Digital Reading: A Summer of E-Shakespeare

Anne KostickBy 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.

The Experiment

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.

Love Labour's Lost on the Kindle

With some work I might have removed the line numbers, but they don’t interfere too badly. Conversion closed up the script’s inserted page-break headers at “(More) Costard (Cont’d),” but the set-up works and the lines break well, even around “honorificabilitudinitatibus.”

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, Loves Labours Lost, and Henry IV Part II, as well as The Imaginary Invalid and The Pirates of Penzance, exactly as they would be performed.

Henry IV Part 2

Sometimes, as here in Henry IV Part II, line numbers stacked up nicely on their own (bottom of page) and also ran in (top of page), all in the same script file.

“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 Loves Labours 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.

4 thoughts on “Digital Reading: A Summer of E-Shakespeare

  1. Porter AndersonPorter Anderson

    Anne, terrific piece, and congrats to Jim Amberg and OSF for working so well with you, and on accessibility in general. As somebody who routinely gets to a restaurant without reading glasses, I’m right with you on that potential use, too. Why can’t a restaurant have a Kindle-friendly menu ready for me to download? (OK, I want the sun and the moon, yes, I do. How soon can they get here?)

    The one thing that sticks in my craw here — I’d love to hear what Amberg has to say on this point — is this resistance to someone in an audience like your Aged Parent with a back-lit screen. How was there enough light to see the Kindle screen? Didn’t you have to carry along a MightyBrite? (If not, OSF’s lighting crew might need to refocus some of those Colortrans, lol.) I mean, come on. If people’s eyes are on the stage where they’re supposed to be — and unless the Aged P is waving the offending device overhead — what’s the problem?

    I’ve run into this a couple of times when trying to tweet news of a live performance as a critic (recently an opening night for an major new opera in London, for example). And I mean, I’m practicing Responsible Tweeting. Can you believe I just wrote that phrase? Meaning, I’m not tweeting shopping-mall crap to the homefront, I’m getting out the occasional critique on orchestration or vocal performance or libretto, and on my BlackBerry, not on a large iPad-ly thing, playing it close to the chest, not flashing it in people’s eyes, really being super-discreet. Still, the scowls. As if I’d pulled out the loud crinkly candy wrappers during the first aria.

    Surely as we get past the shock of electric toasters and indoor plumbing, we can also get clear of this ridiculous push-back to back-lit — and scowl-down the technophobes. When do we quit apologizing and stare back at these people? So your dad can read “O brave new world” without having to squint to see his reader.

    – Porter
    PS, DBW: Please put Anne’s and other writers’ Twitter handles into their bylines. Name AND Twitter handle. Help us help you tweet out the good work. Anne, your Twitter handle is masterfully hard to find, what are you, CIA? If DBW can’t find it in their hearts to help us, could you please just add a last line ot each of your good pieces that says: “Porter and other infuriating tweeps, my Twitter handle is ______.” Thanks. 🙂

    1. Morgan

      I’m afraid I have to politely disagree that if your eyes are “where they are supposed to be” during a live performance — or, for that matter, a movie — you will in no way be distracted by a very bright, and generally very white, light in an otherwise dark performance space. I have often found myself in the position of one of the frowning people you mention, though I don’t consider myself a technophobe. However, I do think you’re downplaying the issue of having a bright light shining in your peripheral vision while you are trying to focus on the performance on stage or screen. This is the issue I have typically run into: I am trying to watch and enjoy the play or movie, but someone turns on the phone to my right or left, or in the row below me, and my eyes are naturally drawn to the glow. It is a distraction, and it has seriously damaged my enjoyment of a performance more than one.

      In terms of accessibility, I think a non-backlit device like a Kindle sounds like a good solution. The small lights that attach to a non-backlit e-reader to light the screen are not generally as white and glaring as the screen on a backlit device, and so will hopefully be less distracting to other patrons. But I honestly can’t understand the necessity of live tweeting during a performance while the lights are down, if other theatre-goers seem to find that behaviour unpleasant and distracting. I just can’t see what harm there would be in waiting until intermission or the end of the show, when the lights are back up, before using a backlit device. If people are scowling while you’re tweeting, perhaps you should consider that you’re not being as discreet as you think.

    2. Anne Kostick

      “Porter and other infuriating [but lovable, surely] tweeps, my Twitter handle is @bklynanne!” And thank you for tweeting out the good word!

      Back to your comments: There was much more to the story, but I was trying to move it along and get to the “experiment” part. Apparently OSF has a ‘no texting’ rule because, as Jim Amberg told me, they have many school groups coming through and when the curtain goes up, the cell phones come out and the texting begins and does not stop. It may have been that rule that my Aged P seemingly violated last year, or a complaint from an audience member, or both. I’m not sure.

      to you and Morgan: When actually using assistive devices all kinds of details crop up. For example, open-captioning requires users to sit in certain seats in order to see the screen. You can only obtain a wireless hearing device before the show begins because the stand is closed at intermission (this means that if you get into the theater and find you can’t hear, you’re out of luck). Audio-description must mean that somewhere, someone is droning away in an audience member’s ear—can’t others hear that? What if the live ASL signer in front of the stage is in your line of sight?

      At the Elizabethan Theater in Ashland, Ore., in late June, curtain time is 8:30 and it doesn’t get dark until–oh, 9:30 or so. Dad could read the Kindle for the first hour without illumination. After that, it was a toss-up whether or not the clip-on light was brighter than a backlit iPhone screen.

      Ultimately, it seems to me, how far to bend to accommodate assistive devices is a social issue. I’ve suffered through enough candy-wrapper rustlers, whisperers/mutterers, foot-jigglers (behind me), big hair, big hat, and big heads (in front of me) to think that a bright light in my peripheral vision is just one more less-than-ideal event in public life.

      1. Porter AndersonPorter Anderson

        Well, @bklyanne and Morgan, I appreciate the good exchange, and thanks for it.

        Don’t worry, I did as you’re suggesting, Morgan, at the London Coliseum at the end of June, and kept my (silenced) BlackBerry off until intermission. A couple of scowls near the Strand is all it takes. I dutifully dodged the data stream for art, as it were.

        (This particular world premiere, Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas’ “Two Boys,” is about a tragedy in online relationships and is heavily teched up in production design — a magnificent chorus walking the stage, each singer carrying her or his own illumination, a lit laptop. This has caused some of us to hope for an interactive factor via Twitter for the audience in real time with the production, itself. So in this opera’s case, there may someday yet be the glow of sanctioned cyber light, even in the dress circle. It goes to the Met in the 2013-2014 season, I strongly recommend it. There’s a trailer here: — projections for the production are by @59Productions.)

        I must have a higher threshold for peripheral lights than others, though the idea of an audience-ful of texting schoolchildren sounds daunting even to me. I’m back to Responsible Tweeting, aren’t I? Surely one of my more inane phrases of the year.

        Anne, when you talk about the LED captioning, is this not the sort of “surtitles” or “supertitles” used in opera houses? I’ve seen this projected onto a screen over stages for years and visible to everyone in a house except somebody behind the pole in the mezzanine. Is it the daylight hour at OSF that makes that not doable, while making a Kindle readable?

        Fun discussion, I must say. Yet another part of life, the legacy art forms, creaking as we latch on with our buzzing glowy-things, huh? Live Shakespeare outdoors. Not since I was an Equity actor. (And I was.) What light through yonder fourth-row seats breaks?



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