Nacionalinis Kauno dramos teatras

This season’s goal: to increase access for people with physical disabilities

The 99th season of the National Kaunas Drama Theater stands out not only because of its premiers, and creators’ and troupe actors’ performances, but also by its efforts to provide easier access for people with physical disabilities. Ten performances for audience members that are deaf or hard of hearing were prepared this season, including two recent premieres: J. Sobol’s “Ghetto” and F. Dürrenmatt’s “Old Lady’s Visit”. In autumn, the performance “White Shroud”, based on A. Škėma’s novel of the same title, had members in the audience with visual impairments, so the play also provided the option for visual description. Audience members with wheelchairs are always welcome to see plays on the Main Stage.

We still have room for improvement and learning: the Kaunas 2022 Audience Broadening Program at the National Kaunas Drama Theater, that took place in December, has encouraged us to listen and look deeper into the needs of our audience members. And now it is a pleasure to share a video by Kaunas artists’ and an article by journalist Alvydas Valentas.

To hear the visual, to see the word: the current situation and prospects of audiovisual translation

In October, cinemas showed two cinematic films with provided visual description for visually impaired audience members. In mid-November, the National Kaunas Drama Theater invited them to experience the play “White Shroud” that is based on the well-known book of the same name by Antanas Škėma. This year, more and more films with subtitles help people who are deaf and hard of hearing to see movies. An amendment to the Law on the National Radio and Television of the Republic of Lithuania has been registered in the Seimas, obliging the National Broadcaster to adapt some of its content for people with visual and hearing disabilities. This led towards a deeper look into the current situation and the future of visual description, sign language, and subtitling for the deaf and hard of hearing.

Leader – National Kaunas Drama Theater

The National Drama Theater of Kaunas is not the first to invite people with visual and hearing disabilities to experience their plays, but over the past few years it can certainly be called a blind and deaf-friendly theater. “We learned about audiovisual translation from Vilnius University Kaunas Faculty lecturer Laura Niedzviegienė,” says Jolanta Garnytė-Jadkauskienė, public relations representative of the theater, “In 2015 we presented the first performance with provided visual description for adults and in December for children. In February, 2016, we invited people with hearing disabilities to a performance that provided sign language translation. Since then, our theater has been working intensively with the Lithuanian Association of the Blind and Visually Handicapped (LASS), Kaunas Organizations for the Deaf, and Kaunas Sign Language Center. Over the years, performances with provided visual description have gained great popularity among the blind and visually impaired. People all over Lithuania come to see these plays: the performance “I – Moliére” had to be shown twice and more than 200 people were in the audience every time. “The White Shroud” was shown once, with over 200 blind people and their assitants in the audience.”

“Interest in theater art among the blind and visually impaired is obviously growing, and so many people come to see the plays that they barely fit into the halls,” says Lina Puodžiūnienė, cultural project manager of the LASS Center. Performances that are adapted for people with hearing impairments receive fewer audience members, but that is just because the theater shows them more often: at least once a month. According to J. Garnytė-Jadkauskienė, both kinds of spectators appreciate the performances adapted to their needs, so as long as there is a demand, the theater will continue showing them in the future. The interlocutor recalls that four translators were needed to translate the first performance into sign language. Special lighting was required to allow audience members to see the gestures of the translators. It has become clear by now that this way of presenting plays is too expensive and requires a lot of human resources. “Surtitling is widely used in plays all across the world and we have decided to go along this path as well. With private funds, the theater purchased the necessary equipment. Screens that show the surtitles are hung above the stage. ”

Popularity increases, but slowly

The number of products that provide visual description in Lithuania is growing. Their genre variety is also becoming wider. It is slowly coming to television screens as well. “We teamed up with the National Broadcaster and plan on showing a bigger production for the blind in the upcoming year,” says Laura Niedzviegienė, the pioneer of audiovisual translation in Lithuania. She notes that there are no staff members in the country who are directly working as visual descriptors. If we were to have even a small but constantly working team, we would get this process to move faster. To provide cultural products with visual desciption, additional resources and, in the case of television, technical possibilities are needed. But not everything is solved by money. “The country’s economic situation, people’s standard of living: that is not an indicator,” says Niedzviegienė, “Poland is a role model in this regard. Visual description finds favorable ground not only in the neighboring country’s TV but also in theaters and museums.” Her colleague, lecturer of the Audiovisual Translation Study Program, Jurgita Astrauskienė, notes that most European countries are no longer debating if visual desciption and translation into sign language is needed, since in many countries this necessity is governed by law. “Different countries have different parts of the content that they provide for people with visual and hearing disabilities,” says Astruskiene, “but the average is about 10 percent for the blind and visually impaired, and 20-30% for the hearing impaired. In some places, the television content produced by the national broadcaster is required to be a hundred percent subtitled.” According to J.Astrauskienė, as of now there’s only one movie shown on national television that provides visual description: A. Žebriūnas’ „Beauty“, and the visual desctiption was done for free by professor  L. Niedzviegienė and her team of students. Last year, 5 films with subtitles for the deaf and hard of hearing were shown at the International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival “Inconvenient Films”. The festival took the initiative and invited blind and visually impaired people to the cinema, where these people could enjoy the exceptional, self-directed visual description created by director Mindaugas Survilafor his own documentary “Sengirė” (“The Ancient Woods”). The society has shown its iniciative, only the attention of cultural officials and lawmakers is needed.

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Photos by Julija Kazancevaitė

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