Real Live Theater

Theatrical Interpretation for Deaf/Hard of Hearing Audiences

In Behind the Scenes on February 3, 2009 at 2:20 am

by Phil Gravitt

Link photo by kkgas

Link photo by kkgas

SONOMA COUNTY, CA – “An interpreter is not a translator,” says tadd cohen, a certified American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter for Sonoma County theater productions and ASL teacher at Santa Rosa Junior College who intentionally prefers to use all lower case letters in his name.

“Many interpreters start out as a child of a deaf adult (CODA),” explains cohen, “and out of necessity grow up proficient in two languages, becoming interpreters for their families,”   Others learn ASL as a second language in high school or junior college.  tadd fell into it while teaching at Pierce College, which had several dozen deaf students, and playing roles there such as Helen Keller’s father in “The Miracle Worker.”

Theater groups offer interpreting services for one or two matinee or midweek shows that normally have a smaller crowd, then enlist certified interpreters through organizations the deaf community supports, such as Communiqué (CQ), The Nature of Interpreting, Bay Area Communication Access (BACA), Sign Language Interpreting Services (SLIS) and Eaton Interpreting Services (EIS).  The show date and time is communicated to the deaf community through organization newsletters and web sites such as, a nationwide deaf community news and events site.

One reason a low turnout show is chosen, tadd says, is that “Deaf culture is a collectivist culture. If a deaf person is going to go to a play, they might contact twenty deaf friends to go as well.”

“ASL is not a code for English.  The interpreter needs to know every actor’s lines, what each character wants from the scene, their motivation, the point of their lines, and to convey that point to the listener,” says tadd.  That takes a lot of script study, extensive practice, and from two to five rehearsals, depending on the complexity of the show.

The interpreter is often behind the scenes, until the day of the show.  Depending on the ensemble, they may want the interpreter there more.  Tadd adds, “The actors may want to see what their part looks like in sign languages, what is going on with the interpreter.  They may want to merge our two talents into pieces of the character puzzle.  That added element brings the interpreter into part of the ensemble.  You can tell when a cast is open to an interpreter, and when one is not. It is exciting.”

Showing the intent of the author and each actor is a big challenge.  “What is the author trying to say, what does every character want?   During rehearsal, an actor may interpret a character’s intent different than what you thought.”  In addition to consulting with actors, tadd explains, “I don’t speak French, so I might have to consult with the music director if a song is in French or has some French lines.”

Other challenges are jargon and changes in language over time.  “With Shakespeare, you can’t use straight American Sign Language.  You have to go back and find old signs to illustrate ideas.  Smaller signs look modern.   A long time ago, people signed much larger, particularly on stage.  In comedies, people will often use puns, which are extremely difficult to sign.  You have to show the English base of the word, then the idea of meaning, intent, so it is funny in both languages.”

ASL uses handshakes, palm orientation, non manual behaviors (mouth movements, raised eyebrow, head tilts, etc), movements, eye gaze, and positioning to communicate, not just hand signs.

“Even though we know what’s coming,” tadd explains, “we don’t jump in front of actors.    Sometimes a prop might break, a costume might tear.  If an actor messes up a line, the interpreter must mess up the line too.  You have to interpret that moment in time.”

Phil Gravitt is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner, the Noe Valley Voice & other San Francisco neighborhood newspapers, and the Bay Area Visual Arts Blog

  1. […] Theatrical Interpretation for Deaf/Hard of Hearing Audiences […]

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