Stagetext was established in May 2000 by Peter Pullan, Merfyn Williams and Geoff Brown. Each had a different type of deafness and a determination to improve access to the performing arts for all deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people. All three were members of Stagetext Board for several years.
In a short Stagetext film, shot on location at St. Martin’s Theatre in London, Peter Pullan explains a little about how it all started, the history of the charity, and the early years of captioning in the UK.
Watch the film here: The founding of Stagetext: ‘‘It’s like day and night’’
Peter J. Pullan MBE
Peter Pullan MBE has been severely deaf since the age of five. He stepped down as Chair of the Board of Trustees on 2 November 2010 after 10 years at the helm. He was awarded the MBE in the Birthday 2011 Honours List for services to deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people.
Since taking early retirement from his job in industrial chemicals in Europe back in 2001, Peter became fully occupied with the development of Stagetext, also acting as Chief Executive until January 2005 and concentrating on giving the organisation focus, securing funding and building the team. He looks back at how access to theatre has improved since 2000 and why he was so determined to set up Stagetext with Merfyn Williams and Geoff Brown.
“I am very passionate about the theatre and the arts and believe they should be accessible to everyone. Before we set up Stagetext in 2000, I found it totally frustrating to live in the greatest city in the world for theatre but to be completely unable to follow the spoken or sung word. At that time, access to the arts was restricted to sign language interpretation which I can’t follow, or loop and infrared sound enhancement systems which can help by increasing volume but still left me struggling to understand.
"It was quite common for opera and plays in foreign languages to have surtitles in English so that hearing people could understand them. Imagine if for an opera or play in English the audience was made up of people like me. Surely surtitles or unedited captions in English would be helpful? The visit of a group of deaf people from New York to London inspired us to bring about change and we set up Stagetext.
“At the heart of our mission was the need to offer high quality captioning to match the high quality of the productions. Advocacy, training and service delivery are key activities.
“Theatre is about being involved in the development of the characters and being emotionally and intellectually attached. I felt deprived of this great experience until captioned performances came along. Now I’ve seen so much theatre over the past 10 years; some productions so powerful they touch your life, others perhaps best forgotten. It's all about equality. It means I feel just the same as anyone else who goes to the theatre.
“I am thrilled to have helped create an organization that has brought so much happiness to many deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people who were previously excluded from the arts. The future is immensely exciting with the prospect of new developments for Stagetext to offer to commercial and subsidized theatre and also to community theatre, as well as improving access to other areas of arts and entertainments yet to be reached.
“It has been a privilege to get to know so many people over the last 11 years, as colleagues and friends, who have shared the passion for arts and entertainments that great access can help create. I look forward to seeing you all at the next captioned show!”
Merfyn has been profoundly deaf since birth and uses both speech and sign language. He has wide experience of working in community self advocacy roles in relation to access and d/Deaf awareness.
“I was born profoundly deaf and was educated to speak, but I have a deaf accent. This confuses a lot of non-disabled peers who think that a profoundly deaf person wouldn’t be able to speak but only sign. I am bilingual and use Sign Supported English (SSE). The issue of full access in theatres still leaves a lot to be desired. With captioning, I can access a play in the English language. This gives me a personal growth and development; I am empowered and not patronised.
“At the start of our mission to make theatre accessible I was very much involved with technicians in the theatre, setting up the units and trying to negotiate the best possible position so that d/Deaf people could fully enjoy the show, and not have to choose whether to watch the show or the captions. I have realised how poor the understanding of deafness is within the arts world and how long it will take before attitudes change completely so people recognise that disability and deafness is a normal part of human experience.
"I have met some technical and production staff with positive attitudes and it has been a pleasure to work with them. I think more engagement of d/Deaf people in the arts, both behind as well as in front of the stage, would be good for everyone.
"As an audience member, I have enjoyed theatre in a way that was not possible before captioning. The variety of theatre is amazing and it’s wonderful to change from a passive spectator at a show to feeling really involved with characters and plot as they develop. Of course, the downside is that I get access to theatre which is sometimes just bad, but that’s equality for you.
"I’m proud that Stagetext has been able to work with arts organisations to push the boundaries, with the result that d/Deaf and disabled people are more included in society. Much more needs to be done, but good practice that results in greater customer satisfaction is the key to the growth and maintenance of new audiences."
"Before I became deaf, virtually overnight at the age of 17, I was a regular theatregoer. My mother and I frequently visited one or other of the Liverpool theatres, mostly for musicals and Shakespeare. I came to love the theatre and felt the loss of access very deeply indeed.
"Because I grew up in a hearing world I knew nobody who used sign language, and hearing aids were no use to me. So even with hearing aid loops and sign language interpreters I was still cut off from the theatre. Over the years, I tried several ways of overcoming this, such as reading the script in advance, but none of them was really satisfactory. When captioned performances became increasingly available, that sense of frustration I used to feel because I was not able to access the theatre with my family and friends became a thing of the past."
Stagetext is extremely saddened to report that Geoff passed away in August 2011.