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Arena Stage, Signature Theatre debut accessible captioning technology

GalaPro uses voice recognition technology to display captions in real time. (Provided by GalaPro) (GalaPro)
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Two local theaters are making it OK to have your phone out during performances.

Both Signature Theatre and Arena Stage are incorporating the GalaPro system into their theaters. The app, which has been in use on Broadway for years, allows deaf and hard of hearing patrons to follow along with a show in real time in a way that open captioning (where words are displayed on a screen near the stage) and ASL-interpreted performances cannot.

“If you want to attend a performance with three of your friends and they don’t need accommodation, then sitting with you could be difficult,” says Mai Yamada, head of U.S. operations and marketing for GalaPro. Most open captioned and ASL-interpreted performances require patrons to sit in certain seats. Moreover, those accommodations are typically only available at very few performances, with tickets that sell out quickly.

“It seemed to be an almost too good to be true solution,” says Jennifer Buzzell, director of marketing and sales at Signature, which will roll out the technology with their production of “Grand Hotel” in April. Using voice recognition technology, “the software learns the show, so if an actor skips a line, it’ll skip the line.”

There is no way for a patron using GalaPro to decide to check out Instagram or toss off a quick text. After installing the app, the user puts their phone on airplane mode, then connects to a closed wifi system. The phone screen does not emit any backlight, and the captions are on a black background, written in either red or gray.

The app works with both plays and musicals, and is particularly helpful with the latter, says Buzzell, who expects many patrons will use GalaPro along with the theater’s already existing assisted listening devices.

“When the music adds to the voices, it makes it harder for our auditory signals to pick out each of those things,” she says. “People can follow along, and if they happen to miss a line, they can look down and see what was said.”

Lindsey Wareing Pisani, senior director of sales and audience services at Arena Stage — which will begin using GalaPro on Friday with “JQA” — has personal experience with that.

Her grandmother, who is hard of hearing, used GalaPro when she and Wareing Pisani took in a production of “The Color Purple” on Broadway.

“She said ‘Well, that just completely changed my experience. The times I got lost, I could just look down and see what was happening,’ ” Pisani says. “And I said, ‘It’s not in a lot of regional theaters — but it needs to be in ours.’ ”