Every word counts

Frequently asked questions

Surtitles are generally provided for opera and plays performed in a foreign language and are an edited English translation. They are intended for hearing audiences and additional features of help to deaf audience members, such as indicating character names, offstage noises and sound effects, vocal effects and repeated text, are not given. Surtitles also appear high above the stage, unlike captions which should be as close as possible to the action so that deaf and hard of hearing audiences can see the stage action and captions in comfort and within one visual frame.

Subtitles on television are intended for deaf and hard of hearing audiences and, whilst character names are not usually given (often because in close-ups it is obvious who is speaking), they are denoted by different text colours.

Captions scroll up the unit rather than ‘pop on’, since this allows for more flexibility in outputting as close to the verbatim text as possible.

A trained captioner prepares the captions in advance, checking them several times at the theatre beforehand to make sure that they match the actors’ delivery. The captioner also works closely with the production team, usually the Deputy Stage Manager, to ensure that any changes or deletions to the script are incorporated. They also add sound effects and offstage noises.

Take a look at our film, A Play in the Life of a Captioner.

At the performance, the captioner cues the lines as the action unfolds on stage. Should an actor miss a line, the captioner will try and skip over it so that it doesn’t appear on the caption unit, although this may not always be possible in very fast dialogue. Similarly, if lines are said in a different order, the captioner will try to follow the actor, depending on the speed of delivery.

Timing of the captions is crucial so as not to pre-empt the actors, especially if the text involves a key punchline or joke. It’s important that the text does not lag behind the actors because the ability of many people to ‘hear’ the actors more clearly is then lost.

When outputting text, the captioner needs to make decisions about:

* the size of the text

* the amount of text delivered at any one time

* the speed of delivery and whether to edit very fast productions

* the use of pauses

* the use of blank screen to enable viewers to watch purely visual action onstage

Information on captioner training can be found here.

Sometimes this is possible, for example if a production has to be stopped for some reason and there is an announcement. However, the text tends to come up late and the quality of the captions suffers.

For long periods of unscripted dialogue, Stagetext has occasionally used a speech-to-text reporter to deliver the ‘live’ parts of a production and a captioner to deliver the scripted dialogue. This involves linking the STTR’s and the captioner’s equipment to the caption unit and switching between the two at the appropriate time.

For the first Stagetext captioned performance in a new venue the position of the caption unit is agreed following a discussion between ourselves and the technical staff at the theatre. Sometimes the director and production company may be involved.

Many theatres now have their own captioning equipment and use local captioners or hire a Stagetext captioner. In these cases, it is the theatre’s responsibility to decide on the position of the caption unit. The aim is to achieve maximum access with comfort for deaf, deafened and hard of hearing patrons with minimum influence on the artistic integrity of the performance and the actors involved.

As we have discovered, each theatre may have very different ideas about where this compromise should be reached. With goodwill all round, it is possible to achieve a satisfactory outcome for all parties. We try to make the caption unit as unobtrusive as possible and, interestingly, it has been thought to be less intrusive in the set rather than outside it, for example positioning it over a doorway, on top of a cupboard, or by hanging one at the back of the stage so it can just be seen over the actors' heads. This enables deaf and hard of hearing audiences to take in the action and read the captions in one visual frame.

What will and won't work depends very much on the shape and size of the theatre and the set and rigging for each production. Ideally, the caption unit should be positioned so that it can be seen by everyone. If this is not possible, the location should be agreed before booking opens so that the most appropriate seating can be allocated for those wishing to use the captions. Early discussions with the theatre, production team and technical staff is helpful in this respect. Compromised access does not lead to a happy outcome.

The best position is:

  • Where the majority of people in the theatre can see it and at the same time take in the set and actors with minimal eye movement and certainly no head movement.
  • At the back of the set above the heads of the actors, where the unit is not obscured for too long should the actors walk to the front of the stage, has been found to produce the most favourable comments from deaf audiences.
  • Centre, below the stage, is great if it works. The problem with this position is that if the stalls/orchestra seating is quite flat, it's impossible for anyone except the front row to see the caption unit unless it's positioned high up, ie waist high to the actors, which of course would then block most of the action. This position may work in theatres which have raked seating.
  • Above the stage: this position is usually too high to see read the captions comfortably and take in the stage action at the same time, although it is fine to do this if the unit is 'flown' low in the set.

Caption unit height: This depends on the rake of the seating, the set and lighting design. Placing the unit at the actors’ head height may enable the deaf audience to use lipreading as well as the captions but, when rigging the unit, theatres should always check that caption users will be able to see the units comfortably without craning their necks and without actors blocking the view.

Lights and moving scenery: It's important that these should not obstruct the deaf audience’s view of the caption unit. Care should also be taken not to place the caption unit in front of speakers or where it is likely to cast shadows on the set.

Number of units: In large theatres, two caption units – one on either side of the stage – enables theatres to offer a wider choice of seating and reduces the ‘Wimbledon’ or ‘bouncing ball’ effect when switching from captions to actors. Two units also offer a more symmetrical appearance, although they still need to be as close to the action as possible.

Occasionally, some theatres are concerned that the captions will be distracting for the hearing audience. However, the feedback we have received indicates that hearing people, on the whole, either find the captions useful (for example, if there are difficult accents in the play or if the language is archaic or unusual) or they are prepared to tolerate them, accepting that the captions are useful to deaf and hard of hearing patrons. A small number of hearing people do not like them at all.

