Clowes Hall Installs New Sensory Seating

VANESSA STAUBLIN | Staff Reporter

Those in the hard-of-hearing and deaf communities will now get to experience sound on a whole new level during performances at Clowes Memorial Hall.

Clowes Hall installed eight new chairs that are designed to enhance concert experiences. These seats are considered “audio sensory enhanced seating.” They are the first ones to be used in a live musical theatre, said  Joshua Lingenfelter, Clowes Memorial Hall’s director of marketing.

Lingenfelter came up with the idea of this project for Clowes.

“After a concert, a woman came up to me and mentioned that she couldn’t fathom attending a concert when she couldn’t hear,” Lingenfelter said. “That made me start to think, what if we changed the way we perceived music by not only hearing it, but also feeling it?”

Lingenfelter said he was familiar with the ButtKicker sound enhancement system. This brand uses a low-frequency audio transducer, which allows the person sitting in the seat to feel powerful vibrations without excessive volume and bothering those around.

Members of the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities used the seats this past weekend during the Blue Man Group performances. The performances were free of cost thanks to a grant from The Broadway League, a national trade organization.

American Sign Language students also volunteered to join the group and speak with them before and after the performance. Sophomore Sarah Spaulding, a communication sciences and disorders major, volunteered at one of the performances this past weekend.

“After the show, people were saying how they loved the seats. They were happy they volunteered to come to the show and test out the seats,” Spaulding said. “It was a great way to see a show and they wondered why they had never heard of the seats before since they have been around for 20 years.”

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There were a few complications with the ButtKicker seats, though.

“Some wished that in the future, they would be able to control each seat individually because at times, they were unable to feel any of the vibrations,” Spaulding said.

Spaulding also said the placement of the seats created a problem.

ASL is a visual language, and the position of the seats toward the back of the main floor made it hard for the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to see the interpreter.

Spaulding said this eas especially the case under the dim lighting and with clouds from fog machines during the Blue Man Group performance.

“I hope in the future the technology that was used on these chairs will allow them to be scattered throughout the seats so everyone can see what is happening on the stage clearly, as well as feel the vibrations through the chairs,” she said.

The ButtKicker is not a completely new seat, but rather a device for each seat.

“There was something attached to the bottom of the seats that allowed the chair to vibrate and could be taken off and moved around if needed,” Spaulding said.

Sophomore Emily Capecci volunteered at a performance as well. Before the performance, volunteers spoke with the deaf and hard-of-hearing community to explain how the seats worked.

“It was a brand new experience for me and for everyone else testing it out,” Capecci said. “We had to interpret to them how the seats worked and where they came from, which I wasn’t completely expecting. But it was a good experience for me.”

Those who got to test out the new seats had a whole new perspective of going to a performance.

The ButtKicker system has been used for other commercial applications, such as Disney: Mission Space, Center of Science and Industry and Kennedy Space Center.

The education and marketing departments at Clowes Hall will be researching how they can further their developments in this new technology and make the seats better for an overall experience.

“For those who are deaf or hard-of-hearing, a concert may be of little to no interest to them,” Lingenfelter said. “But if we can convert the way our senses perceive music, then we can serve all populations in our community.”

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