Even though Broadway theater is one of the biggest tourist draws in one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, its accessibility has always been limited. From limited wheelchair accommodations to scant autism-friendly performances, patrons with disabilities often find roadblocks to experiencing a Broadway show. Recently, however, this has finally started to shift, and the newest major player is an Israeli startup, doing much of their work from an ocean way.
GalaPro, only operating since 2015, is short for “Gala Prompter,” because its major service is subtitles for live Broadway shows. The app has options for those who are hearing-impaired with subtitles or (soon) audio amplification, and also for those who are visually-impaired, with an audio track that narrates the action happening onstage (similar technology exists for film).
The process is simple: Users download the GalaPro app on their phone, and enter the theater, which has a wifi network solely dedicated to the app. (The app also requires you to go on airplane mode for it to work, so you don’t need to worry about getting a call during the show and violating the most profound theater etiquette.) Then, you can select the show you’re seeing, and the services you select will begin playing automatically on your phone when the curtain goes up.
The whole service is free, though subtitles for foreign languages, in the early works, may one day be a premium feature.
The Shubert Organization, a major player in the industry and the owner of several theaters, is GalaPro’s partner in bringing this technology to Broadway. Thirteen of their houses, with shows like Dear Evan Hansen and The Band’s Visit, now have the ability to utilize some form of the app (the number of productions using the app right now is nine, since that fluctuates as shows open or close).
In many ways, this is new territory. Certainly, there is already theater with subtitles, but when you go to, say, the Metropolitan Opera, there’s a person syncing the subtitles to the performance in real-time. Also, unlike film, there isn’t a set of standards for closed-captions on live theater. This, hopes GalaPro’s CEO Yonat Burlin hopes, is a first step to mass change of how those with disabilities experience live performance. Shows have offered limited handheld devices before, but almost everyone owns a smartphone.
The small, mostly Israel-based team has been running demos of the app since the summer, but this past month marked their official launch (the timing is great, since February is actually Jewish Disability Awareness and Inclusion Month). The expansion will continue over the next several months, and there are still lots of kinks to work out: What’s the best way to automatically sync captions to the show? How do you make sure ushers and other patrons know that you’re not some jerk who’s texting? What’s the best way to hold your device?
But the hassle is worth it for the chance already taking place.
“Creating and implementing a new technology in the theater industry has been an interesting challenge,” says Burlin, “And we are fortunate to be able to work together with Shubert to change the accessibility standards on Broadway.”
So, stay tuned. Cell phones at the theater might soon (in certain cases!) be OK.