Stagetext receives very few complaints about captioning from hearing people; in fact, many of them like it and comments from hearing people such as "Theatre is for the majority, not the minority" are, thankfully, extremely rare.

Theatres need to make it clear in their literature, on their website and at the box office that a performance is being captioned on a particular date and explain how it works. However, since only one or two performances are captioned it is not unreasonable to expect some degree of tolerance. Everyone who attends a captioned performance should be treated equally, hearing or not. It's part of the theatre's customer care.

It's usually a question of cost. For big West End shows we can sometimes negotiate two captioned performances – usually a matinee (which many older people prefer) and an evening (for people who are working). We also try to book repeat captioned performances of long-running shows at regular intervals.

Stagetext often captions plays and musicals on tour and is discussing how to make this a more regular occurrence so that more deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people have an opportunity to enjoy the productions.

As more and more theatres invest in their own captioning equipment and local people or staff are trained as captioners, the cost of delivering the service can be greatly reduced.

Often, by the time a show opens it’s too late to arrange a captioned performance, particularly if the production has a short run. However, for shows that are clearly enjoying a long run a captioned performance may be feasible. Several shows have been captioned because deaf and hard of hearing people have written to the theatre manager or production company expressing an interest in seeing the show with captions and asking the theatre to contact Stagetext. We can't promise that this will always bring results, but it’s powerful for theatres to know there’s a keen potential audience out there.

If you do write to a theatre, always send a copy of your letter to the Stagetext office and let us know whether you receive a reply.

Booking a seat in the area set aside for caption users will enable deaf and hard of hearing audience members to watch the show and the captions in comfort, with minimal or no head movement.

Each theatre and each production are different and there will be a selection of seating from which the best view of stage and captions is obtained. We suggest that you are guided by the theatre box office staff who should be aware of the best seating arrangements. Having said that, everyone has different preferences, and some people may prefer to sit in a particular seat even if it means more head movement to see both stage and captions.

If you decide to book seats in the front of the stalls, and the caption units are positioned to the side of the stage or ‘flown’ low above the stage, you may not be able to read the captions comfortably without a lot of head turning.

Before the performance begins there will be a welcome message on the caption unit. If Stagetext is captioning the show, it may say something like: ‘This performance of The Show That Never Was will be captioned by Stagetext’. You should be able to see the captions from your seat. If you can't, then speak to one of the theatre ushers or Front of House Manager who should be able to help you.

Go to the What's On page of this website where show information is regularly updated, and add your name to our mailing list for regular updates. If you don’t have email and want to receive information by post, you can add your postal details. We prefer to send you information by email each month; the postal mailing list is only sent out every three months. Please use the booking details on our website to ensure you book the correct seats for viewing the captions and stage.

If you attend a theatre which offers regular captioned shows, you could join the theatre's mailing list to receive regular information on future productions.

The current unit is only able to display the captions in amber and units which offer more than one colour are very expensive.

Stagetext aims to give deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people as close to the same experience as a hearing person has when going to the theatre. One of the things that deaf people learn after seeing several captioned shows is that the quality of plays and productions can vary. Captions empower people to decide the quality of a play (quote - "We didn't talk about the captions; we talked about the deeper meaning of the play.")

Captions do not interpret the play – that’s the actors’ job. Careful preparation of the captions enables the audience to experience the spirit and intent of the production. The deaf audience can come to the theatre knowing nothing about the play and be intellectually and emotionally involved as the drama unfolds.

Several theatres now have their own captioning equipment and are using in-house captioners trained by Stagetext. If you would like more information on the Stagetext Training Course for Theatre Captioners, or details of how to purchase captioning equipment, please contact Rosie Holmes.

If you’ve enjoyed your visit, do send an email or letter of thanks to the theatre saying why it was special for you and praise any particular theatre staff or members of the production team. You can also write a review of the captioned performance on this website.

If you had a bad experience, for example, the quality of the captions, ability to see them or inappropriate seats, contact the Front of House or Theatre Manager.

Captioners deliver the text verbatim, but when a particular section is spoken very quickly or several people are singing different words in a musical, it’s difficult to read every word and keep an eye on the stage at the same time. In these cases, captioners may edit text in order to slow down the speed of the captions. Do remember that you don’t have to read every single word to get the meaning.

Stagetext only works on live events. If you’d like to find out more about subtitled cinemas, please contact subtitles@yourlocalcinema.com

Unlike captioned performances in the theatre, where a captioner prepares the text in advance, talks, post-show discussions and other events, where the dialogue is unscripted, a speech-to-text reporter (STTR) will provide a live, verbatim transcription of what is being said.

Using a special shorthand, phonetic keyboard, STTRs transcribe the spoken word into shorthand; this is then converted into written text which appears on a screen or, sometimes, on a caption unit. Accuracy of the text is usually extremely high provided that the STTR has received information on the event in advance and has sufficient time to put any usual words, names or phrases that might be used into the dictionary in their software. Failure to provide this information can affect the accuracy of the text and spelling mistakes may occur or appear phonetically (ie as they sound, rather than how they are spelt).

This short film gives more information.


The Arts Council
The Arts Council
The Arts Council