At the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2017, the Pleasance booked me to provide live captioning for 21 performances of different shows, between 14th and 26th August. This was a new venture for both of us: I hadn’t worked on this scale before, and the Pleasance hadn’t provided this breadth of accessible performances before. As a stenographer or live subtitler, I had pitched to venues on the basis of being able to provide live subtitles for comedy or improvised shows; however when Pleasance suggested it to their companies, the take-up was from plays or musicals. However as I had edited scripts for captioning on an occasional basis in London, I was happy to go forward with the scripted plays and use my live skills if and when needed.
The decision was made to use a 55” LED screen on an adjustable stand for all the captioning. Having LED rather than plasma meant there was less risk of stage lights washing out the screen and making the captions unreadable. Having an adjustable stand meant the screen could be higher or lower depending on the size of the venue, and being on wheels meant it could easily be moved from venue to venue (however stairs and cobbles were a challenge!) The traditional three-line caption unit needs to be flown or rigged above the stage, leading to longer set-up times and more rigging than is generally available in Fringe venues.
The software used was Text on Top, which is designed for providing subtitles at conferences, but also has a full-screen and scripting functionality, so the scripts were formatted and then output via this software, a clause at a time. The LED screen was connected via HDMI to a laptop running the Text on Top display software, which could sit on the legs of the adjustable stand. The reporter’s connection to that setup is wireless, so I could sit wherever was most convenient in the auditorium, usually at the front, because of the need for a table, but it could also be at the back by the sound desk, if the show is mic’ed. Although we used the full screen for the bigger venues (displaying about eight lines of text), the display can also be confined to the top of the screen (displaying five lines of text), if there are likely to be issues with performers obscuring the screen. We did that at Me and My Bee in the Beside venue.
I brought all the equipment with me to each venue: two laptops, power brick, battery-powered light, Text on Top radio dongles. The Pleasance AV team brought the LED screen and the table and arranged for the power in each venue.
We spent a day visiting each Pleasance venue at a quiet time to check positioning and power to the screen, and how many seats would need to be taken off sale for my seating position (usually one or two). Often the screen was positioned next to an emergency exit, so we had to be sure there was 1.2m emergency access between the screen and the first row of audience seats. The power needed to be 13 amp and “hard”, ie not switched off during the show. Any trailing cables needed to be taped down.
In most venues we had 15 minutes between shows to get in and set up, whilst working round the companies moving sets in, and tech changing lights or clearing up debris from the previous production. It was a quick turnaround but no show was delayed because of the captioning!
The prep material required is an up-to-date script from each company, sometimes more than one version, and a video, ideally from the Edinburgh run, or older if no changes have been made. The Pleasance gave me contact details for each company, and I emailed each one direct requesting the script and a video if already existing. Most replied in a timely manner but scripts were still being sent during the Festival run! The videos were either taken by Pleasance for archive, or shot by the company themselves on a GoPro. Having a recording is essential, so for one show I provided an audio digi-recorder which sat next to the tech team, to get an audio recording to compare the script against. To prepare the script for captioning, all the stage directions are stripped out, the speaker labels are made consistent, the sound effects are clearly and concisely labelled, and regular punctuation is inserted, if not already present. Song lyrics are checked, which aren’t always included in a script, and spellings of proper names or technical terms. This takes four to five hours per script, including watching the video.
There are quite a few subjective decisions involved in creating a captioning file, like captioning sound effects. You always have to keep the audience in mind, so if a sound effect is obviously caused by an action on stage, it wouldn’t necessarily be included. However if it’s off stage, and then the characters go on to react to it, it should be included, like an explosion or a gunshot.
Describing music is also quite hard. If it’s very much in the background it should usually be left out, especially if there is speaking over the top. The standard style guide talks about omitting music that has a subliminal effect. However if it’s in the foreground it needs to be described, in usually two words, which can be tricky. Generally one word conveys the tone or emotional effect, and one word for the instrument, and if it’s a recorded song, the artist and the song name should be displayed – caption users are often deafened or hard of hearing, so they might remember the song or can hear enough of the frequencies to recognise it. If the lyrics are clear and relevant, they should be output if there’s no other talking going on on stage. For example, Me and My Bee used the songs “Only the good die young” and “I believe I can fly”, so the lyrics were definitely important.
