Deaf and hard of hearing theater goers are to be given hi-tech glasses so they can watch performances with subtitles.
The National Theater is to roll out the groundbreaking initiative next year after trialling the glasses, which allow hearing impaired members of the audience for the first time to directly watch a stage performance while at the same reading captions of the dialogue being spoken by the actors.
Until now deaf audiences have had to rely on dialogue screens at the side of the auditorium, available only a handful of performances and forcing them to switch their attention from the drama unfolding on stage to the captions on the screen.
But in what the NT describes as “transformative development”, anyone suffering from hearing loss will be able to wear the glasses during any performance, allowing them to read the dialogue captions without diverting their gaze from the action.
The innovation is part of the NT's efforts to reach more people and widen the diversity and range of both its audience and its performers.
This will also involve staging plays in schools in deprived areas were fewer people go to the theatre, include amateur actors and members of the public in some performances and tour more of its shows around the country.
The glasses, referred to by their developers Accenture as an ‘augmented reality system’, will be trialled from next week in David Eldridge’s tender comedy Beginning, along with MacBeth, starring Anne-Marie Duff and Rory Kinnear, early next year; and Pinocchio.
The captions shown on the lenses of the glasses - which will be introduced free of charge at all the NT’s performances on it’s three stages at London’s South Bank from October next year - will be pre-programmed to match the script being used by the actors.
But such is the sophistication of the technology it will be able to make subtle, but immediate changes to the captions should the actors ad-lib during certain passages. They will also provide audio description of the action by April 2019.
Olivia Colman - who starred in ITVs Broadchurch and has just completed a run of Mosquitoes at the NT - and her co-star Olivia Williams both told the Telegraph: “It’s so much better when everyone is looking at you during the performance, rather than at the side of the stage where the captions are usually positioned. It also means everyone’s reacting at the same time to the script. We love it.”
With one in five people estimated to suffer from hearing loss the new system has the potential to benefit between nine and 11 million Britons who might otherwise find live theatre an uncomfortable experience.
Last year 1,585 deaf and hard of hearing people attended the NT, out of a live audience of 1.4 million, and it hopes the glasses will lead to a significant increase.
Jonathan Suffolk, technical director of the NT, said: “This is transformative. It’s a way of enabling our hard of hearing customers to experience theatre in the way other people do, rather than having to sit in the wings near the open caption screens, which also force you to split your attention between the words on the screen and the action on the stage. It means many, many more people will be able to enjoy our shows.”
Rufus Norris, the artistic director of the National Theatre, founded by Laurence Olivier in 1963, says he is determined to increase the diversity of his audiences and attract more ethnic minority, working class and disabled spectators.
As part of the push the NT is to work with a number of community theatres in the capital to stage a series of productions featuring non-professional actors in key roles, starting off with Shakespeare’s Pericles, on the Olivier stage, next August.
The NT also announced yesterday it is to stage a tour of the award-winning play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night in secondary schools in parts of the country with a poor record of theatre attendance, including Sunderland, Gateshead, Doncaster and Wolverhampton.
Mr Norris said budget cut had forced many schools to scrap or limit the amount of drama they offer pupils.
“It’s our responsibility to address that and be a ‘national theatre’ and get out there to areas where there’s low engagement in theatre,” he said.
Simon Stephens, who adapted Curious for the stage, added: “I worked as a schoolteacher in Dagenham in Essex 20 years ago. I have seen first hand how inspiring drama is to young people.
“I believe the arts to be fundamental to our society. We can’t afford to lose them from our education system.”