In 2021 and 2022. I collaborated with Icarus Theatre Collective on a research and development project to explore how to integrate creative captions into their production of The Lesson by Eugène Ionesco.
The R&D was for two weeks with a week off in the middle in order to give me time to make any adjustments based on feedback from the first week.
This project was a real opportunity to explore different systems, different styles of captions and use feedback from a deaf and hard of hearing audience to help us create captions that worked for them. We already had a set built that was based on previous discussions and ideas but it wasn’t tested until we were all in the theatre venue with a projector.
During the first week I used two different platforms, QLab and Notch. I was keen to experiment with Notch to test a real-time captioning system and integrate some interactive parts to the show using a Kinect Azure. Early on, we realised that this would be rather challenging with the number of unique animations and styles we wanted to implement into the show. With more time I believe we could have continued with using Notch. However, for a more simplified setup and opportunity to really focus on the caption design we decided to use QLab.
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The first exercise was to figure out where we wanted to display our captions and determine a font size that would be suitable for the space. This would help me with breaking down the script and set cue points for the captions.
We also decided to have two types of captions. A and B. A is for captions where we wanted to put more emphasis on animation and style, these would be video cues, possibly incorporating images or motion graphics. B is for simplified captions during dialogue heavy scenes, these captions would have a consistent style and animation throughout. It felt necessary to take this approach as the script contained a lot of dialogue without many breaks. Having all the captions completely styled and animated would take a very long time without a team of designers therefore we highlighted parts of the script that would be more animated and the rest were straightforward.
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Once we had decided we then set up a display for the captions with projection mapping and ran through a script reading with the captions displaying line by line. At this point it was clear that we would have to break the lines down and have the caption appear for longer than the actors were speaking. Following a rough idea of breaking the lines down into 3 parts we were able to have the captions appear a few words at a time scrolling down the projection surface with the top line fading by the time the bottom line was displayed so it could start from the top line again.
We also wanted to test different fonts for different characters and different placement of captions for each character. Our main surface had borders in the set design that we were able to map out and project onto, creating 2 surfaces for the 2 main characters. The 3rd character was displayed on the whole surface.
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One unique element to our play is that the set eventually becomes covered in chalk, handwritten by one of the actors. This presented an opportunity for the actor to interact with the captions, linking his own handwritten parts with the captioned parts. For example, we tested taking out some words and letting the handwriting continue to the end of a sentence.
At the end of the first week we invited an audience and filmed our progress so far on the production to gain some feedback. After the 1st week we were pleased to see that the majority of people found the integration of creative captions to be fully accessible or good. This meant we were on the right track! The positioning of captions was more mixed and this is something we wanted to address for the second week. The majority of people said that this technology would make them attend theatre either far more or somewhat more often so there is a real appetite for creative captions and opportunity to open up to new audiences.
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For the second week we took on board the feedback and got a 2nd projector in order to project onto more surfaces. We were able to focus on the actors' positions on stage and give more direction to the captions and the actors, having captions displayed nearer the actors and giving moments of interaction. We also tested the use of colour and more distinct font styles, including one of the actors to integrate more seamlessly with the handwritten chalk.
I add some animated content including dancing musical notes and a ticking clock to show visual representations of sounds. I was also able to give more emphasis to certain words in the script that we wanted to highlight, reflecting the tone of the character. The play has a lot of mathematical problems that we were able to project and mix with chalk writings and animate.
The second round of feedback was also positive overall. The positioning of text on the set was mostly rated as good or outstanding which was an improvement from the first week and even more people said they would attend the theatre far more often if this technology was readily available.
While every production that you work on will be different. There are things we can all learn from our own creative captioning projects.
I have learned that you must make sure that the director understands your needs and expectations and vice versa. It is best to settle on a design choice early on and stick to it without changing. Designing and programming captions can be a long and cumbersome process and the last thing you want is to have to redesign everything last minute.