Curtain call for Stagetext CEO Tabitha Allum

Wednesday, 26 November 2014 11:40am

For the last decade, UK arts captioning organisation Stagetext has been led by the dedicated and talented Tabitha Allum. Tabitha steps down from her role as Chief Executive this month and as a leader in the field of accessible arts, Media Access Australia would like to bestow one final title upon her: Expert in Access. Read on to learn why.

Stagetext CEO Tabitha Allum

What was it that attracted you to the role of CEO at Stagetext in the beginning?

I first became involved with Stagetext in 2001 when I was just starting out at the Arts Council and their work fell within my remit. I attended one of their first public presentations on my third day at the Arts Council and from that moment on I was hooked! It seemed so obvious to me that captioning would meet the needs of millions of potential arts attenders who were being excluded from the arts. I was also really impressed with the founders and how committed they were to changing things for the better and how much they had achieved so quickly.

After that first encounter, I worked hard to get Stagetext accepted into the fold of funded organisations at the Arts Council and when they managed to attract funds from elsewhere in order to employ their first chief executive I knew that it would be the most amazing job for someone and I hoped that someone would be me. Luckily enough I got it and it has been just as amazing a job as I hoped it would be!

What were the early challenges for you? Were they obvious or unexpected?

I think that the greatest surprise for me has been that whereas I thought the biggest barrier within the arts to better access provisions would be that of resources, actually the biggest barrier is attitude. We have managed to persuade some tiny organisations that have no money because the staff are completely committed to providing access services for their audiences whereas there are some enormous, extremely well-funded organisations where the needs of deaf and hard of hearing people who use captioning are still ignored. I’ve also learnt that there isn’t much you can do to persuade organisations that don’t get it. Sometimes you just have to be patient and wait for the people who have become the barrier to move on.

The UK has a thriving and busy theatre scene, so do you find there is a demand for captioning or is there still little knowledge amongst arts practitioners of its availability? If the latter, what will it take to achieve a demand?

For the most part, the demand for captioning in theatre has been proven and it’s now provided as a matter of course in most sizeable theatres, but it’s taken 14 years for us to get things to this point. For lectures and tours in museums, galleries and literary festivals, we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface, but our experience within theatre means that we are confident that change will happen and we just have to try to be patient. As the audience continues to build, the change in organisational commitment to captioning will speed up too – it’s a case of “chicken and egg” at the moment because institutions that are new to captioning want to see a demonstrable demand, but without provision you can’t begin to build an audience that has become used to being left out of arts events.

Stagetext provides prepared captions for theatre productions but also offers both live captioning and revoicing. Can you tell us the difference between these two and in what situations you’d offer each service?

We tend to use live captioning for lectures in museums, galleries and literary festivals and revoicing for unscripted post-show discussions in theatre.

For lectures, caption users require a really high level of delivery in terms of the accuracy of the text. The language used in the lectures can be really complex, so we ask our speech-to-text reporters to do an enormous amount of preparatory work to ensure that their dictionaries and short-forms will be able to cope with whatever the lecturer throws at them.

For post-show discussions, the pace of delivery and discussion between the actors is often much more measured. The discussions mostly take place at 10.30 at night after a captioned show and so the most cost-effective and efficient way of us delivering the access for that part of the evening is for us to use a theatre captioner who is also a trained revoicer as they can undertake both elements of the events.

The balance between us finding a solution which is cost-effective and yet ensures good access for caption users is key for us.

Together with VocalEyes, Stagetext jointly ran the major three-year See a Voice program to get more theatres in the UK offering captioning and audio description. How have things progressed since then?

When I started at Stagetext, one of my main concerns was that, as a very small organisation, there was no way that we had the capacity to be delivering all the captioning in the land. It would be far more efficient for theatres to take the service in-house, sharing access to local captioning equipment and locally situated trained captioners. We managed to achieve this through See a Voice and our quest to develop captioning hubs across the UK continues. I’m delighted that practically all of the organisations that were involved in the See a Voice project are still offering in-house captioning which is a huge achievement considering the project finished four years ago.

We are also really aware that there are great swathes of the country where there is very little arts provision and even less accessible arts provision. Digital arts experiences are one way in which the sector is addressing this situation and so we have already started working with Digital Theatre (www.digitaltheatre.com) and other organisations to provide captions for streamed or downloadable arts products. We have been fortunate to receive an uplift in our funding from Arts Council England from 2015 to 2018 which will allow us to dedicate more time to capacity-building within the arts so that at least 100 organisations will be able to provide captions for their digital work. This should allow more and more deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people to experience the arts in more and different ways wherever they live in the country, and the world!

