Digital Reading: A Summer of E-Shakespeare
By Anne Kostick, Partner, Foxpath IND
It’s a great year for New York Shakespeare fans. By December we’ll have hosted more than 15 productions of the Bard’s work in venues as diverse as Central Park, the Park Avenue Armory, and an empty lot near my home in Brooklyn (for The Merry Wives of Windsor Terrace).
But I may have already hit my Shakespeare limit; I just returned from my annual trip to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland with my elderly father. The Aged Parent and I managed to soak up seven plays in four days—not a record, but enough to keep our heads buzzing without the aid of assistive listening devices. Like Dickens’s character in Great Expectations, my Aged P is pretty deaf, but he gets by with a pair of hearing aids. There are some situations, though, where that doesn’t work very well, and one is the outdoor Elizabethan Theater at OSF.
Last year, our seats for The Merchant of Venice were about 15 rows back, and Shylock’s speeches were only faint murmurs for Dad. I handed him my iTouch, on which I’d downloaded all the plays we were seeing, courtesy of Project Gutenberg and Eucalyptus. The small backlit screen and touch-screen paging allowed him to follow along with the action onstage. He was delighted. But after some time, an usher came over and told him to turn it off; it violated a rule, or someone complained about it. Ever polite, Dad complied and spent the next hour of the performance watching the actors move about in silence. I spent the next hour of the performance with an angry roaring in my ears while I mentally composed a blistering letter to OSF about their ill treatment of the Aged P, and by extension, all Aged Ps everywhere.
I never wrote the letter. But as this year’s trip drew near, I did phone Jim Amberg, the accessibility coordinator at OSF, to declare that I thought e-reading devices should be considered assistive technology and allowed in the OSF theaters, just like wireless hearing devices, audio describers, and open captioning using LED displays.
Usability Should Be Accessibility
The topic of accessibility and usability for the hearing- or vision-impaired is not at all new to practitioners of UX design. Usability consultant Whitney Quesenbery, among others, addresses it in her column at UXMatters, and in this column she mentioned the great value for the vision-impaired of Kindle’s text-to-speech feature.
Oregon Shakespeare Festival is a big supporter of accessibility. In fact, one of their prominent repertory actors is deaf, and American Sign Language is incorporated into the scripts for his scenes; he and the other cast members sign to one another onstage. OSF has introduced LED-screen open captioning to some (but not all) of its performances and venues. This is a time-consuming and expensive project, requiring human text input in a system not unlike digital book conversion; other events this summer prevented our testing it.
Jim Amberg, the hardworking champion of accessibility at OSF, helped us enormously, and the e-readers were approved for the Aged P’s use. Backlit screens were still discouraged, but I thought that with a clip-on light he could use an e-ink device just as well in the dark theater.
Jim arranged to send me PDF versions of the scripts of all seven of our plays. I exported the PDF text to html, and using Calibre, I converted each one to Mobi and ePub files and loaded them on my Kindle 2 and Kobo. They looked OK; with more time, I’d have tried to clean them up a bit more. I found that the heuristic processing option, which might have improved the files, did just the opposite for these, so I disabled it. Other problems may have come over as artifacts from the PDF export; perhaps different hands made the script PDFs and formatted them differently.
Dad tested the devices during the day, reading a single play but switching between Kindle and Kobo. He preferred the Kindle’s handling, navigation, and screen brightness, so I loaded the remaining scripts onto that one. Occasionally he’d lose his place (and I now have a new list of suggestions for Kindle designers; stay tuned). But on the whole, conversion was easy and reading was easy. He had his pick of Julius Caesar, Measure for Measure, Love’s Labour’s Lost, and Henry IV Part II, as well as The Imaginary Invalid and The Pirates of Penzance, exactly as they would be performed.
“They have been at a great feast of languages, and stolen the scraps.”
And look how easily I could find that quotation I remembered from Love’s Labour’s Lost and insert it at just the right spot! Clearly, a great opportunity exists to use digital readers in all sorts of new situations. Just as the iPad became a last-minute catalog, guide, and enhancement for visitors to this spring’s Infinite Variety show, we need only motivation and inspiration to accomplish it.
E-readers in public places are ready to cover the distance for hearing- or visually impaired theater- and concertgoers, at least. (Even restaurants could do it—I’d like a wireless interactive menu, please.) And if these organizations, with OSF as a leading example, step forward, individuals won’t need to do all the work I did.
Preloaded readers could be rented for performances. Wireless-equipped devices could access texts (and more) directly from the producers or the venue. Patrons with fully functioning eyes and ears will be envious. The time spent creating custom solutions such as open captioning would instead yield top-notch digital versions available on reading devices for sale or rent. Then we can all be at a great feast of languages and consume every bit of it.
NOTE: DBW has launched an Editorial Forum on LinkedIn, a sub-group for editors and others working in trade publishing to discuss standards, workflow, best practices, and the general Qs that most print people feel when confronted with terms like “workflow.” The Forum is moderated by Anne Kostick and David B. Schlosser. Anne’s weekly column, Digital Reading, discusses the field of User Experience and explores what it offers to trade publishers.
Anne Kostick is a partner in Foxpath IND, a digital-print-web consulting and services company specializing in the transition to and from traditional content development, management and publishing. She is also the editor in chief of Dulcinea Media, an online publisher in the educational market, and is the current president of Women’s Media Group.