Interview: Stagetext captioner Kathryn McAuley spoke to East Midlands Theatre about her active captioner role and the training she undertook

Extract from a larger feature for the June/July 2022 edition of Sardines Magazine about access to the theatre for the deaf and disabled.

Kathryn McAuley, a Nottingham based amateur actor and theatre reviewer has trained with Stagetext and has been able to put her training into good practice in several top professional venues such as Curve Theatre in Leicester, Nottingham Theatre Royal and The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry. Her captioning work has included The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe UK tour and Grease. Kathryn explains both how she first began and the exacting nature of captioning.

Stagetext were looking for people to train as Captioners. The advert seemed to speak to me!  The role required an interest in theatre, an excellent command of English, particularly grammar and spelling, good IT skills, strong communication skills and an interest in supporting deaf and hard of hearing people.

The initial training was an intensive three days, hosted by Nottingham Playhouse. There were four of us on the course, and it started with a visit by a deaf person from Stagetext. This was essential to give us the context we were working in – some of us had never interacted with a deaf person before, and it was essential to understand the wide range of abilities and disabilities, the variation in the experiences of each deaf person and what they therefore required from captioning.

There then followed a very intense few days of training, where Roz Chalmers, the trainer, took us through the practicalities of how to turn a raw script into a captioned script, using captioning software. There are strict guidelines to follow to ensure the captions are delivered at an optimum size, speed and timing, and with universally agreed notation, to ensure the audience can read them fluently, in time with the delivery of the actors.  But more important than these technical aspects was our understanding the nuances of captioning: the importance of not revealing a punchline before it’s spoken on stage or how to indicate an offstage voice without revealing a character that has not yet appeared.

The most creative part comes in adding in music cues, sound effects and descriptions.  The aim is to make the experience for deaf and hard of hearing people equal to that of hearing people, so you need to describe the types of sounds or music being heard. What is trickier is avoiding ‘interpreting’ what you hear: every individual will take something different from how a line is said, i.e. one might think it angry whilst another might think it defensive, so to make assumptions about this would be intrusive.

After the course, each of us had to do three assessments. The first one was a mentored assessment, where we worked on the script with a mentor and delivered it to a ‘blank’ screen. The second was a supported assessment, where we worked on the script alone, had it checked by a mentor, and delivered it live, but with support. And the final assessment was done entirely alone and examined by an external Captioner we had not met before. At all stages, we were given very detailed feedback, right down to a missing full-stop or a poorly timed line.

I started the training in February 2019 and did my first, paid captioning job in October 2019. Each script can take many hours to prepare and get into the correct format, then script checks are done in the theatre, to ensure the timing and delivery of the actors is captured accurately. Finally, the captioning is delivered live during the performance, to ensure it flows with the actors’ delivery as closely as possible.

Like most people, I support accessibility for all, and am delighted that I get to provide this service for the deaf and hard of hearing community.  In the UK there are twelve million adults with hearing loss, so there is a very wide audience, some of whom are probably not even aware that this service exists.  Captions can also benefit a much wider audience too – those with auditory processing issues, for instance, or those to whom English is a second language. Personally, I love the thrill of being part of a live theatre show and contributing to its success.

I have now captioned over ten shows and each one is different and presents its own challenges.  No matter how well you are prepared, there is always a chance of things changing on the night, it’s the nature of live performance.  Pantomimes can be challenging – if the cast decide to improvise, it’s almost impossible to capture!  I loved captioning A Monster Calls because the soundscape was so unusual and challenging to describe accurately. Captioners are quite isolated, usually in a tech box, so we don’t often get much direct feedback from the public, but it’s definitely a service that is appreciated by those who are aware of it, as the theatres are constantly being asked to provide more captioned shows.

Dedication is key and personally, the dedication lies in captioning as a freelancer alongside a full-time job! It’s tricky fitting it all in, but I love captioning and am happy to work at weekends and evenings in order to deliver a top-notch product. The quality must be seamless so that deaf audiences can enjoy the show without any glitches or frustrations.

I would recommend that anyone go and watch some captioned performances, to really understand how they work. Stagetext are the acknowledged authority, so if you want to be trained, this would be the avenue to pursue. You have to love theatre and be willing to be flexible and adaptable. It’s an essential part of making an otherwise inaccessible show available to all who want to enjoy it. As an amateur theatre actor I would be curious to know if one day the amateur world will catch up with the professionals in terms of offering signed performances and captioning. It’s all down to cost and a desire to reach out I guess. Very soon I will be open captioning an amateur production of Romeo and Juliet at The George Hotel in Huntington for the Shakespeare at The George company on 23rd June. They are able to do this due to the generosity of the Dame Evelyn Glennie Foundation. I often review at Derby Theatre and they are making great strides to be inclusive both in casting and for their audiences. Exciting times!”

Written by Phil Lowe

#CAW2022

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