Helping The Hearing Impaired At Kansas Theatre

Like other student-oriented theatres, Crafton-Preyer Theatre on the campus of the University of Kansas in Lawrence strives to be accessible to aspiring thespians, the student body, alumni, and the public.

In keeping with that mission, the theatre, also known simply as the University Theatre, has made a special point of opening its arms to a constituency that seldom gets more than a token nod from the performing arts community, the hearing-impaired.

Using funds raised by university support group, Friends of the Theatre (FROTH), chiefly via a special benefit featuring renowned performer and KU alum Mandy Patinkin, the theatre installed a new-generation assistive listening system. Now the theatre has thrown open its doors to a community of would-be patrons whose size and passion it may never have fully appreciated.

Alex Weston, the theatre's stage manager, says the Sennheiser IR (infrared)-based assistive listening system installed in the summer of 2005 has so vastly improved the quality of sound for arts patrons with hearing difficulties that the hearing-impaired may be the theatre's single fastest growing constituency.

"Ever since a patron wrote a letter to our local newspaper raving about the quality of our new assistive listening capabilities, most of the available assistive-listening headsets are checked out for every performance," Weston says. "In fact, we're getting so many responses from people who don't typically use hearing augmentation devices that we're in the process of trying to secure more and figure out how to expand the system's reach and coverage."

Even as it now stands, though, the Sennheiser system is far superior to the former FM wireless system the theatre used to distribute augmented audio to listening devices for the hearing impaired. Consisting of four fixed-location, and two variable-location Sennheiser SZI-1015 IR emitter panels; an SI-1015 IR modulator; and some twenty Sennheiser RI 250-J stethoset receivers and three inductive loop style receivers that work in conjunction with hearing aids, the Sennheiser system is delivering stage audio to patrons that far exceeds the clarity available from the old system.

"Our old FM system was very noisy and prone to interference, and the receiver quality left a lot to be desired," Weston says. "When we started to evaluate options, we were not interested in continuing with the type of system we had in the past."

The theatre's search for a new system, aided by Kansas City-based audio systems integrator Soundcom, quickly led to Sennheiser because of its prominence in IR-based assistive listening solutions. Even though its line-of-sight configuration posed challenges in the 1,200-seat theatre's intimate setting, the Sennheiser IR solution has proven capable of delivering clear, interference-free, low-noise audio to audience members, virtually regardless of where they're sitting, Weston says.

For most performances, the Sennheiser system's four fixed-location emitter panels, working in conjunction with the modulator, provide more than adequate coverage. Aided by a front-end equalizer and compressor, the system capably handles the wide dynamic range of sound that's typical of most of the theatre's stage performances.

"We're dealing with a range that goes from whispers to loud thunder effects, so we wanted to make sure that we weren't overloading the modulator," Weston says. "We put some pretty heavy compression on the front end to make sure that the audio delivered via the IR signal to the headsets was as intelligible as possible."

Not all of the theatre's performances, however, fit the mold that the four fixed emitter panels can handle. On occasion, parts of the stage are opened up for seating as well. In that event, two of the SZ-1015 IR panels are deployed and carefully positioned based on the physical configuration needed.

"To handle this, the installer had to come up with some clever ideas to ensure adequate coverage," he says. "They installed an external power supply to drive the additional two emitter panels. Then they ran a cable 100 feet from a jack on the stage to the first panel and then used a jumper cable to connect to the other one. We ended up getting coverage of most of the stage area whenever needed."

Compared to the old FM system, Weston says the Sennheiser IR system ensures that all patrons hear exactly the same program material. "I really appreciate the sonic quality of the Sennheiser system," he says. "The sound is pristine. There's no interference like we had with the old system, and there's a very low noise floor. The result is a mix that's sent to our patrons that really augments their theatre experience."

Feedback from patrons like Vicki Douglas has convinced Weston that FROTH made the right decision in raising money for a new system and choosing the Sennheiser solution. Douglas, who suffers from a moderate-to-severe hearing loss, wrote to the Lawrence Journal-World newspaper raving about the new assistive listening system. In a follow-up story in the paper, Douglas said she no longer has to rely on reading a play script prior to attending a performance, or ensuring that she had a seat near the stage. "I was quite surprised to hear as well as I could, after hearing essentially nothing," she was quoted as saying.

Judging by how many receivers are handed out now at performances, other hearing-impaired patrons have been getting the word about the theatre's new capabilities. With demand strong and growing for the devices, including people who may only have minor hearing problems, Weston says the theatre is looking into acquiring more receivers.

"We're realizing that we need to make this system available to more patrons," he says. "In line with that, we're going to be spending even more time on improving the audio mix that we send through the Sennheiser system and rethink how we can ensure that the system continues to provide the coverage that we'll need with more devices in use. It's not common for theatres to get accolades for their sound systems, but people who've experienced this are sounding off."

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