“It’s amazing to find out that someone has gone back to the theatre after a 10 year absence.” Meet outgoing STAGETEXT CEO, Tabitha Allum

Posted on August 14, 2014

After ten years leading STAGETEXT, the charity that work to provide access to theatre and the arts through captioning and speech-to-text, their Chief Executive Tabitha Allum is moving on. Our Editor Charlie Swinbourne, who worked for the charity for one year, interviewed her about her experiences and the legacy she leaves behind.

How did you first become aware of STAGETEXT?

I used to work at the Arts Council and one of my responsibilities was ensuring that deaf and disabled people had better access to the arts.

Back in 2001, on my third day in my job at the Arts Council, I went to the Barbican for one of STAGETEXT’s first public presentations where they wanted to get venues and funders on board.

What were your impressions?

Tabitha Allum

Tabitha Allum

I remember sitting there listening to the founders of the organisation thinking that this was a group of people who meant business and they were proposing something that could make an enormous difference to the lives of deaf, deafened and hard of hearing people.

From that point on, I sort of took STAGETEXT under my wing and I was really pleased to be able to award them a little bit of money to make presentations to venues.

What stood out for you about the charity?

I think that one of the things that struck me was that, at that time, an enormous amount of money was being spent on developing new audiences for the arts.

I thought that captioning had the potential to bring back the existing audience – people who used to love the arts but who were finding it increasingly difficult to enjoy a night out at the theatre because of their hearing loss.

That struck me as a much easier way to grow audiences for theatre than by trying to get 16 year olds to buy tickets (not that that isn’t also important, of course!).

How long was it before the opportunity to join STAGETEXT came up?

In 2004, I found out that STAGETEXT had secured enough money to employ a Chief Executive.

To be honest, it was the only job that I had thought I would leave the Arts Council for if it came up and so I applied, and I was lucky enough to get it.

The Wizard of Oz, The Lowry Credit: © Ben Blackall

The Wizard of Oz, The Lowry
Credit: © Ben Blackall

Was it a hard decision to leave the Arts Council?

It was a fantastic opportunity for me and so it wasn’t a tough decision at all. I think that the Board of STAGETEXT took a massive risk with me.

I was 29 and had never previously run an organisation – but I thought I had some good ideas about how to take things forward and I hope that the risk has been worth it!

Looking back over your ten years with STAGETEXT, and how captioning has grown, what is the difference between then and now?

The scale of what we do is completely different. I recently found my first targets in taking up the post, and the Board wanted us to do 95 performances in my first year in charge.

This past year, we did 297 captioned theatre performances plus close to 100 speech-to-text transcribed talks in theatres, museums, galleries and festivals.

On top of that, around 60 theatres now have access to their own captioning equipment and local people who have been trained as captioners.

Which things are the same?

The process of preparing a captioned performance is much the same as it ever was and there are some problems that we still haven’t managed to solve.

We believe that open captioning – where the captions can be seen by lots of people without them needing to hold a device which marks them out as different – is the best option for most mainstream performances.

Caption unit at Handbagged by Moira Buffini, Tricycle Theatre, London.  Credit: Image- ©Jeremy Fowler, Set design- Richard Kent

Caption unit at Handbagged by Moira Buffini, Tricycle Theatre, London.
Credit: Image- ©Jeremy Fowler, Set design- Richard Kent

But it’s really hard to ensure that the captioning boxes are always in a good position in relation to where caption users are sitting.

Often the show will be sold out before the set has been designed and this means that we’re often working on a “best guess” about where the displays should go when the tickets have to be sold to caption users.

Somehow we need to find a solution to this – answers on a postcard please!

When I worked with STAGETEXT I remember being struck by that – the fact that so much work had to go into each captioned performance, in terms of putting the box in the right place, making sure the theatre reserved the right seats, and then there’s all the work done by the captioners. Could you tell us a bit about that?

We once calculated that about 40 things needed to slot into place in order for a caption user to have the best possible experience at a performance!

And obviously, the set, script and so on are different each time…

Yes. The captioner needs adequate time and materials to prepare – they need to have an electronic copy of a script and a DVD recording of the show so that they can prepare the text.

We need to have agreed where the units should go and therefore where caption users should sit and the box office staff need to know that too!

We also need to make sure that caption users can book easily and that we are giving them enough information to make choices about what they want to see.

That’s the other element, the marketing side. Again, that varies from venue to venue…

Yes, hugely. And it’s not always possible for us to give blanket advice, which is why it must appear confusing to caption users sometimes.

Tabitha presenting at a STAGETEXT event. © marxphoto LTD

Tabitha presenting at a STAGETEXT event. © marxphoto LTD

But I think the bigger issue in terms of marketing is that our biggest user group is people who do not self-identify as deaf, deafened or hard of hearing people. They are hearing people who are beginning to struggle.

They will complain about not being able to hear in noisy restaurants, have their TVs up too loud and slowly withdraw from the things they used to enjoy doing – like going to the theatre.

