Every word counts

Live subtitles for comedy

Interview with Helen Arney, Festival of the Spoken Nerd

Stagetext can now provide live subtitles (speech-to-text transcription) for a range of non-scripted events, including comedy shows. Some time ago we were contacted by Helen Arney of Festival of the Spoken Nerd to see how we could make their production, Technobabble, accessible to deaf, deafened and hard of hearing audiences during its run at London’s 500-seat Bloomsbury Theatre.

Helen, comedian, presenter, geek songstress and physics graduate, is one-third of the science comedy phenomenon along with stand-up mathematician Matt Parker and BBC science presenter Steve Mould. Festival of the Spoken Nerd describes itself as “a comedy night for the insatiably sci-curious where sparkling wit meets fascinating science”.

We suggested using live subtitles and put her in touch with one of our speech-to-text reporters (STTRs). The evening was a huge success; the accessible performance far exceeded expectations and, says Helen, was a “one of the best shows we’ve ever done”.

Here she talks to Lynn Jackson from Stagetext about the process of integrating live subtitles into the show and why she would encourage other companies to give it a try.

LJ: What led you to offer live subtitles for Festival of the Spoken Nerd: Technobabble?
We’d been wondering how we could make our shows accessible for some time. I was at the Science Museum handing out flyers for Technobabble when someone asked whether it would be captioned by Stagetext.  I didn’t know what he was talking about so I looked into it, but got the impression that captions would only work for scripted shows, not a semi-improvised comedy show like ours.

We still thought it would be great if we could reach an even larger group of people by having an accessible performance so we talked to Bloomsbury Theatre, where we’d been booked for three nights. They put us straight on how the captioning I had read about was very different from actual live speech-to-text transcription, and suggested we contact Stagetext to discuss the various options.

LJ: Did you have any reservations about having live text in the show?
One concern was that adding text might slow down or disrupt the show, but our biggest fear was that it would make it less enjoyable for the hearing audience. We worked extremely hard to make sure this didn’t happen and tried to integrate the text as much as possible into what we were doing on stage. It actually made the show better and more enjoyable for all the audience. Any fears we originally had turned out to be totally unfounded.

LJ: Tell us a bit about working with Cate, and why you decided to include her in the actual performance.
Cate watched a video that we made of the first show, so by the time we met on the afternoon of the third show she was very well-prepared. She’d primed herself with all the unusual words that we use, had a good grasp of our performance style, and it was really easy to talk to her about how we wanted to work with her. It was only on the day that we told her we wanted to light her with a spotlight and show a live video feed of her working so the audience could see her amazing phonetic keyboard!  She took it all on board, nothing fazed her, and by the time of the actual performance she had a really good grasp of how the show would work.

The actual performance was a joyful experience for all of us. At one point, Matt, Steve and I were on stage with digital programmer Seb Lee-Delisle who produced live computer code on the big screen. Festival of the Spoken Nerd has a large fan base; lots of them are very computer-savvy and they really loved the extra level of tech that the live subtitles brought. They didn’t see it as something that was in the way of their enjoyment, more like a fascinating added bonus. There was an amusing moment when Seb was doing some live coding while typing, talking and making jokes. After about five minutes he exclaimed, “This is exhausting, typing in front of an audience!”; one audience member tweeted: ‘HE’S tired! Cate’s been typing for over an hour!”

Cate was brilliant and brought her own cheeky sense of humour to the show. We introduced her at the start – she was in a sort of “Royal Box” on the balcony – and we explained what she’d be doing. When the spotlight shone on her everyone gave a huge round of applause and she typed  ‘CROWD GOES WILD’ on the screen. Hilarious! We totally relied on Cate and she coped with everything we threw at her.

LJ: How did you all feel after the performance?
Exhilarated! We love working at the Bloomsbury Theatre and there was a real buzz that night. We’d spent so much time preparing that we were totally confident working with Cate and Stagetext, but actually had no idea how the audience would respond. Really positively, as it turned out, and the show was definitely enhanced by knowing there was a whole new audience that was completely integrated into the performance. It was really exciting.

LJ: What would you say to someone who was considering offering live subtitles for one of their shows?
Anyone who’s thinking about using live subtitles may be scared, perhaps about the cost if, like us, they are completely dependent on ticket sales, or worried that it will disrupt the show, or the hearing audience will hate it. These are all legitimate fears, of course, but they can be resolved by lots of preparation, and by working closely with Stagetext, the venue and the STTR. All parties put in a lot of hard work beforehand to make the evening a success, and it was worth it. We had no idea it would be one of the best shows we’ve ever done – so much better than we’d hoped.

Our comedy shows really do lend themselves to this form of access as they are so visual. The audience is already used to seeing large parts of the show projected onto our cinema-sized screen, so adding three lines of live subtitles at the top was hardly inconvenient. We didn’t change the show one bit and we’re glad now that we didn’t make any concessions. If we’d done that, it wouldn’t have been as good as it was.

LJ: What sort of feedback did you get from the audience, both deaf and hearing?
There were loads of tweets and emails about the show and they were all positive, no negativity at all. Here are a few:

“I had no idea what to expect. I’m not at all mathematical and would have been absolutely lost without the STT.  Cate was brilliant and demonstrated how she was able to produce this information which helped me to enjoy this show more than ever.” 

“I'm a computer widow.  My husband has more than a dozen computers, ranging from an early one he built 1970s onwards.  When I saw Festival of the Spoken Nerd – Technobabble would have live speech-to-text, I thought it would be a perfect show for him.  We went (he had no idea what we were seeing and I wasn't telling him).  Great fun!  The cast used their techno skills on the STTR; she was filmed, dissected, analysed etc … She was game, but must have gulped a much-needed stiff drink afterwards. She deserves a medal.”

“That was absolutely incredible. Thank you so much.  I'll be talking about this for weeks on end! Again please!” (Tweet)

“It's so stressful to watch. HOW IS SHE KEEPING UP?! Unbelievable!” (Tweet)

Click here to see a video clip showing the live subtitles.

LJ: Would you consider working with Stagetext again and offering live subtitles for one of your future shows?
Yes, we’d love to have live text again next time we have a run of shows, so we can go through the same preparation process. It opened up Spoken Nerd to a whole new audience.

For further information on live subtitling and captioning, please contact Bethan, Theatre Programme Manager.

For more about Festival of the Spoken Nerd, please go to their website


The Arts Council
The Arts Council
The Arts Council