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Girl Scout makes theater enjoyable for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences

Special to The Star

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For a hearing-impaired person who doesn’t know sign language or read lips, enjoying a play is nearly impossible.

But thanks to one Overland Park teenager, it might not have to be difficult anymore in Olathe.

Catherine Pestinger, a junior at Christ Preparatory Academy, introduced closed captioning during live musical theater productions at the Trilogy Cultural Arts Center in Olathe. The work is the basis for her Girl Scout Gold Award project, “Don’t Miss a Line.” The Gold Award is the highest honor in Girl Scouting.

Pestinger knew last summer that she wanted to incorporate her passion for musical theater into her project, but she wasn’t sure how to do so.

Then the performer thought of her grandfather.

“He’s lost his hearing as he’s gotten older,” said Pestinger. “He comes to all my shows and sits in the front row and always has to ask, ‘What did she say?’ I wanted to help people like him.”

Pestinger incorporated the closed captioning at a recent Saturday matinee performance of Peter Pan at the Trilogy. She was also the star of the show.

Dialogue and lyrics from the script were displayed on two large screens next to the stage, with live feed of the performance playing above the text so readers wouldn’t miss anything.

“Cat is such a thoughtful and caring person,” said Bridget Taylor, executive director of Trilogy Cultural Arts Center. “I was excited and impressed by her idea because there is such a need for it in Olathe, with the aging population and deaf community.”

The closed captioning was such a hit with the audience — many of them hearing impaired people and students from the Kansas School for the Deaf — that Taylor plans to use closed captioning at all future matinee performances at the center, including its upcoming Christmas show.

“We have the ability now and there’s a need,” she said. “This is going to be a standard for us.”

The positive feedback flowed from surveys of audience members after the show.

Pestinger is thrilled her project made such a difference to the community.

“Musical theater is a form of art that should be enjoyed and respected,” she said. “There are so many people who would love to experience it but can’t. I wanted to give them the inspiration and thrill that theater gives me.”

Although the closed captioning performance appeared flawless, the 16-year-old admits a lot of hard work went on behind the scenes.

Before she even began creating the closed captioning program, Pestinger went out into the community asking deaf and hard-of-hearing residents for advice. She also was guided by her mentor, Angela Adams, a makeup artist at Trilogy who is hearing-impaired.

“I’m not deaf or hard of hearing, so my opinion doesn’t mean as much as theirs,” Pestinger said. “My project was all about making their experience the best it could be.”

Several people suggested she incorporate the closed captioning with live feed of the show, so nobody would miss the action. Others suggested she survey the audience afterward for feedback.

In the past few months, piecing together the project as well as memorizing lines and songs for the show proved to be a challenge. But by sharpening her time-management skills, she pulled it off without a hitch.

“Peter Pan has always been one of my dream roles,” Pestinger said. “There’s no better feeling for me than being on stage. It’s been really amazing to see this project come together while at the same time performing my guts out.”

Now that the performance is over, she has a lot of paperwork to turn in before her Gold Award gets approved. She will be recognized at a Girl Scout ceremony in the spring.

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