There’s a lot of information online about court reporting, deposition reporting, captioning and CART, but not much about stadium captioning, so I thought I’d put this post up. If you are one of those writers who look at these photos and feel sick (and some people do say that when I post pics of stadium captioning on my Facebook), remember that while stadium captioning is steno at its least controlled, in an environment where anything can happen, you probably won’t die attempting it. Unlike bungee jumping. Statistically, there is a 2-in-1,000,000 chance of dying while bungee jumping, which is probably way higher than the chance of dying while doing stadium captioning.
It’s really just a job like any other, but with added production values and free dinner. There are adverse writing conditions we’re not used to, but once you know what to expect, you might be prepared to give it a shot! So, here are 15 easy steps to building your stadium-captioning confidence.
The very first one is to realise you are about to do something very cool. It’s thrilling to write in front of this many people.
Step 1. WHOO!
But there is one important element you must accept. You will have to cede control of just about every element of what you do to other people, some of whom will be teenagers with ironic mullets because rawk.
The main reason we have no control is the output requirements. In a stadium, you will be displaying captions on a movie screen or huge projectors. Also on those screens will be roving floor shots, stage vision, clips, supers and graphics. Whatever we or the audience may think, captioning is usually given the least consideration. Some guy you’ve never seen before will stick a VGA or HDMI cable into your laptop and from that point he will be in control. He will decide whether to output one line or two lines or four lines, black on white or white on black, what size font you’ll use. Gallingly, he’ll also almost certainly tell you it doesn’t word-wrap. This means no conflicts or lengthy phrases. I wouldn’t recommend conflicts in stadium captioning anyway (would you want to see a conflict come up in six-foot-high letters?); but now you know that sometimes their use isn’t physically accommodated. You will also be asked to check “no colour display” on your output, so typos aren’t red-underlined; to minimise or completely remove your buffer; and to activate smooth scrolling.
Step 2. Drop the reins. This is hard for us stenos, I really understand. It’s necessary.
When you walk into the stadium, usually late the night before the event, after a flight, you won’t be able to see anything. That’s because the lightning rig isn’t up yet, and you forgot your head torch.
Step 3. Bring a head torch. And wear it. This isn’t the time for fancy hair; it’s the time for attaching illuminating devices around your head with a sweatband. Otherwise you will never stop tripping over cables and falling through what you think are walls but are actually just empty spaces hung with black curtains. This is unprofessional. And possibly not covered by liability insurance.
The way in…
Except for you. This is your way in.
As your eyes adjust, take a good look at the lay-out and how the audience is arranged. I don’t know about you, but I always Google counsel before court hearings or arbitrations. Knowing what everyone is going to look like gives me confidence when I walk into the room. You can’t Google everyone that’s going to be in the stadium but if you see it empty first, you can at least see that they’re just normal seats lined up on a normal concrete floor that will be filled by normal people.
Step 4. Sit on an audience chair. Imagine the very normal person who’s going to be sitting in it for the event. Even at the most glamorous events, the chair is probably still going to be upholstered in cheap, scratchy fabric. Feel the itch. Embrace the pedestrian elements.
Then it’s probably time to go backstage to your workspace. Hundreds of production, tech and event staff will be swarming around with better head torches than you and surer footing. They will inevitably be wearing metal t-shirts and have rolls of duct tape hanging from their belt loops. These unlikely characters will be your saviours in the event of any problem so immediately give them any chocolate or money you have in your pockets.
Step 5. Make friends with anyone dressed in black. You can’t see any faces, of course, because you’ll be blinded by their head torches, so just smile generally at head height.
You may have thought your workspace would be luxurious, especially if you walked in on a red carpet or are stadium-captioning a particularly glamorous event. Ba-bow. Almost certainly it’s actually a wooden shed. You can try to use filters to make it look better…
..but…it’s still a wooden shed.
The upside to the wooden shed: it can be relocated easily in case you can’t see properly. The downside to the wooden shed: you won’t be able to see properly, and although the shed can be moved, it probably can’t be moved anywhere more conducive because it’s ugly. Clients don’t want audiences to see these things. The other downside to the wooden shed: everything else. They aren’t soundproof, they’re hot, they’re too small, the desks are unstable, if you lean against a wall it will collapse, etc etc. Sometimes they have equipment boxes stacked up all around them.
Step 6. Don’t complain about the wooden shed. If you complain that it’s less than ideal, you may end up with the alternative: the open floor backstage.
Or worse: the open floor front-of-house.
Set up your kit. Ideally you would have brought two sets along, including two machines and two versions of your software. This isn’t the sort of job where you can just pop you head out and ask for a couple of minutes to reboot. Take two kits, and set them both up ready to go, including with an updated job dictionary on each one.
Step 7. Don’t complain about how “they” ask you to set up. There are so many other elements that are nothing to do with the captioning that simply can’t be altered at this stage. You usually can’t ask them for an extension cord or a better location so you can “see the mouth” or anything like that.
Well, you can try, but they’re usually not amenable to rewiring this sort of situation just so you can see a mouth.
People will talk near you and their phones will ring and your audio line will buzz with interference. Waiters will walk past with trolleys of glasses.
You may be called an “English Typewriter”.
You will probably be sitting nowhere near the stage.
I actually find knowing I CAN’T control nearly any element of what I’m doing makes me less nervous. The decisions are out of our hands. The only thing we can control is our writing.
Do some tests. The tests involve you just writing stuff and the production guys making it look however they like.
You are ready to go, but depending on the event, you will now sit there for about 12 hours of rehearsals. Various people of unknown identity continually stick their head in the booth and ask you to stay put because something involving you is about to start. It never does. You can’t read because you forgot your head torch, remember.
