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BWW Interview: Jonathan Suffolk Talks Smart Caption Glasses and Accessibility

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Plus the future of the theatre industry after the pandemic

BWW Interview: Jonathan Suffolk Talks Smart Caption Glasses and Accessibility
The National Theatre
Smart Caption Glasses

After training at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School in Stage Management and Technical Theatre, Jonathan Suffolk went on to work at a number of different theatres, before becoming the Technical Director at the National Theatre, and eventually moving on to focus on his work with the National Theatre Smart Caption Glasses.

The glasses provide a revolutionary closed-captioning service for audience members with hearing loss, as the dialogue in performances is displayed on the lenses of the glasses. Suffolk spoke to BroadwayWorld about how his work has made theatre more accessible to D/deaf audience members, and how the project has been halted by the pandemic.

How did the idea for the glasses come about?

The idea came from two different things that were going on at the same time. In about 2014 I went to visit Sony, who had created some glasses to use in cinema. We were really keen to work with Sony, using their glasses and applying them in theatre, but they weren't too keen on letting us do that, for one reason or another.

Anyway, at the same time we were working with Stagetext, an organisation who provide access services to deaf and hard of hearing people across the theatre industry and in other realms as well. They came up with a project where they were evaluating some speech following software, which is not the same as speech recognition. They wanted to test this with iPads and screens in the theatre context, and I persuaded the National Theatre to let them conduct their test in the big red Temporary Theatre.

We had a weekend trial of this system, but what I really wanted to do was to use the speech following software with the glasses, so that we could offer a different kind of service. The problem with iPhones and tablets is that they disturb other members of the audience; what we didn't want to engender was any kind of service that was disruptive to other audience members. We wanted something that was discreet, and the glasses were potentially that solution, but Sony were reluctant to let us use them.

So, we did the test without them. But then Stagetext couldn't find the funding to continue the project, so I found a way for the NT to fund it. The National had a relationship with a big organisation called Accenture, who were looking for a project to work on. I pitched this idea to them and they kind of bit my hand off. We worked with them to look for equivalent systems like the Sony glasses that we could use to display text on. We eventually found some, which were the Epson Moverio glasses.

Can you talk me through how the glasses work and the technology behind them?

What happens is, we kind of know what the script is going to be, unless it's completely improvised. We put the script into a computer system, and it's carefully programmed to listen out for the words, so when the performers say the words it uses that to track where it is, and to display the text at an appropriate time - a bit like subtitles on TV.

It does it by using the information from the performers' voices and also other information that's derived from the production process. Digital information from lighting desks and sound consoles and automation systems, wherever else there's any information that would give you a mark in time, like a flag, indicating what point you've arrived at in the performance. All of that information is amalgamated to create what is basically a live time code. The subtitles are then broadcast over wi-fi and received by the glasses that are worn by the people who need them.

How have the glasses changed the experience of going to the theatre for D/deaf audience members? Have they been received well?

We've had lots of positive feedback about the service; being completely honest we've not had massively positive feedback about the hardware, about the glasses themselves. The glasses are early technology, and they weren't designed for this, so some people find them quite difficult to wear, but that's only a proportion of the people who've used them. A lot of people who are completely deaf and haven't been to the theatre in years are gushing about the service, because it makes the difference between not being able to go and being able to go. For someone who's D/deaf, it meant that you could make the same choices as someone who wasn't - you could walk past the NT and decide to go to the theatre.

How do you think theatre could be made more accessible in general?

There are lots of challenges in theatre, particularly general accessibility in theatres, and particularly in London - it's quite hard because most [theatres] are really old. Even the ones that were built more recently didn't have consideration for people with access needs in their designs. So, I think buildings are challenging.

Jenny Sealey, who's the director of Graeae Theatre Company, is a really good friend of mine, and the way Graeae produces theatre is to have subtitles and audio descriptions built into the performance. Because their performers usually have some kind of disability, they're considering access as part of a production process from the outset, and I think theatre would benefit massively from that. There's a fear in theatre that somehow it compromises the nature of the production. I think that in a creative sector, if people applied themselves creatively to providing more access, they would come up with more ingenious ways of making theatre more accessible.

Jenny was the inspiration for getting the glasses working - it was to make theatre that she could go to. She kind of drove it, in a way, in the background. She sat on the stage at some theatre show, I can't remember when it was, effing and jeffing, and she said, "It's just fucking ridiculous that as an artistic director, I get invited to all these press nights that I can't go to, because I can't hear them."

How has the project been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic?

It's stopped dead in its tracks. As long as no one's going to the theatre, no one with the access needs that this product serves is going to the theatre, so there's no requirement for it. It's not dead in the water, but it's certainly waiting for the engines to restart. What theatres have been having to consider is their survival.

It's particularly hard when theatre is fairly hand to mouth and doesn't get subsidised enough to be able to support all the people whose livelihoods depend on it. The reality is, without people's jobs and without people being able to sustain an income, other things have taken priority at the moment. I'm sure, eventually, that we'll get the project moving again, but I think that'll be when theatres are able to operate in profit. The one thing I do hope is that there are people with access needs who would like to come back to the theatre with everyone else.

What do you think the Government could be doing to support the theatre industry right now?

The whole of the arts industry, particularly theatre, survives not only because of the people who are employed inside organisations, but also because it's an industry of creative freelancers. And they cross not only the theatre sector but also the commercial sector. The government's offering of £1.57 billion sounds like a lot of money but it really isn't enough, and I think they need to take a really detailed look at the sector. The arts sector is one the largest growing sectors in the UK economy; it's particularly important for exports and the creative view of Britain that is lorded worldwide.

I think they could be doing more, and I think it's too easy not to worry about it because there are so many other concerns. But it's a burgeoning industry that needs support. It needed more support before Covid-19 - there's too much pressure on theatre in particular to survive with very little subsidy. The Government could learn a lot from the German government about how to support and nurture the arts, which could be relevant to so many more people if it were better supported.

Have you watched much digital theatre during lockdown?

I haven't, and the view I have on this is possibly too controversial, but I find it staggering that theatres which are now making huge numbers of people redundant gave away their crown jewels and allowed people to watch them in this act of generosity. When 2.5 million people watched One Man, Two Guvnors, if each of those people had paid £2, which isn't much, then the NT would have been able to keep its staff employed. I know that sounds really simple and possibly really naïve, but to give it away for free, at the moment when you need the money most, doesn't seem to make much sense to me.

Find out more about accessibility and the Smart Caption Glasses at The National Theatre here


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