We have to find new and better ways of reaching these people because they are unlikely to Google ‘captioned theatre’ or flick to the back of a theatre brochure to look at the access pages.

And if we can bring in that enormous audience, then we’d stand a better chance of being about to make the case for more shows, in more places, and a more varied range of performances.

What do you consider the most important development at STAGETEXT over your time running the charity?

That’s a really good question! I think probably the expansion into live speech-to-text transcription at talks and lectures in galleries, museums and literature festivals.

I think that is enormously exciting because it widens the service to a whole new group of people who might not be into theatre but want to engage in the arts in other ways.

And we’ve barely scratched the surface – there are lots of big institutions which still haven’t started offering STT for talks and tours so there is a long way to go.

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, introducing Professor Frank Close at the Royal Society, 28 January 2014 Credit: ©The Royal Society

Sir Paul Nurse, President of the Royal Society, introducing Professor Frank Close, 28 January 2014
Credit: ©The Royal Society

Tell us about STT, this is offering live captions during live events, basically?

Yes, so we use speech-to-text reporters, like court reporters, to transcribe what’s being said as it’s being said.

For some lectures, the lecturers will come with a script so we can pre-prepare that like we would in theatre, but some lecturers come with literally three words on the back of an envelope and then talk for an hour on a really specialist subject – so we have to be prepared for that!

We have a group of really amazing, really flexible STTRs who work for us on a freelance basis and we’ve been able to take on some really extraordinary talks.

British Museum event: Lost Kingdoms of South America, presented by Dr Jago Cooper, 24 January 2014 Credit: © Benedict Johnson Photography

British Museum event: Lost Kingdoms of South America, presented by Dr Jago Cooper, 24 January 2014
Credit: © Benedict Johnson Photography

Our STTRs can deliver the service on-site, but they can also work remotely so for tours around an exhibition at somewhere like the British Library the STTRs are sitting at home listening to the talk and sending the transcription to a webpage which the deaf, deafened and hard of hearing patrons are viewing on tablets as they walk around the building.

It really is fantastic and it’s a situation that otherwise deaf, deafened and HOH people would find really tricky.

Over the years, you must have met a lot of deaf people who’ve found they can now enjoy theatre or live talks again due to STAGETEXT. How did that make you feel?

It’s by far the best thing about what we do.

It’s amazing when we hear that someone has been able to go back to the theatre after a 10 year absence or that a grandmother has been able to go with her granddaughter to see one of the big shows.

The most rewarding thing is when we offer STT for post-show talks, or at museum talks and caption users feel confident enough in what’s being said to ask a question.

It’s great when they can engage in the subject matter so fully that they forget about the access provisions completely.

Now for a slightly controversial question: do you find many BSL users also enjoy using captioned theatre?

Yes! We have many BSL users among our caption users.

Often, BSL users will choose which access method suits them best depending on the type of performance or the topic of the talk.

It’s important that venues offer both captioning and sign language interpretation.

A question I sometimes ask myself is how other areas of the arts get away with offering so little access for deaf people, when comparatively, theatres have actually done a great deal. Where do you stand on that? One example is live music venues.

I think that live music is an area where more could be done.

But we need caption users to stand up and say what they want – to be vociferous if something they want to attend isn’t accessible to them.

While music venues have responsibilities under the Equalities Act as service providers, unless they can see that there is an audience out there they are less likely to make the changes without prompting (or being sued)

Is that something that’s also been a challenge for STAGETEXT? It’s a bit of a chicken and egg thing – you might not know there is an audience until you provide the access that enables them to come?

Yes. Definitely. We rely on our audiences to tell us what they want to and to tell arts organisations what they want.

And we rely on arts organisations to try out new access provisions and see what the response is.

What are the challenges for the arts organisations?

Well they would say that finance is a challenge.

And to a certain extent they have a point. It’s impossible to make the services more affordable without reducing the fee that you’re paying to the people who are doing the work.

But I think it’s the attitude that’s the bigger problem. I’m not always convinced that all arts organisations put the audience first.

What is the worst response you’ve ever had?

There have been some really vile things said to our captioners by actors and artistic directors (famous ones) who shall go unnamed.

In our experience, the actors who are most dismissive of captioning are the ones who know they don’t know their lines.

OK, so finally, you’re moving on. What is next for STAGETEXT? And what is next for you?

In terms of what’s next for STAGETEXT, there are so many exciting things just around the corner that it makes me even more upset to be leaving.

I won’t say too much just yet, but there will be more to announce in the autumn which should be of interest particularly to caption users who don’t live in the metropolitan centres where there are theatres that offer the service.

And in terms of what’s next for me, I really don’t know. I have had an absolute ball the last 10 years, and my job at STAGETEXT will be tough to beat, but there comes a time when everyone is ready for a change.

STAGETEXT isn’t the same organisation that I started working for in January 2005 and it needs someone with new skills, new experience and new energy levels!

It’s a great time to hand the organisation over and I hope that my successor loves the job as much as I have loved it.

Find out more about STAGETEXT at: http://stagetext.org

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