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Sign Of The Times

June 1, 2007

After a recent American Sign Language (ASL)-interpreted performance of Russell Lees's play Nixon's Nixon at San Jose Repertory Theatre, interpreters Charlotte Toothman and Joe Quinn were standing in the theatre lobby chatting, when a female audience member approached them. "You guys were so expressive," she said. "You looked like you were really acting."

As the founders and codirectors of Stage Hands of the Bay Area, a local ASL-interpreting service for live theatre, Toothman and Quinn are used to receiving this kind of feedback from non-deaf theatregoers. After all, a signed performance certainly looks like acting to the untrained eye. In Nixon's Nixon, Toothman (interpreting the role of Richard Nixon) and Quinn (as Henry Kissinger) appeared to be as involved in the action as the actors on stage. Often signing their lines to each other rather than out to the audience, they seemed to be engaged in a heated conversation. When the actor playing Kissinger became over-animated, Quinn's gestures appeared larger than life. When the onstage Nixon raced through half-finished sentences, Toothman interrupted her signed phrases. When both actors paced about the stage in thought at one point, the interpreters, seated on stools directly in front of the stage on the far right, pensively rubbed their chins.

In some ways, the process of preparing for an ASL-interpreted performance is similar to that of an actor. Toothman and Quinn begin by familiarizing themselves with a play or musical by reading the script and/or listening to the music. They divvy out roles and rehearse together. They even work with a "director" (a bilingual native ASL expert known in Stage Hands parlance as the "sign master") on refining their performance. But despite the theatrical setting and the expressiveness of their work, ASL interpreters consider themselves to be translators, not actors. Every gesture and facial expression serves a linguistic function. "We're not performing, we're providing a service," says Toothman. "We try hard to make sure we're not too obtrusive. Everything we do is in service of the show." While Toothman considers stage presence to be a positive quality for an interpreter, language skills are more important. "When we hire interpreters, we're looking primarily for translation skills," she says. "Some interpreters come from a theatre background, but having a deep fluency in sign language is more important than having a stage background."

Only 1-2 percent of the 30 million Americans with hearing loss use sign language today. But Stage Hands provides a vital link between the live theatre experience and the Bay Area's few hundred deaf, ASL-savvy theatregoers. Interpreters go much further than translating a playwright's words. They also incorporate everything from sound effects and accents to fluctuating moods and musical tempo into their delivery. At a recent ASL-interpreted performance of the Jesus-themed musical Altar Boyz at the Orpheum Theatre, for instance, interpreters Michael Velez and Dan Veltri conveyed the wildly contrasting moods of production numbers like the upbeat pop song "Rhythm in Me" and "Something About You," a slushy boy band ballad, as much by translating the lyrics into ASL as channeling the rhythms of the songs through the movements of their bodies. Though they were seated, they practically danced as they signed. And when a squeaky hostess trolley trundled its way across the stage in one scene, Veltri indicated the uncomfortable "eek" noise of the prop by rotating his fist and showing a pained expression on his face. "Good interpreters don't just translate what's happening on stage; they also convey emotions, tones of voice and expressiveness," deaf audience member Vadim Milman explained via an interpreter shortly after the Altar Boyz performance. "It's a tough job. If you're watching someone unqualified trying to interpret a performance, you miss out on a lot of information."

The deaf theatre movement stretches back the founding of the National Theatre of the Deaf in Connecticut in 1967. However, signed performances of spoken shows didn't take off until the early 1980s when Elephant Man became the first ASL-interpreted production on Broadway in 1980. In the Bay Area, companies like American Conservatory Theater (ACT) and American Musical Theatre of San Jose (AMTSJ) began offering regular ASL-interpreted performances a few years later. While today theatre companies tend to hire the services of two to three interpreters per performance (to help deaf audiences follow the action more easily), back then, a single interpreter was common. Toothman, who comes from a translation perspective and picked up ASL after college through work with the deaf community, became an understudy for ACT's regular interpreter, Steven Fritsch Rudser, in the mid-1980s. She met Quinn on the local interpreting circuit (Quinn had studied ASL in college on the East Coast, continuing his studies at Vista College in Berkeley when he moved to the Bay Area), and the pair first worked together at AMTSJ on La Cage aux Folles in 1988. They set up Stage Hands in 2001.

