Sunday, April 29, 2018

This is just to say...

Generally, when I see a good play, I post about it, and when I see something that's bad, I write nothing.

Unfortunately, the New York Theatre Workshop's production of Caryl Churchill's A Light Shining in Buckinghamshire was so irredeemably bad, I really have to say something.

Yes, the lighting design was pretty terrible, right from the moment theatre goers sit down and have stage lights shining right down onto them, blinding the audience. (See, it's a light shining on the audience. Get it? Aren't we clever?)

And yes, the mixing of candle lighting and 17th-century costumes with t-shirts and plastic bags failed to work. (You see? He's wearing a ruff and drinking a bottle of coke onstage to show that it's relevant to today. Aren't we being revolutionary?) Funny how plays like The Secret Theatre are able to make past events relevant to the present without beating the audience over the head with it in a ham-fisted manner.

But what I really need to write about is the tremendous misuse of funds provided by Diana and Joe DiMenna and TDF. You see, the program contained this promising little note:

New York Theatre Workshop gratefully acknowledges the generous support that Diana & Joe DiMenna and TDF TAP Plus have provided to enable the C2 open captioning services. With the tremendous leadership of Rachel Chavkin and her team of designers, a captioning board has been fully incorporated into the design of the production.

What does "fully incorporated" mean? It means that smack in the middle of a set is a glowing display using 1980s technology to display every word of the play in the most uninteresting manner possible. Really? You got all that money, and all you can show for it is one of those visual displays you used to see on bank signs?

When Deaf West did Spring Awakening on Broadway, they included extremely creative projections that popped up on different parts of the set. It was amazing! Hearing audiences got a translation of the ASL being used on stage, and when somebody spoke and there was no ASL, Deaf audiences got to read what the characters were saying. Brilliant!

These designers were obviously not up to the caliber of the folks at Deaf West, and maybe they didn't have the same budget as a Broadway production, but this is not a new issue, people! When Bertolt Brecht wanted to make sure audience members--regardless of their hearing--understood every word of a song, he projected the lyrics onto an old sheet at the back of the stage. I'm sure it was much cheaper than the C2 captioning, and more effective, too!

Brecht had other reasons for using projections, as well, and any time you add an element like projections or electronic captioning into a show, it is going to change the dynamics of the performance. He realized this, and used it to his advantage. The folks at NYTW do not seem to have done this. In fact, they don't seem to have thought the whole thing through at all.

By the way, nowhere in the program did NYTW mention ASL-interpreted performances for the play. As a recent article in American Theatre makes clear, many Deaf people prefer ASL-interpreted performances to open captioning. So what was the real reason for including open captioning at every performance of the play? Was it to "ensure access for any and all in our midst" as the program note stated, or was it really to make hearing people feel smug and self-satisfied while they ignored what Deaf audiences actually wanted?

Regardless of the motivation, it was a failure, and a failure that could have been overcome if NYTW had taken the time to do things right. It's time to end the practice of theatres paying lip service to accessibility, screwing it up massively, and then patting themselves on the back for being socially responsible.

The sheer inanity of this production did give me time to count the empty seats in the rows ahead of me during the second act. It looked like about half the audience left at intermission. Whether this was because of the obnoxiously bad open captioning or due to the production's many other shortcomings, I can't say, but when your massive incompetence chases away half your audience, you are hardly providing accessible theatre.

Next time, NYTW, instead of springing for all that money to install the type of thing I saw in front of malls in 1987, give me $5, a digital projector, and a copy of Microsoft PowerPoint. I guarantee you I could come up with a captioning system that is more creative, less distracting, and more inclusive than what I saw in your theatre.