By Caroline Itzkoff, CHC Intern
There’s nothing quite like live theater, especially shows on Broadway. But as a person with hearing loss, I find that live theater can sometimes be difficult. It’s not as relaxing as other forms of entertainment because you have to be 100% focused to understand what’s happening, you can’t rely on the usual context cues to make up for something you couldn’t hear, and you can’t easily rewind or rewatch the show to see what you’ve missed like you can do at home when streaming on the couch. Despite all of that, it’s still one of my favorite ways to spend a night out. I've learned there are all kinds of steps you can take to have a fantastic hearing-friendly experience. The key is to do your homework and prep in advance. I love theater and have been on both sides of the table as a director, writer, and actor. So, in the spirit of Broadway’s Fall 2021 reopening, here are some tips that I’ve picked up about how to have a hearing accessible experience.
Have an Accessibility Plan
There are many different kinds of accessibility technology available at Broadway theaters today, but not every approach works for everyone. The experience is not just about what you want to see but also about what accessibility is available.
I recommend that you research what kind (or kinds) of accessibility technology works for you and for which shows. For example, I might use an assistive listening headset over a handheld captioning device for a simple melodic show like The Music Man but choose to use a hand-held captioning device for a more word-heavy and fast-paced show like Hamilton. You may choose to stick to a captioning device for both shows! It’s all up to you; just try out different options and see which you like best for what.
After you figure out your preferred accessibility technologies (or just the one), you can match it with what you want to see through theatreaccess.nyc, which is a website specifically designed to help match the accessibility options to your preferred show. If you’re not sure where to start, here’s the link to my previous blog post, which provides a summary of the established accessibility technology offered today.
Where Should You Sit?
Although we’ve all been taught that sitting up front is your best bet in school, church, synagogue, or any other group settings, that’s not the case in theater. When up too close, it can limit your view and cause you to expend extra energy and feel discomfort craning your neck to see the stage.
I would recommend that the opportune seating is in the orchestra section between rows 12-20 of a large Broadway theater. This section allows you to see the whole stage while still being close to the actors. So if you can afford the best tickets (which I hope everyone has the opportunity to do at least once), it’s not the first rows. If you can’t get those seats, don’t worry! I’ve seen plenty of shows where I’ve been in the back of the theater or in the balcony and loved it. Ideally, you just want to be able to see the entire stage, which enables you to better catch context clues. So even if you don’t get every word, you can still understand the basic idea of what’s going on.
Do Your Homework!
It’s important to be prepared for the show you’re going to see, and in my opinion, it’s the most important step you can take in creating a wonderful theater experience. Before I go see any type of Broadway show, I always try to either listen to the soundtrack, read the script, or read the Wikipedia page. That way, if I miss something during the show, such as dialogue or a lyric in a song, I’ll be able to rely on my knowledge of the story to make up for what I missed. Most well-known shows such as Wicked, Aladdin and Hamilton have the script available online which you can find by typing the name of the show “script” on your internet browser’s search bar. If I wanted to find Hamilton’s script, for example, which would be a must-do for me whenever I do see the show, I would search “Hamilton musical script” on Google and see what comes up, going through the results until I’ve found what I’m looking for. It may take some poking around to find the script for different shows, but I think it’s worth it.
If you can’t find the script or you’re simply too lazy to read it (again, understandable), read the Wikipedia page for the show and that will also help give you a better sense of what it’s about. Additionally, since there are many movie-to-musical shows on Broadway nowadays, as well as biographical musicals, you can also watch the movie, documentary, or read the book its based on. Examples currently include Mrs. Doubtfire, Diana: The Musical, and Waitress, among others. If you can’t do that, read the Playbill! There’s a basic synopsis about the show in every Playbill that you can read before the show starts. Since there’s usually about 15-20 minutes between the House (the theater) opening and the curtains rising, you have ample time to prepare every show.
Maybe you’ll blow the plot of the show you’re going to see if you do all this preparation; but if the show is good, everyone’s already told you what happens anyways. I promise that you will truly get much more out of the experience by knowing what you’re going to see rather than going in with nothing, and if you miss things sometimes like I do, it’s definitely another tool you’ll want in your back pocket.
Finally, another important way to prepare is to discuss with your audiologist or CHC technical experts to help determine what is best for your particular hearing loss in a live theater setting.
Relax and Have a Good Time!
It’s important to remember that you’re going to see a show for a good time and a good story, so don’t stress! Missing a few lines of dialogue or part of a song won’t affect your overall understanding of the story (especially if you’ve done your homework) or the magic of the show, so don’t let it ruin your night. Theater isn’t meant to be perfect like film, it’s one of a kind because each show is its own unique performance that no one will ever see exactly the same again. This includes all the mess-ups, mishaps, and any other sort of problem that could happen. There’s room for mistakes and imperfection, but, ultimately, the show must go on.
In my opinion, seeing theater with a hearing loss is never going to be equal to seeing theater without one. It can be fantastic and amazing, but it’s definitely not the same. Personally, I don’t think that’s a bad thing, I think that makes us appreciate it more than the average theatergoer because we understand the importance of the preparation that makes the show so good. With that in mind, I hope to see you on Broadway this fall. Until then, enjoy the show!
Caroline Itzkoff is a sophomore at Barnard College of Columbia University and an intern at CHC. At Barnard, she is double majoring in Film and History. Caroline has written a short one act play and has directed a virtual play at the NOMADS original theater club of Columbia University. She loves drama and stories and will continue to pursue her interest in media arts.