The experience from Fringe 2017 has been that when the writer of the show is talking about something personal to them, they use broadly similar but slightly different words in each performance, this has come up in for example Perfectly Imperfect Women, by Danyah Miller, and Testosterone, by Kit Redstone. The decision was made to write the monologues live, but then when other actors join in, it reverts to scripted material, so the script could be output line by line. Post Festival, a checklist was developed to try and identify at an early stage which performances might need a stenographer and which could use a captioner.
Generally the captioning went really well and was positively received by the companies and the technical staff. Everyone was aware of their captioned show, and happy about the opportunity to provide access. The screen was always set up with welcoming text before the audience started coming in, so caption users could work out the best place to sit so they could read the captions and see the actors. The Pleasance AV team did most of the hard work of finding the power and positioning the screen each time, so my job was just to set up the two laptops and make sure the text was a good size for the venue, and that my setup was okay, with a small light to make my notes visible, and the laptop at a comfortable angle. Although there were slight deviations from the scripts, usually it was transposition of two phrases, in which case I outputted the two phrases one after another, or if words were added, I had the option to write on the steno machine or type into the text window. If words were removed, there is the option to skip words or search within the caption file to find the next bit of text.
A few shows at the start had some unexpected issues:
On arrival at the first show, Once Were Pirates, the director came over and said, “Oh yes, it’s our captioned performance, did you get the new script I sent you, we’ve changed most of it!” Of course I hadn’t received it, so that one was written completely live on the steno machine, as the scripted material previously formatted didn’t match up with what was being said on stage. This was one of the performances that no video had been received for, so it really made the point of how important getting a recording is.
The Young Pleasance production The Curse of Cranholme Abbey highlighted some weaknesses in the software when it came to multiple characters speaking quickly one after another. This was an extreme example, as there were 27 performers all keen to get their words in, but it led to some changes in the script formatting for future shows (breaking the script into smaller chunks enabled the software to cope better with speed).
At the performance of Snowflake by Mark Thomson, the screen was plugged into a non-hard power source, so as the performance began, the power block we were plugged into, which also controlled the neon sign at the back, was switched off as a lighting effect! Luckily it came back on again, but the screen size had reset and there wasn’t an opportunity to change it, so the text was a bit small throughout. To be fair to the crew, they appreciated the importance of this and didn’t turn the neon sign off again, even though I think they were supposed to at a couple of points. After this, I made sure that each display laptop had a wireless mouse attached, so I could adjust the font size without having to crawl around on the floor!
Next year I hope to have a captioner on board, and to split up the shows between scripted and non- or semi-scripted, then the captioner can prepare and output the scripted shows, leaving me to work out semi-scripted or comedy shows. This would mean we could do two captioned shows at the same time, and work at a larger variety of venues. In 2017, I covered up to four shows per day and this worked fine. Generally the set-up would be the same, as Text on Top proved to be a very reliable system, once the speed issue had been worked out.
Getting a recording of each show, ideally in its Edinburgh run, proved to be essential, and the only shows where unexpected things happened were the ones where a recording hadn’t been provided. Two staff members in Edinburgh would enable us to visit venues on previous days and audio-record shows in order to check the script and run a dummy output to check speed.
The other area that could be improved is audience engagement, and the Edinburgh Fringe Society’s Access Officer, Lyndsey Mclean, is aware of this issue and working on it. I did some of my own publicity, via the Limping Chicken and CCAC websites and articles in the Action on Hearing Loss magazine, but more Scotland-based publicity would be useful, as well as a leaflet or flyer with captioned performances listed which could be handed out at the Festival.
The other thing that could be improved upon is advertising of the captioned performances during the Festival period. Only a few shows had the captioned performance date on their poster or flyer, and although some shows had splashes with the captioned performance date put on their posters, this didn’t get approved until mid Festival and so wasn’t universal.
The cost charged this year was £150 per performance, including VAT. This can be split between the venue and the company as they see fit, and if the venue pays VAT it would make sense that it is routed through them to claim the VAT portion back. Obviously this is a significant figure in an Edinburgh show’s budget, but in terms of the prep and output time (and expenses and equipment) it represents good value and is way below usual London rates. Having a captioned performance brings audience that wouldn’t be reached by regular performances, and gives another marketing tool and listing stand-out to boost ticket sales. All captioned performances this year were listed on the Access Scottish Theatre website, as well as the Stagetext website, reaching caption users in Scotland and England.
Claire started her steno training at Smith Bernal (now DTI Global) in 1994, started working in court in 1995 and attained Accredited LiveNote Reporter status in 1996.
Since becoming freelance in 2004, she has broadened her competences to include all the areas where verbatim realtime reporting can be used.