NARI Jennings grew up in a house without sound. She isn’t deaf, but her family has a history of genetic deafness. All but one of her mother’s siblings were born deaf and her mother progressively lost her hearing through a sensorineural condition.

“As she was becoming profoundly deaf, many sounds, including music, were quite distressing to her. I grew up in a home where, out of courtesy to my mother, the TV was always on mute and we didn’t play any music,” Jennings says.

When Jennings was sixteen years old, her only hearing aunt took her to see Puccini’s La Boheme at the then Brisbane Performing Arts Centre.

“That night truly changed my life. I’d never been to a live music event before. I’d never heard singing like that! I’d never seen such spectacular costumes. I remember sitting there thinking I simply have to find a way that my family and friends who are deaf can come and experience this as I am, because I’d never seen anything like it.”

Jennings co-founded The Captioning Studio in 2004 with Alex French. At the time, the idea of accessibility in theatres was limited to large, basic LED panels – two lines of capital letters in bright red text.

“Unfortunately, you would spend more time reading the screen than watching what was on stage,” Jennings says.

Their solution was Go Theatrical! – a brand new technology they developed for live performance. It initially involved TV screens and scripted captioning. The Captioning Studio get their hands on a script or prepare their own in advance. One of their staff listen in on the show and manually prompt lines to appear as the performance happens.

In 2010 they created the world-first mobile and tablet app for captioning, which allows people to bring their own devices to the theatre and non-intrusively watch the show.

Alex French, a former engineer at IBM and BBC Television, said that the response to Go Theatrical! has been overwhelming.

“A woman we know in Canberra was one of the first people to go to captioned theatre. She hadn’t been to the theatre in 23 years because her hearing had been getting progressively worse and it just wasn’t fun anymore,” French explains.

“Even though it had been her passion, going to the theatre in the West End in London, she then couldn’t. Now she and her husband sign up every year to the whole captioned season. They bring a lot of friends and they’re all enjoying the theatre again. That’s the real reward.”

Their technology is rounded out by audio description. This service moves in another direction than Go Theatrical! – their audio description work is for blind and low vision people rather than those with hearing loss.

“They can access our app,” says Jennings, “and have a trained professional describing what’s going on on-stage in between the dialogue. So describing the costumes, the facial expressions and the action on stage.”

Vision Australia supported that development, and the Sydney Opera House were one of the first to install it.

The Captioning Studio’s technology is now the only theatre captioning service used in Australia. Almost every major venue in the country uses it, and most major theatre and musical theatre companies use the technology as well. Major festivals have also taken it on board, including the Adelaide Festival and Sydney Festival. Touring musicals such as WICKED and Dirty Dancing have also put the system in place, as has Opera Australia.

They also implement live captioning for conferences, lectures and other unscripted events.

“The Captioning Studio does provide some international services. Our ‘live’ captioning systems for theatre and live events like lectures and conferences work over the internet with live audio being sent to a captioner and the captions being sent back to the viewer in the venue via our cloud-based servers,” French says.

“The systems have been designed and developed by The Captioning Studio and are extremely fast – so much so that for an event we captioned in the UK from Adelaide recently a theatre patron asked to meet the captioner and was very surprised to learn they were on the other side of the world.”

The Captioning Studio has been highly decorated for their work. They’ve won many ‘Best Event Captioning’ titles at National Captioning Awards in years past. More recently, they won the prestigious Business Human Rights Awards from the Australian Human Rights Commission and the Federal Government’s coveted National Disability Award.

“If you asked someone with a hearing aid whether they knew they could go to the theatre with captioning, most of them would say they had no idea. These awards are a way of spreading the word.”

For The Captioning Studio, however, there are honours more prestigious than the awards bestowed upon them. Alex French has a number of moments he picks out as truly rewarding in their career so far.

“The best example is a text message Nari received on Christmas Day. It was from a student who had struggled all the way through her school life. She was at University doing her first year and she wrote to say thank you so much for what your staff have done for me this year,” French explains.

This is an example of their live captioning capability – a highly trained captioner listens to a live feed of a lecture or event, and within two seconds their accurate-to-the-word captions will show up on the user’s screen.

“This student said it was the first time she had gone through a year of education and really understood everything that’s been going on.”

“The most rewarding thing is seeing somebody going and doing something that we all enjoy and take for granted, like going to the theatre. Going to an event. That’s the most rewarding thing.”

(taken from The Lead)