating on the task. The study aimed to provide insight into how various forms of collaboration affect the process of TSLI implementation into a theatre performance originally intended for a hearing audience.

Given the limitations of the case-study methodology applied in the presented TSLI research, the findings cannot be generalised and need to be interpreted within the Slovak cultural context. First, although Slovak sign language is a legislatively recognized national minority language, provision of access to live performances is limited and the history of professional TSLI only recent. Secondly, the professionalisation of Slovak sign language interpreters in general is very recent. In 2020, publicly available resources suggested that there were only 25 Slovak sign language interpreters in the whole country (Kurilcová 2020). The number of theatre sign language interpreters affiliating themselves to theatre and creative SLI as a specific type of interpretation different from conference and community interpreting is minimal. Thirdly, as the provision of TSLI in Slovak theatres is still not common, initiatives calling for its application have originated mostly from the Deaf community approaching theatres and offering supervision and provision in TSLI services.

In this context, in terms of involvement of access professionals, findings from the case study document a provision mode where services were requested by a major production theatre and initiated in close cooperation with representatives of the Deaf community as the coordinating access professionals. Deaf community members were present as TSLI coordinators and artistic supervisors throughout the TSLI initiation, organisation, preparation and implementation. In our case, their involvement might be marked as essential on two levels: coordinating and artistic. On the first level, it was the Deaf coordinator steering the discussions and providing expertise in what, how and why should be implemented. Based on his professional artistic, theatre and interpreting experience, as well as his professional expertise in Deaf culture, he opted for strategies believed to be adequate for a particular scenario, but also for the target audience. Some of Fryer and Cavallo’s respondents (2021: 82, 83), attempting to define integrated access, referred to the aspects of representation of the target audience, their collaboration with the theatre production, consideration of target-audience needs and provision of access providing an equal experience. The findings from our case illustrate the strategic consideration and implementation of the above-mentioned, although the access provision maintained the key characteristics of a traditional access mode.

When reflecting on the responsibility for the access, in contrast to the contexts analysed by Richardson (2017, 2018), in our setting responsibility for access provision did not fall to the theatre itself but to the TSLI team led by the Deaf coordinator and artistic supervisors. Such a set up enabled provision of TSLI aiming to ensure access which would respect the communicative and aesthetic value of the performance, focusing on the needs and expectations of the Deaf audience (based on supervisors’ and coordinators’ experience). In this scenario, the views of the creative team were discussed and implemented during the selection of the TSLI method and placement, and during joint rehearsals and discussions on the specifics of provision of an inclusive event for both the hearing and Deaf audience. On the part of the theatre, major efforts were, however, made by the theatre management and the director of the performance. The information gathered from the interviews suggests that a fully integrated process is a strategy that would be favoured by professional TSLI groups, however it remains uncommon for the major theatre productions in the country, especially due to time constraints and the workload of creative teams often working actively on several productions simultaneously.

TSLI expertise, on both provision and artistic level, was linked significantly to the TSLI coordinator. Findings from the interviews reflect its full recognition from within the TSLI group - which can be documented from the responses by the interpreters, but also from the side of the theatre production which fully respected the suggestions and strategies proposed by the TSLI coordinator. The coordinator’s approach attempted to maintain the communicative and aesthetic characteristics of the interpreted performance, respecting the parameters of the architecture of the performance, theatre space as well as dynamics of the creative teams (mainly in relation to selection of TSLI placement and method and organisation of rehearsals). In this respect, however, we observe a metaphorical distance between the TSLI group and creative teams, based on the responses rather standard in case of cooperation with major theatre productions in the country, for now not utilizing the possibilities a more integrated approach and cooperation could provide.

5. Conclusion

The presented case studies focused on the potential of integrated and inclusive access services in theatre settings, and pointed out how they could be used not only to ensure traditional access to a play, but also to enhance the artistic potential of a performance. We assessed the potential of integration in these two case studies against concerns linked to traditional access provision, providing insight into two different scenarios, in two different contexts.

The first case study originates from the UK, from a theatre company with a tradition of access provision. It analyses to what extent and how integrated captioning addresses concerns arising in traditional captioning, providing an example of the artistic options that embedded captions have brought to creative teams. The second case study focuses on provision of TSLI in a more traditional access provision setting, introducing TSLI integration concepts, strategies and procedures in inclusive TSLI teams. It underlines areas where direct cooperation with Deaf coordinators, supervisors and artists was essential in providing access, aiming to respect the communicative as well as artistic characteristics of the performance.

