How can you caption a show that is completely improvised?
In March this year, a show called Lost Without Words was produced by Improbable at the National Theatre. Billed as a theatrical experiment, it put older actors on stage with no script to create a different show every night. The Access Department at the National Theatre aim to caption every show, so somehow it had to be achieved. Having worked with the National on semi-scripted shows and Platform events, I was approached and a date for the captioned performance was booked in.
As a realtime stenographer, my skill is using the special design of the steno keyboard to write at verbatim speeds, usually 200+ words per minute. However, most assignments are able to provide some pointers as to the names, terms and phrases likely to be spoken, whether a witness statement in a court hearing, a partial script for a semi-scripted show like Bullet Catch, or a recording of a show in the same run for live comedy. Even a speaker at a conference will have biographical and professional information available online, for me to research their areas of interest.
But this show was different, more like “Whose Line is it Anyway” style improvisation but for drama. I attended two performances before the captioned show, although one was an informal sharing at the rehearsal stage, and I can guarantee that the content was completely different in every performance!
After the first run-through I saw, I realised I would need to have unique speaker identifiers for each of the actors as well as the two directors, and a list of descriptors for the improvised music that would be played by Steven Edis, as well as the ambient sounds that could be played from sound cues like church bells or waves. Liaising Steven and Fana, the stage manager, we came up with a non-exhaustive list to describe the music: fairytale, celebratory, wistful, tea dance, optimistic, spooky, tense. Captioning style guides remind you to describe what the intention is of playing the music, rather than an exact description of where the notes are going. The sound cues were easier as they were already described in the title of the sound file: waves, wind, birds, seagulls, countryside, church bells, car, thunder, rain, train. I also created short forms for [sings] [whispers] [shouts] to come after the speaker name if lines were delivered in a particular way.
What became clear by the second performance I watched was that the speed of delivery was significantly slower than actors speaking from a script, as they were having to absorb and react to each others’ lines, so in terms of speed I knew that it would be manageable on the night. Also if any names were introduced they were usually simple or at the very least clearly spoken (however Ermintrude seemed to crop up several times for comic effect!)
On the night of the captioned performance, I was well looked after by the Tech and Access teams at the National Theatre. Seated at the side of the stage for full visibility, I had an audio feed through headphones of the actors’ head-mics so I would be able to hear them clearly and loudly, without audience noise obscuring any lines. The captions were displayed on two dot matrix caption units either side of the stage, to ensure captions were clearly visible from anywhere in the audience. They display three lines at a time, and are clear to read even under theatre lights.
The show went really well, and the captions became part of the performance at one point, when one of the actors misheard a word and had to check the screen. Here are a few extracts to show how my prep was used:
GEORGIE: Do you want to have a go with my stick?
LYNN: Yes, please, I would.
GEORGIE: It’s a magic stick. Be careful, don’t lose it.
[ ♪ SPOOKY PIANO ]
GEORGIE: [laughs] Yes, that’s marvellous! I think this stick is the thing, isn’t it?
From an exercise where each line had to begin with the next letter of the alphabet:
ANNA: So … do you think we could live together now forever?
LYNN: Test me. Trust me. Let’s do it.
ANNA: Understand something. I, er … I have … certain inhibitions now.
ANNA: Wondrously so. I like to [deep voice] dress up as a man.
LYNN: X-traordinary, I don’t mind at all.
ANNA: You don’t mind?
CARO: There’s something underneath.
TIM: Is there?
TIM: Hang on, can you get it?
CARO: Yes, I’ve got it.
TIM: Ah, what’s that?
[ ♪ TENSE PIANO ]
CARO: “My darling Jim …
So with input from the theatre and the company, good quality audio feed and positioning, enough preparation and the right professional on board, there is no show that cannot be captioned!
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.