Deaf theatergoers are finding it easier to enjoy stage productions at UT’s Clarence Brown Theatre, thanks to an ongoing collaboration with the campus Center on Deafness.
That collaboration has resulted in Deaf Night at the Theatre being held once each semester. At the same time, the partnership has created an invaluable learning opportunity for students at the Center on Deafness who are training to work with the deaf community.
David B. Byrd said that it also laid the foundation for the area’s only professional theater to establish an open captioning program that benefits many community members, hearing and nonhearing alike. “This is truly a win-win situation for all involved,” said Byrd, the theater’s managing director. “Our partnership with the Center on Deafness has helped us make theater performances more accessible and enjoyable for a lot of people in our immediate community and beyond.”
This spring’s Deaf Night at the Clarence Brown will be on Tuesday, April 26. The performance of South Pacific will be interpreted by UT Center on Deafness seniors.
Deaf Night at the Theatre was born in 2012 after the theater’s adjunct acting lecturer, Tracey Copeland Halter, and the Center on Deafness’s administrative coordinator, Michelle Swaney, discussed how they could partner to provide an interpreted theater experience that would benefit deaf theater goers and also provide an experiential learning opportunity for students enrolled in UT’s deaf education program.
Deaf Night performances typically draw about a hundred deaf audience members, including individuals from the Center on Deafness and the Tennessee School of the Deaf as well as the campus community and Knoxville area.
Carol Lacava, coordinator of the Educational Interpreting program, said Deaf Night gives Center on Deafness students valuable hands-on experience interpreting a theatrical production.
“There are two senior interpreters on either side of the stage and the two work as a team,” she said. “This is challenging because the interpreters have to perform sign language and show demeanor, character, and accents.”
Lacava said Deaf Night gives students from the Center on Deafness the added benefit of conversing with deaf audience members before and after the show.
The Clarence Brown Theatre uses a captioning system during the third Sunday matinee of every production.
The open captioned performance for A Lesson Before Dying is on March 13. The theater’s last open captioned performance of the season is for South Pacific on April 8.
The Clarence Brown Theatre received a national grant to provide captioning in order to help those with hearing loss too severe to benefit from the use of assistive listening devices. The theater began using the system during the 2013-14 season.
When the stage is being designed, the production team keeps in mind the four-by-two-foot screen that needs to be visible to the audience. The screen is typically located at the base of the stage in the Clarence Brown Theatre.
Since the unveiling of the open captioning program, the Clarence Brown Theatre has gathered plenty of positive feedback from theatergoers.
“A subscriber to the Clarence Brown Theatre for decades e-mailed and said, ‘I am so appreciative that you are offering this service. I have significant hearing loss and I was going to unsubscribe. It is not because I don’t love your work but I just couldn’t hear it any longer. Now I can actually enjoy it,’” Byrd said.
Center on Deafness Director David Smith said open captioning helps people with all levels of hearing loss.
“I think the older members of the theater, who attend on a regular basis, enjoy it more than they could before. Now that they can see the captions, they are able to experience more,” he said.
David Byrd (865-974-0964, firstname.lastname@example.org)