You’re probably overseas so you can’t surf your phone because of crippling international roaming fees. You may have bought a local SIM card from a convenience store outside the venue but, inconveniently, you’re sitting in a shed deep in a cavernous stadium – internet isn’t going to happen. You can’t rest (see earlier about flimsy nature of shed walls. They will collapse under the weight of a dozing head.) All you can do is practice steno, and you probably should because soon 5,000 or 10,000 or 15,000 people are going to be watching your work.
Typo! Typo! *Mexican wave*
The venues are enormous, and the closest food vendor is usually a 4km walk away. (Luckily, the toilet is only about 2km away). Don’t worry though, you won’t go hungry. You will eat the crew lunch/dinner. Not immediately. When you first see it, you will lose your appetite and you’ll put it under the desk for later, all the better for the salmonella to fester by the time you really get hungry enough to realise you actually will have to eat it.
Step 8. Bring food. A lot of it, not just snacks. You will be in there for hours. Don’t bring water. In the space in your bag where you would put water bottles, put more food. There are lots of people on these events whose only job is to continually hand out water bottles. Drink sparingly (see above re Himalayas-like hike to nearest toilet).
Try to stand up and do those exercises people do on planes to prevent deep-vein thrombosis. You may be already standing up because you may not have a chair.
Step 9. Be accommodating of the chair situation. If you have a chair, it’s going to be a fold-out tiny plastic one, or maybe a canvas director’s chair. Both are hard to write in. Luckily you have lots of time to practice.
Sometimes, there are no chairs. In this instance you either have to quickly learn to steno standing up, or do your best with what’s around you, like this one time I had to borrow the piano stool from the area grand piano. Again, you can try to pretend it’s glamorous but ultimately no-one could make stenoing on a piano stool look okay, probably not even Alicia Keys.
As the event approaches, there may be a two- or three-hour lull between rehearsals and “showtime”. The production staff go to sleep on trolleys and equipment cases. Your piano stool won’t quite be long enough to stretch out on, so take the chance to go outside. If it’s a special event, you might do some celebrity spotting (BYO selfie stick). If it’s more a corporate thing, you may try to psyche yourself up by looking at the building crowds.
Step 10. Try to get out from backstage before it starts and experience some of the atmosphere. I find it helps calm the nerves. I am generally a pretty confident writer/person but I’ll admit the bile rises before an event like this. Try to get amongst it so your excitement can push down your fear.
Say the show is set to begin at 8pm. Be in your seat at 7.30 pm. Of course, the show will actually start at 8.30 pm, by which time you’ll be desperate for the toilet and will also have resorted to eating a corner of that sandwich of unidentifiable filling, but please. Be at your piano stool WELL in advance. The last thing your nerves need is to be rushing back to the booth with minutes to spare. It will be most likely be noisy in your booth. Get someone from outside to duct-tape the door shut. It helps a bit.
Step 11. FEEL EXCITED! You are ready! This is going to be AWESOME! At this point I really usually do feel more wired than nervous. This is WAY more fun than sticking dog biscuits on the number bar so your dog “stenos”.
It’s very important to get a good first session. This will set your confidence for the rest of the event. Especially if you’re in for a long session (and at corporate events, they like to do two- or three-hour sessions sometimes), don’t think about how long it’s going to go for. Just concentrate intensely on each stroke. I kind of treat it like a game, one of those games where you go back to zero if you stuff it up. Because that’s the effect it has on my confidence.
Do not pass Go.
Bash each word out deliberately. Fingerspell anything you’re not 1,000% sure of (I fingerspell a lot of stuff I even am 1,000% sure of. I’m not sure what the real confidence threshold is. Maybe like 2,000% or 5,000%.) If you can get in a clean first session, you’ll be calmer for the rest of the sessions and you may even start to enjoy it!
Step 12. Look up sometimes and see what you’re doing. How amazing! You are enabling so many people to participate!
One of the great things about doing these events in Asia is the opportunity of working with Chinese stenos.
It’s very humbling to work with Chinese stenos. One, THEY WRITE IN CHINESE HELLO. Two, they’re used to working in difficult conditions, and nothing fazes them.
Step 13(a). Be prepared for ruptured eardrums and bleeding eyeballs. This is the sort of light/sound conditions you will sometimes work under at these events. At this particular event, I had earplugs in under my earphones. Bring earplugs.
Step 13(b). And probably don’t be prone to epileptic seizures.
As you get relaxed, don’t let exhilaration overcome you. Try to maintain your composure, because apart from not wanting to make a mistake in front of such a big live audience, you’ll probably have to turn in a transcript very shortly after each session ends – or it may even be being live-streamed.
Step 14. If you’re using CART window or the CaseCat equivalent, do edit your transcript in applause breaks. If you’re not, DON’T. Don’t do things on your computer that could possibly be “broadcast”, remembering your screen is connected to a bigger operation with a VGA or HDMI. Don’t “show desktop” or open other documents or files.
One thing to keep telling yourself throughout the show, if you find your eyes straying to the size of the crowd: the larger the audience, the slower the speakers. This isn’t always true, but it usually is.
Step 15. In pure steno terms, these events usually aren’t as challenging as other jobs we do.
And then suddenly, that’s it. The show/event usually flies past and they’re saying “And the winner of Best Film is…” and you’re like “Wait I haven’t even finished my sandwich of unidentifiable filling yet!”
The closing remarks are made, sprays of fireworks light up both sides of the stage, and possibly a confetti bomb explodes over your head. Try not to write “Ah I’ve been shot!” Again, unprofessional. You haven’t. It is merely metallic streamers being released at high velocity from a cannon.
You deserve it.
See you in the booth!