Over the summer, technical crews removed the seats and carpeting from Raleigh Little Theatre's Cantey V. Sutton Theatre, installing a series of flat copper cables in large loops around various seating sections and the balcony. When connected to a transmitter unit backstage, the loops become an antenna, broadcasting audio from the show directly to the hearing aids of patrons in the house.
Assistive listening devices can be of great help to theatergoers who have partial hearing loss. But can an audio technology give them a theatrical experience that's actually superior? That's the case with the new hearing loop system at Raleigh Little Theatre, which debuts in an upcoming production of the Monty Python musical Spamalot. The system has been shown to provide better-than-front-row audio quality for people with impaired hearing. As an added bonus, it requires no cumbersome headsets or telltale wearable devices.
"Someone on stage can almost whisper and you can still hear them anywhere in the room," says RLT production manager Todd Aberts. "Anyone using the hearing loop can hear what's happening on stage clearer and better than regularly abled patrons without the technology."
Four new microphones are positioned directly above stage. "They're incredibly sensitive," Aberts says, so much so that the technical staff now has to determine when to open them during performances.
"There may be some things during pre-show and intermission we don't want the audience to hear," he says with a chuckle.
Significant hearing loss affects some 48 million Americans and remains the single most common birth defect in the United States. More than 99,000 adults in Wake County report experiencing it.
"I was surprised at how many people of all ages have hearing loss," says RLT executive director Charles Phaneuf, who applied for grant funding from the City of Raleigh and three private foundations for the $19,000 project. Phaneuf says it's important for a community theater to be accessible to all. He also recalls complaints from patrons about the company's old infrared system.
"It only seemed to work if people held their heads at a certain angle," Phaneuf says, "and it didn't work throughout the auditorium." Other technicians have reported having similar experiences. According to production manager Michael Rolleri, PlayMakers Repertory Company once used infrared, "but a single curtain, lighting instrument or set piece could block the signal."
RLT is the second regional theater to adopt the hearing loop technology; Sanford's Temple Theatre was the first, in 2010. PlayMakers, Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Fletcher Opera Theater, Meymandi Concert Hall and the Durham Performing Arts Center all use a combination of technologies that broadcast show signals to headphones and T-coil "neckloops" that pick up the house signal and transmit it directly to patrons' hearing aids.
But many do not avail themselves of the system. "A surprisingly small amount of people ask for them," says Duke Energy Center production supervisor Mike Edwards. That doesn't surprise Steve Barber, a trustee of Wake County's chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America.
"Many people who could benefit from hearing assistance haven't gotten past the stigma," he explains. "They'd rather not hear well than have to borrow and, worse, become conspicuous by wearing, the equipment, headphones and neckloops." With the new technology, users simply flip a switch on their hearing aids to tune in. Headsets are also available for those without hearing aids.
"Operationally, it's better," says Phaneuf. Members of the local HLAA chapter tested the equipment at a recent meeting at Raleigh Little Theatre.
"I was absolutely astounded that I could hear the dialogue and even the lyrics," says Joanne Pogue. "It was the first time in many years that I didn't have to imagine what the actors were saying."
And Julie Bishop, president of HLAA's North Carolina division, "heard beautifully ... [and] purchased four tickets for Spamalot!"
With the new hearing loop, she's likely to have the best seats in the house, wherever she is in the room.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Turnt up"