ReCap : an exploration in accessible theatrical performances

written by Jean-Michel Cliche

Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic when digital performance was all the rage, myself and Technical Director Trent Logan, teamed up to create Hyperloop Theatre – A company with the goal of exploring the intersection between live performance and technology. As the dangers of the pandemic ebbed and performances returned to brick-and-mortar theatres, we noticed that accessibility features, which had become common place in digital spaces, vanished. In 2022 with the support of artsnb, Hyperloop created “ReCap”, an exploration in creating live captions that would be projected into physical performance spaces to provide accessibility for Deaf and hard of hearing audiences. The concept was to create a public performance that used captions projected onto “Caption Boxes” – rolling windows covered in semi-opaque material – that could be arranged around the stage to keep the text near the action.

We were lucky to be able to hire American Sign Language Consultant and Educator Jax Warner, who kindly and enthusiastically guided the creation. Quickly, we realized the (now obvious) hubris of the project. It assumed a great many things – Primarily, that captions are accessible to ALL Deaf and hard of hearing persons. For many of the people in ReCap’s target demographic, American Sign Language is their primary language, not written English. We discovered that while the captions may make spoken language performances more accessible to many viewers, it wasn’t the catch all solution we had originally thought.

The bulk of our actual creation took place at the Fredericton Playhouse thanks to their interMISSION residency program. There, we worked with a team of actors to rehearse a collection of short scenes and incorporate the projected captions. Shaping the scenes in parallel to the creation of the captions was artistically very exciting! Positioning the captions so that they followed an actor as they moved across the stage, pairing each character with a specific-coloured font, adding onomatopoetic sound effects, and marrying text size to volume opened us up to a totally new set of creation prompts. While I directed the cast on stage, Trent at his computer worked a mile a minute, typing in EACH line of text, shaping it to fit a screen, and adjusting the size for visibility. I winced whenever I realized we had to change something in the blocking… This led to our second huge revelation, one that I’ve come back to time and time again as I’ve continued to work in accessibility art – Accessibility requires TIME.

Here, we pivoted from a full-on public performance to a kind of invite-only proof of concept. In September of 2022, we performed ReCap to a small audience composed of folks from the Deaf and hard of hearing community and hearing theatre artists. The showcase of scenes was presented with the crafted captions, alongside an ASL Interpreter. We held a brief talkback afterwards to get feedback. The majority of the theatre artists present saw it the same way we did. “How cool!” “What a neat artistic tool!” The Deaf and hard of hearing audience members were more mixed. Many of them liked the captions just fine and appreciated the intention. Most followed the captions and deferred to the ASL interpreter when something went by too quickly. One audience member told us they didn’t look at the captions once – Why would they? The interpreter was communicating the text in their preferred language. All agreed that the small bits of ASL performed by the actors themselves (simple “Yes, No, Sorries” peppered throughout) were great. Ultimately, they confirmed what we had realized over the course of the creation – Including someone in your creative culture (in our case, English language theatre) is fine, but it doesn’t beat watching a show made FOR you.

I’m very appreciative of Jax Warner and all the Deaf and hard of hearing audience members that were kind, clear and excited about our fledgling exploration into disability art. I use the lessons learned there every day in my new position as Associate Artistic Director of Solo Chicken Productions, a company that has accessibility (and the resources to implement it!) at its core. While ReCap wasn’t the miracle idea we maybe once thought it was, it gave the entire team an opportunity to work in a new way and pose difficult questions: “Who is being centred here?” “Do we need to change our approach?” “What are we even doing right now?” I’m very thankful to have had the opportunity to experiment, make mistakes, and learn to make my practice better. Thank you for that freedom, artsnb!

Jean-Michel Cliche (he/him) is a theatre artist and educator of Lebanese and French-settler descent living on the banks of the Wolastoq (Fredericton, NB). He is the Associate Artistic Director of the multifaceted theatre company Solo Chicken Productions. He has trained with Fight Directors Canada and is now New Brunswick’s most active Fight Director/Violence Designer. As an actor, he has had the great privilege of performing in major cities across the country as well as communities of all sizes throughout the Maritimes. Jean-Michel loves all things games, particularly the pen and paper roleplaying variety!

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