Guide for making accessible theater subtitles

Learn how to properly divide captions, set the right font size and style, use context cues, comply with recommended length, and positioning and timing conventions.
We recommend that you study this article on your computer rather than on your phone.
It may be easier to properly study all the explanatory images.

Recommended length

When it comes to the length of individual subtitles, the general guideline is:
Keep each line to 1-2 sentences or approximately 20-40 characters (per language, if multiple languages are screened).
Subtitles that are too short can seem choppy and disjointed.
Subtitles that are too long can overload the audience and be difficult to read before the next one appears.
Your goal should be to strike a balance between conveying the full meaning in a way that the audience can comfortably absorb, while advancing through the text at an appropriate pace.

Dividing captions

When preparing subtitles for a theater production, one of the most important considerations is how to effectively divide the dialog or lyrics into coherent segments across multiple slides. There are several strategies to keep in mind:
Try to keep surtitles to 1-2 short sentences or phrases. Avoid large blocks of text that are difficult to read quickly.
Break at natural pauses or between beats in the dialog. Don't break sentences awkwardly in the middle. Allow a surtitle to convey a full thought before advancing.
Maintain continuity of tone and emotion from one surtitle to the next. Avoid breaking on an abrupt shift in mood or context.
Use consistent tenses, pronoun usage, etc. from slide to slide to support flow.
Keep related dialog together in sequential surtitles, even if this results in longer individual surtitles. Don't break up exchanges between two characters mid-conversation.
Review the dividing of captions in rehearsals and tweak as needed to optimize timing and comprehensibility.

Font style and color

When choosing a font for theater subtitles, readability is key. The font should be easy to read from a distance, with clear letter shapes and spacing. We recommend simple fonts like Helvetica, or Futura.
Use a black background on TVs or displays, as it reduces the amount of light coming from the TV/display itself.
If you are screening using projector, consider the color of the background (canvas or wall). A white background with no patterns (like bricks, for example) works best.
Black and white are your best friends.
Don't increase the cognitive load for your spectators by mixing multiple colors or font styles. It may seem intuitive at first, but for your audience it will be hard to assign a font style to a character on stage (and keep their attention for 60 or more minutes)
Don't attempt to use icons, italics, underlines and/or other style changes.


Synchronizing the timing of subtitles with the dialog or lyrics is crucial for an effective audience experience. The surtitles should appear on screen in time with the spoken words, and disappear once that line is complete. Subtitles should appear and disappear at a pace that matches the spoken words. There should not be too much lag time between the dialog and the surtitle appearing on screen. Generally a 1-3 second lag is recommended at most. Pacing of the surtitles is also important - they should not stay on screen for too long or the audience may get ahead of the action on stage. You should also avoid changing them too rapidly, as viewers need sufficient time to read them. The pace should account for the speed of the scene while enabling comprehension. Slower paced scenes may warrant surtitles on screen for 5-6 seconds, while faster dialog could be around 3 seconds. Overall, precise timing and appropriate pacing of surtitles are vital to synchronize with the live theater performance. This enhances the audience's ability to follow along with ease.

Context clues

Context clues can provide important additional information to convey the full meaning and impact of dialogue in a theatrical performance. However, surtitle creators must use caution and restraint when including contextual cues to avoid distracting from the primary dialogue.
Notating sound effects, emotions, etc. - (like "whispering", "phone ringing") can clarify meaning. Use sparingly and only when needed.
Only include context clues that are essential to understanding. Prioritize conveying dialogue first. Limit clues to 1-2 key words in brackets or parentheses. Avoid full sentence descriptions. If you are screening using a projector, consider the color of the background. A white background works best.
When a different character starts their line, introduce it with "-".

Multiple languages

Use a subtle divider (see the image on the right) between the languages and make sure it maintains its position amongst all your captions. It will significantly improve navigation. Look at the example on the right: a Czech speaker will focus only on the Czech part of the screen, a Non-Czech only on the English part. Both Czech and English surtitles will always maintain their position on the screen, so it will always be easy to locate them.
Make sure each language has its own fixed area that does not change.
Center the text in each language area both vertically and horizontally. That way you will avoid flickering between your captions. Captions will be centered, but only in their own box.

Captitles app is here to help you make your captions

Explained in one minute


Turn on the audio

Positioning of the screening area

Optimal positioning of surtitles on stage requires careful consideration of viewer sight lines. Surtitles should generally be projected above the stage, centered above the curtain. This allows viewers in the front, middle, and back of the theater to easily see the surtitles without obstructing their view of the on-stage action.

Some key guidelines for positioning include:
Project surtitles high enough that they don't interfere with performers or scenery on stage. Typically they are projected at least 3 meters above the stage.
Consider raked seating when positioning surtitles. Angle them to be readable for viewers in the front rows without being obscured for those farther back.
If surtitles are projected on side walls, angle them inward to be visible for the entire audience. Side projections can also be used in theaters with multiple seating sections. Use a black background on the TV or display, as you reduce luminosity of the TV/display itself.
For high venues like opera houses, projected surtitles may need to be larger and positioned even higher for visibility.
In non-traditional theater spaces, get creative with positioning while keeping sight lines in mind. Extreme sides, above audience seating, or even on moveable screens are options.
When possible, do a walkthrough of viewing angles in the theater space before finalizing placement. Accommodating all sight lines results in the best audience experience.


Surtitles are an important accessibility tool that allow those who are deaf or hard of hearing to fully experience theatrical performances. With some thoughtful planning and design, surtitles can be seamlessly integrated into any production.

To summarize the key recommendations in this guide:
Supertitles should be kept to 1-3 lines maximum, with 6-8 words per line. This maintains readability.
Dividing captions into groups allows audiences to digest the information easily.
Position subtitles above the stage or to the side to avoid obscuring performers.
Time surtitles to match the dialogue and action on stage, with adequate pauses in between.
Use context clues like "whispering" or "yelling" to aid understanding when needed.
Download Captitles app to create theatre subtitles at ease.