Broadway is welcoming the use of certain phones in its theaters.
The Shubert Organization has partnered with GalaPro, a Tel Aviv-based tech startup, to provide live closed captioning and audio descriptions of shows through GalaPro’s phone app. The company has signed a contract to be in all 17 Shubert theaters, and has signed on with other theater companies, as Broadway nears the industry-set deadline of offering these services in all theaters by June 1.
GalaPro was brought into the Shubert Organization’s four-year-old incubation program for startup companies in the arts, as the theater group looked to broaden its accessibility offerings. Some theaters have I-Caption devices, which also provide live closed-captioning, but they typically only have 10 to 15 devices, which causes issues if more patrons are hearing-impaired.
“It was something that we really felt like we should fix,” said Kyle Wright, digital projects director at the Shubert Organization.
The company did its first theater demo off Broadway at “Avenue Q” in February 2016 and then began testing it out on Broadway later that year, beginning with shows such as “Matilda” and “Fiddler on the Roof.”
The top concern with the implementation of the app was about the use of phones in the theater. To address that, the app only works if the user puts his or her phone in airplane mode, to prevent additional notifications or disruptions, and the app connected to an internal Wi-Fi system. The captions appear on a black background.
“A lot of the development process was making sure the phones were used only to benefit the patrons and make sure it didn’t disturb,” said Yonat Burlin, chief executive of GalaPro.
While the idea of a phone app met some initial resistance from members of the theater community, Wright said they did not encounter any issues with fellow audiences members as the app was tested out in theaters across its 18-month pilot program.
Now, the app is being used in nine shows in Shubert theaters, including “School of Rock,” “Dear Evan Hansen” and “Come From Away.”
GalaPro says it has also signed on Lincoln Center Theater, for use in its Vivian Beaumont Theater, as well as the Roundabout Theatre Company.
The current iteration of the app is linked to the show’s sound board, which means the captions largely sync up with spoken words and singing as show cues occur, though it can have a bit of a lag. However, the plan is to integrate that system with the company’s voice-recognition technology, which has a faster response time, in the next few weeks.
“We’re slowly moving show by show to voice recognition,” Burlin said.
The voice-recognition technology still needs to use show cues to help transition between slides that have descriptions of what’s happening on stage, such as “soft music playing,” rather than spoken words.
Captions become available four weeks after the opening night of a show, which allows time to translate the script into the app after the show is frozen. To address concerns about protecting the scripts, the app only works once the user is in that theater.
The app also features audio descriptions of the scenes and songs for vision-impaired consumers. Shows have the option to translate the closed captioning into other languages.
The company receives a weekly licensing fee from each theater as well as an initial installation payment, where a control computer is connected to the soundboard and a router is installed in the theater.
Shubert pays the installation cost, while the creation of the captions, auto descriptions and weekly fee are billed to the show.
Most Shubert theaters have been outfitted to use the app, and the rest are scheduled to have it implemented by the end of February.
GalaPro, which began about two-and-a-half years ago, has raised $3 million in funding. The Shubert Organization is an investor and a board member of GalaPro.