Ever since H.W. Bush passed the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, theatre companies have been required by law to make all their productions accessible to hearing-impaired audience members. Some companies like AMTSJ, Best of Broadway and San Jose Rep offer at least one signed performance for every production, and in the case of San Jose Rep, a special subscription series for hearing-impaired patrons. Others, like Berkeley Repertory Theatre and ACT, accommodate the needs of deaf patrons upon request (though ACT still offers one regular annual ASL-interpreted performance of A Christmas Carol). Organizations like New Conservatory Theatre Center (NCTC), meanwhile, don't offer signed performances, but currently provide assistance to deaf patrons using open captioning technologies.

Organizing an ASL-interpreted performance is a major undertaking for a theatre company both in terms of finances and administration. It requires hiring interpreters and giving them enough time and resources to prepare for a show as well as doing outreach to the deaf community and making sure the lighting and seating arrangements work with sightlines and the set. By packaging signing expertise with outreach and other services, Stage Hands has pretty much cornered the local market for signed performances. "Stage Hands not only has the interpretive skills for the job, but it also has marketing tools like e-mail lists to help bring in deaf audiences," says Randy Taradash, marketing events and promotions manager at ACT. "The organization also helpfully brings ASL-fluent docents and box office staff to assist audience members with tickets and seating on the day of the performance."

Despite the important service provided to deaf audiences by sign language interpreters, the changing environment within both the arts and deaf communities poses challenges for the future of signed theatre in the United States. One of the main issues is cultural. With 98 percent of deaf people in the US today using oral language and communicating via technologies such as text messaging, closed captioning, e-mail and video relay rather than ASL, the mainstreaming of deaf people has become a trend.

As such, many theatre organizations consider technologies like infrared- or loop-sound hearing systems to be more inclusive than live ASL interpretation. Some are starting to use open captioning too. Open captioning, which is commonly used to provide access to hearing-impaired audience members in theatres around the country, involves a text display that provides a simultaneous translation of dialogue and lyrics during a live performance, as well as descriptions of sound effects on stage. Infrared and loop systems, meanwhile, transmit sound to hearing aids via infrared light or magnetic current. "As much as we want to support deaf culture, the audience for ASL-interpreted performances is dwindling," says Lisa Carling, director of the Theatre Development Fund's (TDF) Theatre Access Project (TAP). TDF oversees the implementation of many New York and regional ASL-interpreted productions and, for the past decade, has run an annual weeklong intensive training course at the Juilliard School aimed at honing the skills of professional stage signers from around the country. "We currently offer twice as many captioned performances as signed ones, but we'll continue to train ASL theatre interpreters and provide ASL-interpreted performances for as long as there's some interest."

Another challenge is financial. Theatre companies have to factor in not only the interpreters' fees, but also box office income lost in allocating an entire block of premium orchestra seats at a reduced price to deaf patrons, who need to sit near the stage in order to view the signers clearly. In this difficult arts funding climate, companies are naturally concerned about the future of signed performances. "There have been budgetary cutbacks across the board, which puts us in a difficult situation," says director of outreach at San Jose Rep, Karen Altree Piemme. "We're doing our best to hang on to the program, but we're currently in the process of looking at the numbers and evaluating our options." Scott Seay, AMTSJ's education and outreach manager, estimates the annual cost of mounting the company's standard offering of two signed performances per production at between $20,000 and $25,000. "It's an expensive proposition," says Seay. "We used to have funding. But for the past few years, we've relied upon ticket sales to keep our signed performances going, which doesn't cover the costs."

Given the challenges of mounting signed performances and the proportionally tiny segment of theatregoers who rely upon the service (there were roughly 15 deaf audience members present at Altar Boyz and only 2 at Nixon's Nixon), it's remarkable that theatre companies like San Jose Rep and AMTSJ manage to keep their ASL programs alive. "Our management team is committed to providing access to deaf audiences," says Seay. "We are currently looking for funding sources. There's no talk of cutting back on services."

Their will to go on stems, in part, from the enthusiasm of deaf audiences, many of whom consider attending ASL-interpreted performances--as opposed to reading text off a video screen--to be an integral part of the deaf cultural experience. As Carling puts it, "There's a healthy dose of militancy among the community about preserving deaf culture." Technologies like video captioning might be gaining traction as translation tools in theatres around the country, but for some deaf theatregoers, these technologies fail to convey the subtle nuances of a musical or play. "Captioning is one way of making accommodation for people who can't hear," says Milman. "But I prefer live interpreters who can translate the full dimensionality of a show."



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