Putting The CART Before The Play

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For people who have trouble following a stage production of Shakespeare, here's hope. It's called CART, for "Computer Assisted Realtime Translation," or captioning.

Captioning differs from the surtitles that have helped popularize opera. Surtitles, usually flashed on a screen running across the top of the stage, summarize in English the Italian, French or German of most operas performed in the United States.

Captions are smaller, and give the full text of plays being performed in English — including the difficult English of Shakespeare.

"I love it," said Carol Anderson, an usher at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. "I even turn on the captions on the TV at home."

A sold-out matinee on Sunday at the Kennedy Center, one of the pioneers, furnished CART as a moving sign in red on a black background. Placed at one side of the stage, it scrolled three lines at a time of Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie" as the actors delivered them.

The sign could be read easily from the first 10 rows of the orchestra. These seats are sold first to those who request them, often people whose hearing loss is such that ordinary hearings aids don't help catch voices from the stage.

With good eyesight — though opera glasses would help — the sign can be made out from pretty much any of the 1,130 seats and the standing room at the back of the orchestra.

The Kennedy Center gives at least one performance with CART for each production. No extra charge and anyone is welcome.

Beginning Thursday, the Kennedy Center will host a three-day conference of specialists on accessibility to the arts, including legal problems and new technologies.

Lisa Carling, who directs the Theatre Access Project in New York, reports some success in promoting captions both on and off Broadway, beginning in 1997. Her group has sold more than 18,000 tickets to captioned performances, compared with fewer than 10,000 over the same time period to shows with sign language interpreters, Carling said.

She hopes captions will recapture older audiences who love live plays but go to the theater more and more rarely as their hearing grows worse.

"It helps all of us with unfamiliar words, foreign phrases, heavy accents, punch lines that go by too fast to catch the key word, or unintelligible lyrics in a quick paced song," Carling said.

The technology is already in use elsewhere, including California, Kentucky, New Jersey and Texas.

"We have a lot of adult children purchasing tickets for parents or family members who will request seats (and) say to us, `My Mom/Dad/Grandpa won't admit they have a hearing loss — but they do,"' said Stacy Ridgway of the Kentucky Center for the Arts.

Providing CART for live performances requires an operator, similar to a court reporter who transcribes a trial as it happens.

The National Association of Court Reporters has held its first exam for members who want to be certified as captioners for live performances. Nearly two out of three candidates passed, said Peter G. Wacht, the association's senior director of communications.