Captioning Awareness Week

Read about a day in the life of one of our captioners, Stef Bell.

head and shoulders of Stef Bell

Stef Bell is a freelance captioner. At captioned performances, the words spoken by the actors appear on a screen at the side of the stage so that audience members can read the text alongside the spoken lines.

How long have you been with the RSC?
I have been working as a captioner for the RSC for the past two years but have been a freelance captioner in UK theatres for the last 10 years.

Describe your role in three words: Supporting Deaf audiences

What do you do in your typical day?
My role as a captioner is to make the play accessible to people who are Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing. Approximately 11 million people in the UK are Deaf, deafened or hard of hearing and captions help keep theatre alive for many of these people by giving access to all the speech, music and sound effects.

Although the process is much the same for every play, no one day is typical. While much of the process is dealing with the script and preparing it for specially designed captioning software, I prefer to see the play as an audience member before sitting down in front of the computer in order to understand the rhythm and the 'feel' of the play from the audience perspective.

The original script is stripped down to the characters’ names and the words which they speak and only then can the real work begin. I listen to the play via the specially created DVD over and over to ensure that the breaks in speech and every little pause is accounted for and so that I know the play very, very well.

I try very hard to get the timing right so as not to give away punchlines or important bits of information before the hearing audience knows. Along the way, descriptions of sound are put in including background music, where appropriate, as well as the more obvious gunshots and swords clashing moments. I liaise closely with the Deputy Stage Manager who tells me if there have been any last minute changes or to help me identify an unusual sound.

I have a dry run as close to performance day as I can so that I can adjust the timings in the script – it’s surprising how this changes as the performances mature. 

On the day of the captioned performance, I come in early to check everything is running smoothly and check in with the techs. In Stratford we have an amazingly comfortable room (by no means the case in every theatre!) but as we cannot see the actual stage, it's relayed to us via a couple of monitors – one to show the stage and the other to allow us to see one of the caption screens. Once the show starts, I have to concentrate for the length of the play, tapping the preset lines so that they appear on the screen in the auditorium at the same time as the actor is saying them. 

Unlike the other access workers, I have very little contact with the audience so please do feed back your comments on the quality of the captions, the position of the caption boards and the clarity of the words, so that we can continue to improve our work.

What is your favourite RSC production?
Can I be greedy and have three? Firstly, the 1990 production of The Comedy of Errors simply because it was the first Shakespeare I took my own twins to. But since working for the RSC, I have been captivated by both the recent Hamlet and The Seven Acts of Mercy.

What was your most memorable moment working at the RSC?
There have been many memorable moments but working with the great team of staff at the RSC will be what I remember the most.

What Shakespeare character would you most like to play?
Puck from A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream. Although I have to say that I would need to be a lot fleeter of foot...

How do you start each working day?
With a large mug of builders' tea!

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