Both case studies shed light on selected concerns related to traditional provision of access (Fryer – Cavallo 2021), revealing possible explanations beyond conventional strategies, access innovations as well as compromises between theatre productions and access professionals. The first case documented the benefits of cooperation between access professionals and creative teams within an integrated access provision setting, illustrating the advantages this can bring in terms of equality, accuracy, isolation and stigma and collaboration concerns. It also highlighted the importance of combining newly developed and traditional technology not only because of the much-needed variety this brings, but also because of the uneven availability of new technologies. However, it also reflected on how the expectations of the creative teams might also limit the practice of a captioner. The second case demonstrates the practice of inclusion of Deaf coordinators and artists in TSLI provision, presenting the benefits of such a cooperation model in a more traditional access provision setting. It showed how both the coordination and artistic dimension of the access provision can be transferred to a professional TSLI group, demonstrating its contribution in terms of the creative dimension of TSLI, potential expectations and concerns of a Deaf target audience, as well implementation of suitable strategies, methods and techniques. It also illustrated that despite the benefits, such an approach might in general help to sustain the gap between the creative teams and TSLI groups and contribute to the maintenance of traditional dynamics separating TSLI provision from performance elaboration. Even if not identical, the two cases have a common denominator - they show that integrated access is not only possible, but that “the aesthetics of access”(Graeae n.d.; Cockburn 2017) has the potential to offer new artistic possibilities to creative teams, as well as to address well known concerns which traditional access models entail.


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Theatre references

Aj muži majú svoje dni (2020) by Kristof Magnusson. Directed by Svetozár Sprušanský [New Stage Theatre, Bratislava. 24 October 2020].

Be my Baby (2019) by Amanda Whittington. Directed by Jacqui Honess-Martin [Leeds Playhouse, Leeds. 11 May - 1 June, 2019].


We thank the Leeds Playhouse for providing the smart glasses questionnaire data, Graham Ince for his continuing access service support, as well as to Jacqui Honess- Martin for her openness towards integrated access in Be My Baby. For their willingness to cooperate on the study on the integration of TSLI and for their openness, the authors wish to thank Barbara Randušková, Eva Šoltýsová and Kamila Trévaiová. Special thanks go to Michal Hefty for agreeing to share his valuable experience and approach. We would also like to thank the reviewers for their useful suggestions and comments.


[1] This case study was conducted under the project VEGA  No. 2/0166/19 Translation as a Part of the Cultural Space History III. (Preklad ako súčasť dejín kultúrneho priestoru III.).

About the author(s)

Emília Perez is Associate Professor and head of the Department of Translation Studies, Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra. Since 2019, she has been a member of the Executive Board of the European Master’s in Translation network (EMT). In 2020 she set up the EMT working group on AVT and media accessibility training in Europe which she leads to the present day. Since 2021 she is the member of the European Association for Studies in Screen Translation Executive Board. She is a co-founding member of the editorial board and current editor-in-chief of the journal Bridge: Trends and Traditions in Translation and Interpreting Studies and member of the scientific board of the Journal of Audiovisual Translation.

Alina Secară is Senior Scientist in the University of Vienna Centre for Translation Studies where she investigates accessibility practices and technologies, and teaches modules related to accessibility and audiovisual translation, as well as multimedia localization processes and technologies. A UK Stagetext accredited theatre captioner, she worked with theatres across the UK to integrate captioning for the Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing audiences, and provided customized hands-on training in subtitling and captioning to EU and UN in-house linguists. She managed the UK University of Leeds MA in Audiovisual Translation Studies for over a decade and was part of a variety of EU-funded translation technologies projects such as eCoLoTrain, eCoLoMedia and DigiLing.

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©inTRAlinea & Alina Secară and Emília Perez (2022).
"Addressing content, technical and collaboration concerns in providing access to the D/deaf and hard of hearing audience: Integrated theatre captioning and theatre sign language interpreting"
inTRAlinea Special Issue: Inclusive Theatre: Translation, Accessibility and Beyond
Edited by: Elena Di Giovanni and Francesca Raffi
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