A Deaf Person’s Dream of Seeing Captioned Broadway Show Realized … Or Was It?

Image Description: MJ: The Musical Playbill and iPhone screen showing "Intermission" overlooking the audience and stage.

I came to New York to see my first-ever captioned live Broadway show. I’ve seen captioned movies at the theater. But I had never attended a live show that had captions. Once, I tried wearing captioned glasses to a show at a local theater. Unfortunately, they didn’t work well. Part of the problem is that the Bluetooth microphone needed to be by the speaker. That wasn’t possible.

Anyway, Thomas Logan and I went to MJ: The Musical, a show about Michael Jackson. Like most Broadway shows, the show uses GalaPro. Before coming to New York, I installed the GalaPro app on my phone and it was ready to go.

GalaPro is available for iOS and Android phones. You download the app and open it at the show. After the initial setup, it should display the captions.

Screenshot of MJ: The Musical entry in GalaPro showing Closed Captioning selected.

As shown in the previous screenshot, the app offers language translation. If a person is a Spanish speaker, they can turn on translation and view the show in Spanish. The audio will be in whatever language the show is in. Think of it as subtitles without dubbing.

When I looked up GalaPro services, it mentions it has the ability to do dubbing. So, it’s possible to listen to the show in a person’s preferred language using headphones. The service also has audio description capabilities.

What Happened with Live Theater Captions

After we arrived at the theater, I opened GalaPro and followed the steps. It needed me to switch to airplane mode and turn off notifications. I did. The app had a short tutorial on how to use it. To adjust the screen brightness, just swipe up and down. To change the text size, zoom in or out (pinch in and out).

Screenshot of GalaPro app showing three steps to do before the show.

So, how did it turn out? Well, instead of experiencing a “Thriller,” GalaPro told me to “Beat it.”

Display

The show opened with a singing and dancing number. I could barely see the captions. Yikes! The screen was black and the captions in pinkish-red. The swiping and zooming did not work. The brightness and text size would not budge.

The brightness was on the lowest setting possible. I’m sure they want to make the screen as dark as possible to avoid disturbing others. Still, even with a brighter hue, it won’t bother folks.

I don’t have color blindness. Yet, I could hardly make out anything using the default brightness setting. While troubleshooting, I found the settings. Finally, I could change the captions to gray. For me, it was much better than the pinkish-red. I also increased the brightness.

Screenshot of Settings for Brightness and text size with their sliders and text color choices of pink and grey with pink selected.

Timing

As soon as the dialog began, the captions displayed them. Finally! The captions were accurate, which didn’t surprise me as they’re based on the script. The timing was another story. It’d stay on a caption line for too long or suddenly speed up through the dialog as the following video clip shows the dialog pacing changes from slow to fast.

There is no sound in the following video that shows the GalaPro’s captions with speaker identification, sounds, and dialogue. The first caption disappears in 1 second. The second caption lasts 12 seconds. The rest is a hodgepodge. Some captions show for the right length of time while others zoom by fast.

We have captions! Or do we?

I liked that the captions had two shades of color. One represented the speaker and the other the dialog or sound. Other than that, it was smooth sailing … for only five minutes.

My happiness was short-lived as I ran into a big problem. The captions got stuck and stayed that way for most of the first half, which was more than an hour long. The following shows the same lines, one in white/gray and the other in pink/red. The pink/red version is the default caption style that appeared every time I rebooted and changed the settings.

Screenshot of captions showing "Isley Brothers: You know you make me wanna. Kate, Nathan, Lou & Reggie: Shout" with speaker identification in a faint gray and song lyrics in brighter gray.

Screenshot of captions showing "Isley Brothers: You know you make me wanna. Kate, Nathan, Lou & Reggie: Shout" with speaker identification in a faint reddish pink and song lyrics in a brighter red.

The captions finally woke up and changed with about five minutes left before intermission.

Screenshot of gray and white captions showing "Michael: My goal is to love our planet, foster racial tolerance, and global unity."

The following line was the last line I captured before intermission. It sums up my feelings and experience … dramatic and the desire to shout in frustration!

 Screenshot of gray captions showing "(Dramatic dance break. Michael shouts.)"

The settings also allowed me to change the text size and brightness. However, every time I closed the app or rebooted the phone, it returned the default settings. I had to change the color, brightness, and text size every single time.

Screenshot of pink captions showing "INTERMISSION" in the default color and brightness setting.

I wasted a lot of time troubleshooting and getting frustrated instead of fully enjoying the show. I did everything from turning everything off and on including my phone, the WiFi, airplane mode, and cellular service.

What Can Be Done About Live Theater Caption Problems?

You may have learned about Marlee Matlin and fellow Sundance jurors walking out on bad captions in the movie premiere. Thomas and I debated whether we should’ve walked out. I told him it wouldn’t help because we were not on stage like Matlin and the jurors were. All we’d do is annoy the other attendees while trying to get past them.

Feedback to company

What can be done? I submitted feedback from the app and I wrote to GalaPro and asked them about the cause and what could be done as a Plan B. They wrote a very nice reply.

“I am very sorry to hear about the experience you had. I’m honestly not sure what more you could have done. We have heard several similar stories around that same period of time. (Yours may have been the one that put it on our radar.) And after several audits and checks of the equipment we have realized that the wifi used in several of the Broadway theaters was misconfigured and as such, the ability for the GalaPro app to connect has deteriorated to the point of no connection. We now have closed those shows from access until the solution can be found.

“As for a plan B: WE do offer an alternative captioning system called I-Caption. It is not wifi-based so it would not be affected by a wifi outage. It does use the exact same captions as the GalaPro app, but you would need to pick up a small hand held receiver from our distribution station.

“I am happy to further discuss the wifi issue or the I-Caption alternative at your convenience. You can see which services are currently offered at any of the theaters we maintain on our website under Broadway Distribution.”

By the way, I reached the other organization and received a refund.

As suggested by the GalaPro representative, I highly recommend using the I-Caption system instead of your phone. You’ll need to reserve the device by visiting the Sound Associates, Inc. page and selecting the show. Move the mouse cursor over a show and it displays a tooltip of the services available for the show as the next image shows.

This isn’t accessible for keyboard navigation as nothing happens when you land on a show. The good news is that screen readers will announce what services are available for the show.

Screenshot of the GalaPro services available for MJ: The Musical including assisted listening, personal captioning, audio description, and translations in Portuguese and Spanish.

Other theaters

I checked my local theaters. Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth has GalaPro and I-Caption, but it doesn’t indicate which shows will have them. Bass Performance Hall accessibility page is helpful and easy to find.

AT&T Performing Arts Center has open captioning. It has to be requested at least two weeks in advance. The location of the captions varies based on the show. But I wonder can you sit anywhere in the theater and be able to read the open captions?

Broadway Dallas is closer than Bass Performance Hall. Initially, I could not find information about captioning on the Broadway Dallas FAQ page. I reached out to them and they said they have GalaPro for all Broadway shows. They do not have the I-Caption option. A representative said they haven’t had problems with the WiFi. I just might have to go check out a show soon!

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Meryl Evans
Marketing Director and Accessibility Consultant | Plano, TX
Meryl is an author, speaker, trainer, marketing director and accessibility consultant, is the author of Brilliant Outlook Pocketbook and the co-author of Adapting to Web Standards: CSS and Ajax for Big Sites. The native Texan resides in Plano, Texas. She's a Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies (CPACC).

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