Outside professional theatre, we can see a real need for captioning in the amateur sector as it’s the main way that many people experience the arts in their local communities. We hope to make some headway in this field over the next few years, so watch this space!

Captioning in public spaces can sometimes be met with mixed reactions. Have you ever experienced a negative response to captioned theatre from an audience member or even an artist or director?

Yes, unfortunately, but thankfully we come across these negative reactions less and less frequently.

Often hearing people will complain if they didn’t know the event was going to be captioned when they booked their tickets. I don’t have an issue with this, everyone has the right not to like something, but people who are hearing are pretty lucky in being able to attend the theatre whenever they like so as long as they are told at the point of booking then at least they can choose to come another night.

When actors or directors complain, it makes me much angrier because it demonstrates a complete lack of respect for the audiences that pay their wages. Over the past 5 years, we have developed a couple of strategies for improving the perception of captioning among theatre performers, including offering training in drama schools so that people are aware of captioning before they start out in the theatre industry.

The position of the caption display unit for a production can, at times, be a debated one. What is your take on the best position for a unit?

Unquestionably, the best place for a caption display unit is within the theatre set so that caption users can see the action and read the captions without having to move their heads. We try hard to persuade producers to allow this to happen, but it happens less frequently than we would like.

After that, at the side or both sides of the stage at the actors’ head height is the most comfortable position for the audience. The further the displays get away from the action, the more the caption users find they are having to turn their heads and the worse the experience becomes for them.

Despite the difficulties with the placement of the displays, we still push for open captioning – where the text can be seen by the whole audiences – wherever possible. The change in focal length required by closed captioning on tablets and smartphones is difficult for many patrons, especially older patrons, and with so many people feeling reluctant to admit to having a hearing loss, we find that open captioning ensures that anyone who needs it can make use of it without feeling different from the rest of the audience. Developments like Google Glass are really interesting, but again wearable devices aren’t going to appeal to people who won’t even consider wearing hearing aids.

Do you have any words of wisdom for an arts company considering offering captioned performances?

Work with your audience to decide what to caption - you may find your audience has a preference for a certain type of show or a certain time of day (though we have come to the conclusion that you can’t please everyone!)

Decide who you want to use to do your captioning - our experience of training theatre captioners over the years has shown us that not it’s not a job that suits everyone. You need to find people who are technically competent and sticklers for good spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Decide how you want to display your text – different solutions suit different theatres, but for the most part we use high definition LED displays because they have a great viewing distance, are very robust (ours have been delivering 300 shows per year all over the UK since 2006) and the letterbox aspect ratio suits the delivery of text. If you can share equipment with other local theatres, even better – it seems silly for captioning equipment to be sat in a cupboard for 355 days of the year.

Then tell people about it! Squirrelling the information away on the access page of your brochure or website is a sure-fire way of ensuring that no one knows about it. In the main, caption users do not consider themselves to be disabled so the access pages will be the last place they will look for information.

In ten years’ time, what would you like to see in terms of the production and delivery technology of theatre captioning?

Theatre is a live experience and this means it can be unpredictable. As a consequence, developments in the production and delivery of theatre captioning have to be able to respond to this.

At the moment, the only way that we can ensure the accuracy of theatre captioning is by using humans to cue the text in synch with the actors’ delivery of the lines. One of the things we’re working on at the moment is an R&D project called CaptionCue through which we are investigating whether it’s possible for captioning to be cued automatically while retaining the high standards of accuracy and timing which we can achieve through manual captioning. We expect to be able to report back on this project in April 2015, but if it’s successful, CaptionCue could change the landscape for captioning for certain types of production.

Are there any people in the accessible arts world that you are thankful for having met and learned from over your career?

Outside of my colleagues in the UK, I have really enjoyed the conversations I have had with TDF and the LEAD network in the States and our friends at Media Access Australia. It has helped me enormously over the years to know that we have friends across the various oceans and that we are fighting the same battles and can benefit from each other’s achievements.

You have extensive experience in audience development and accessing arts through technology, so will these skills be part of your next role or is that still an unknown quantity?

I have absolutely no clue what I will do after 27 November, but hope that I will be able to find something which I feel as passionate about as I have about my work at Stagetext. It will be very hard to say goodbye, but it’s a great time for the organisation to grow even further under new leadership and I have every confidence that Stagetext will continue to go from strength to strength in the years ahead.

Media Access Australia looks back at Tabitha’s time at Stagetext in the knowledge that accessible arts in the UK have been enriched by her leadership. We wish Tabitha well for the future and have no doubt her skills and passion will be put to good use in her future roles.


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