Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Watching It Burn - An Adventure in Theater Accommodations

At the beginning of November, I happened upon a news story about the traveling Broadway production of Hamilton making its way to nearby Pittsburgh. 

Huh, I thought. I’d really like to see that. 

Even after research revealed staggering ticket prices, I still felt like I wanted to go to there. That’s really saying something. 

We embarked on a three-month journey that began with an online waiting room with a randomly assigned number in a vast queue (at one point it said there were hundreds of thousands of hopeful theatergoers, our number was 837) and ended with our minds blown at the January 27th matinee. 

The show was at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Theater and in the days leading up to the ticket release, I researched their captioned performances. Each run concludes with one closed captioned and ASL interpreted performance during the matinee on the last day of the show. I sort of knew this because our cued speech instructor was gearing up to interpret Mary Poppins while she was giving us lessons. She told us how she was trying to decide whether to fingerspell supercalifragelisticksexpialidocious or just print it on a sign to hold up at the appropriate time. I never did find out what she did. 

The Benedum is a beautiful venue. We arrived WAY early for our show,
but the theater is so interesting we were quite entertained by staring at the ceiling.


At any rate, trustarts.org confirmed that the very last show would have captions and interpreters. A positivity campaign to shift our feelings from angst about waiting so long to see Hamilton to healthy anticipation that made the winter pass pleasantly was quite successful. We secured our tickets and started listening to the official original Broadway cast soundtrack. 

Note: in the days before the show, I went back to the website to figure out where to get the captioning device. They’d added two additional captioned/interpreted shows! We really didn’t have to wait until the end of January although I don’t know how I’d have figure out which extra shows had accommodations. But I do know that the devices are picked up from guest services and you have to leave a photo ID to check one out. 


The Hamilton soundtrack is addictive. Within a few weeks, we were memorizing lyrics. I finished the Ron Chernow biography just after Christmas. We watched every YouTube Hamildrop and even several episodes of Drunk History. By showtime, I could *almost* sing/rap Angelica’s part in Satisfied. We were three people prepped and ready for historical hip hop. 

Our morning went according to plan and by 12:30 we were in our seats, captioning device in hand. Benedum guest services advised leaving the unit powered off until Hamilton started since it wouldn’t start displaying until showtime. At about 12:58, Julia turned the device on. It displayed two rows of rectangles, each a full-color advertisement for an upcoming show. All-caps captions appeared a sentence or two into King George’s introduction to the show. And then I was swept away to “a forgotten spot in the Caribbean” and was only peripherally aware of the problems that ensued. 

That home screen flashed on a few times and then there was a smell, but I didn’t connect the plasticky odor of impending electrical fire to the captioning device. In fact, I thought the burning smell was some sort of stage effect though I couldn’t figure out which one. (This was well before Eliza burned everything and I didn’t smell that fire anyway.) I scoped out the emergency exits just in case. 

Julia was relieved to make it to the intermission. “This is really hot,” she said. She meant the device, but the show was pretty hot too. 

Not wanting to bother us, Julia tried powering the captioning device off and back on when it stopped working. It was going in and out of service. She turned it off for good when it started to heat up. I sniffed the plastic case and confirmed the source of that smell. Julia elected to go through the second act without a captioning device. 

The Benedum guest service lady was very apologetic and set the device aside for service or perhaps the garbage. We learned that these handheld devices are on their way out anyway. Broadway (the "real" one in NYC) is using the GalaPro app which allows theatergoers to use their own phone to access captions. As this technology makes its way across the country, there will be no need for special captioned shows because the app will work at every performance. GalaPro will silence phones and allow adjustments to brightness to keep the screen from emitting its distracting light. As an added bonus, one's own phone is unlikely to spontaneously combust. I hope.

In summary, we now have a plan in place for instances when one person needs to quietly notify the rest of the family that some hunk of junk is about to explode. And we know that preparation for live theater is key. With enough at home singalongs, the technology is optional but we do look forward to giving the new app-based captions a go.