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New Repertory Theatre sends a clear signal to the hearing impaired

Peggy Ellertsen spearheaded a new assistive listening system at New Repertory Theatre.
Peggy Ellertsen spearheaded a new assistive listening system at New Repertory Theatre.Lane Turner/Globe Staff

When Peggy Ellertsen attended the New Repertory Theatre’s production of “Regular Singing” in September, she was thrilled to hear every word.

“It’s a family drama with a lot of conversations going on,” says Ellertsen, who is hearing impaired. “But for the first time, I didn’t have to borrow a script from the theater or struggle to understand all the words. I could just enjoy the story.”

Ellertsen was using a new assistive listening system that New Rep had installed before the start of the fall season, thanks to grants from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation, and individual donors. The system uses a hearing induction loop that directly and wirelessly receives amplified sound from the stage without background noise. In many cases, audience members with hearing aids or cochlear implants that have T-coil receivers do not need to wear a headset; they simply press a button on their hearing aid to take advantage of the theater’s system. New Rep, in Watertown, is the first theater in the Boston area to have this system installed.

In addition to being a New Rep subscriber, Ellertsen is also a board member of the Hearing Loss Association of America, and artistic director Jim Petosa says that gave his theater company an advantage.


“Accessibility is a priority at every theater,” he says, “but finding the most effective tool for hearing-impaired audiences has been challenging.”

The Americans With Disabilities Act requires every public space holding more than 50 people to make hearing assistance equipment available to audiences. With estimates that more than 10 percent of the US population suffer hearing loss, and an aging population adding to this number, providing reliable tools for these audiences is important. Most Boston-area theaters employ either an FM receiver or infrared system that carries the audio signal to a patron’s headphones, but interference, static, distance from the signal, and background noise can make these systems problematic.


“The hearing loop system has been around for a few years,” says Ben Emerson, sound supervisor for the Huntington Theatre Company, which uses an FM receiver system both at the BU Theatre and in the Roberts and Wimberly theaters in the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. “Installation is key, and in New York theaters that use the loop system there have been some issues with interference that bleeds into the sound system,” he says.

“But now that more than 70 percent of hearing aids have the T-coil option built in and the system has become the standard in Europe,” Emerson says, “I’m sure the Huntington will be looking into this as part of our upcoming building renovations” at the BU Theatre.

Cost is always a concern for theater companies on tight budgets, and installation requires that a copper wire be placed under every seat in the theater, along with some careful adjustment of microphones. But Petosa says “this is a very fundable idea. Once Peggy came to us, the project was really a no-brainer.”

And although it’s difficult to measure how many more patrons are using the equipment, since not everyone needs to borrow headphones, Petosa says the complaints the box office used to receive have turned to compliments.

“The next challenge is educating people about the capability within their hearing aid and the advantages of this system,” says Ellertsen. “It makes such a difference to hear a performance clearly and consistently.”


“For me,” says Petosa, “seeing the smile on Peggy’s face the first time she used the system was the best endorsement.”

A tribute to playwright Evron

Boston actors Jeremiah Kissel, Ken Cheeseman, Karen MacDonald, and Will Lyman will reprise their roles in two scenes from playwright Gilad Evron’s “Ulysses on Bottles,” Dec. 19 at Emerson College’s Bill Bordy Theater. The event, a tribute to the Israeli playwright who died earlier this year, is presented by Israeli Stage, which produced “Ulysses on Bottles” with ArtsEmerson last year. The evening will also include scenes from Evron’s “Don Quixote” and his most recent play, “On the Road to Tipaza,” which has never been produced. In between scenes, artists, academics, and community members who met and interacted with Gilad during his residency in Boston with Israeli Stage in 2015 will share stories and thoughts. The event is free but reservations are recommended at www.israelistage.com.

Lyric adds space — and partners

The Lyric Stage Company has opened a new rehearsal space on the fourth floor of the YWCA at 140 Clarendon St., the building that houses the theater. With a grant from the Boston Foundation, the Lyric is partnering with the Boston Dance Alliance to offer the space to dance companies and choreographers at below-market rates when it is not in use by the theater.

The rehearsal room, called Clarendon Hall, is a soundproofed, 1,040-square-foot wheelchair-accessible space, with a state-of-the-art sprung wood floor suitable for all genres of dance.


In addition, Lyric Stage announced that Fresh Ink Theater will be its official new-play development partner. Fresh Ink, which champions new works by New England playwrights, will have access to Clarendon Hall, as well as marketing and logistical support from Lyric.

Clarendon Hall will also be available for rental to other groups, and Boston Baroque has already signed on to rehearse Handel’s “Giulio Cesare” for three weeks this spring.

A ‘Wales’ tale with Crouse, Lydon

Actress Lindsay Crouse and radio personality Christopher Lydon are teaming up for a benefit performance Friday of Dylan Thomas’s “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” at Gloucester Stage Company. The evening includes a pre-show reception with the opportunity to explore backstage, a live auction, music, and an after-show dessert buffet in the theater lobby. Tickets are $50-$75 for the performance and buffet, or $150 for the entire evening. All proceeds benefit Gloucester Stage. Call 978-281-4433 or go to www.gloucesterstage.com.

Terry Byrne can be reached at trbyrne@aol.com.