Friday, August 29, 2003

Signing theater: The words are on the tips of their fingers

Published in the Portland Phoenix

As Broadway’s first-ever musical with both hearing and deaf cast members begins to gain popularity, here in Maine, deaf people are still struggling to gain access to theater and other performances.

In New York, deaf actor Tyrone Giordano plays Huck Finn in Big River. He signs his dialogue and songs, while Mark Twain (played by Dan Jenkins, who created the role of Huck in the 1985 version of the musical) speaks and sings the words. The show’s hearing actors, including Michael McElroy as Jim, sign the words they are speaking or singing. This is what Maine theaters should aspire to.

"Interpreting, at best, is second-best," said Meryl Troop, who bears the unwieldy title of Director of the Office of Deaf Services and Multicultural Diversity at the state Department of Behavioral and Developmental Services. She is a certified sign interpreter who has interpreted at Portland Stage Company, Maine Gay Men’s Chorus, and elsewhere around the state. "Theater by and for deaf people would be much more preferable," Troop said.

Brenda Schertz, a USM sign-language teacher, who is herself deaf, agrees. When she saw her first sign-interpreted performance years ago, "I didn’t feel like I got the same experience as the hearing audience," Schertz said, via a sign interpreter.

Big River both includes deaf people and gives all audience members a similar experience. Half of the cast is deaf or hearing impaired. Deaf actors so prominent that hearing audiences know their names are on board: Phyllis Frelich, for whom was written the role of the deaf Sarah Norman in Children of a Lesser God, is now on stage as Miss Watson and Sally. Linda Bove, best known as the deaf resident of Sesame Street, is a consultant to the show.

To help deaf people react emotionally to music, the actors dance while signing, giving visual cues for what hearing audiences could find in their voices.

Yet even in New York, deaf attendance numbers are unable to support a full Broadway show. The trick, Schertz said, is to create a combination that appeals to both hearing and deaf audiences, and then to get the word out to both communities. Big River is proving this is more than possible.

For now, most Maine performances that are accessible to the deaf — which is not many — are signed by hearing interpreters. Some places that do have interpreters are Portland Stage, Theater at Monmouth, Lakewood Theater, and Penobscot Theater. There is demand: "We have some regular consumers, people who are theater addicts," Schertz said.

For their access to theater in Maine so far, they depend on interpreters, who practice a demanding profession, both physically and mentally. Troop once had to figure out how to sign the word "rent" in the musical Rent, when it means not just the monthly payment due to a landlord, but also the tearing of souls.

"Some interpreters are more successful at that than others," Schertz said. And even the best need help. Usually, two or more hearing interpreters and a deaf consultant will work together several times before the show’s opening, usually with a videotape of the show. As the interpreters practice, the consultant will read the signs and stop both interpreter and video to correct an error or suggest changes to improve the signing.

And not all plays are good for deaf audiences. Portland Stage Company canceled the sign interpreting of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia last season because the mathematical concepts were too hard to sign. A deaf person who has a bad theater experience won’t come back, Schertz said. They feel left out of the hearing world on a daily basis as it is.

Even after the Americans with Disabilities Act became law, sign interpretation at theaters is still "not 100-percent equal access," Schertz said. Usually, the interpreter is way off to the side, relegating the deaf audience to a corner, with a bad view of the stage.

She has seen better success from interpreters standing partway up a main aisle, or on a raised platform above the stage. Both keep the interpreters out of the actors’ space but allow a deaf person to watch both the play and the interpretation at once.

Another way, and one that can open more plays to deaf people, is also in use in New York: Huck’s dad is played by two men, deaf actor Troy Kotsur and hearing actor Lyle Kanouse, side by side, one signing and the other speaking, while both engage in comic charades that add more than double life to the role. More commonly, this is done with what are called "shadow interpreters," people who follow along with each actor, even costumed similarly, and sign their lines.

No matter how theater interpreting is done, Troop has a solemn reminder about the life of the deaf: just as seeing theater is a luxury for hearing people, "I would not interpret for the theater if I did not also interpret where they really need help," in schools, hospitals, and courtrooms.

Special thanks to ASL interpreter Kirsta McElfresh.


Tim Collins has been hired to perform in You the Man, Cathy Plourde’s play about dating, relationship violence, and sexual assault among young people. Collins’s one-man show Eleventh & Love will come to the St. Lawrence September 18 through 21. He studied in London during college, arriving there on September 10, 2001. The play is based on " the non-American perspectives about the [9/11] tragedy. "