Hi there, everyone. Jules here from Seven Impossible Things
Before Breakfast. In a recent post
about Arthur Yorinks and his wonderful Night Kitchen Radio Theater,
I mentioned that I once co-founded a children’s theatre. Susan’s interest was
piqued, and she asked me to contribute a write-up for Chicken Spaghetti about
that theatrical venture of my past. So, here I am. Thanks, Susan, and I’ll try
to avoid writing a novella about it. (Ahem, I emphasize the word “try,” seeing
as how I often excel at rambling).
I used to work as a sign language interpreter (at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville). I also am a theatre nut, minored in it in college, and even was accepted to graduate school for an M.A. in theatre at the University of Pittsburgh soon after I graduated from college (but changed my mind, for various reasons, at the last minute about attending Pitt—and I mean the last minute; I was even up there looking for a place to live. How entirely, radically different my life would be now, had I gone through with that, but I digress). I also had the great fortune of interning with the Fairmount Theatre for the Deaf (now Cleveland Signstage Theatre ) for a short time as an undergraduate. (Yup, I took a bus to Cleveland and lived for three weeks with a deaf man from Singapore, a deaf lady from the Phillipines, and a famous deaf actor from Russia. Total cultural and linguistic immersion, to say the least. It was fabulous!).
While I worked as a staff interpreter at UT, I met other interpreters who loved interpreting in theatrical settings. Two of them, in particular, and I joined forces and spent a few years shadow interpreting children’s theatre productions for two local theatre companies. (Shadow interpreting means the interpreter follows the actors on stage while hand-flapping, as opposed to sitting beside the stage in a spotlight and hand-flapping.) Essentially, we lucked out and met a director who was very open to the idea of sign language/shadow interpretation on stage.
In 1998, we branched out and co-founded and developed our own children’s theatre for the deaf in Knoxville, InterAct Children’s Theatre for the Deaf, which incorporates shadow interpreters on stage along with professional and amateur deaf and hearing actors. The company is still going strong, though I no longer serve as Artistic Director. (Distance precludes me from doing so.) InterAct performs for deaf children at the state school for the deaf, deaf and hearing children at schools in mainstreamed settings, hearing children at public schools, and the public—in the case of the latter two, this is in an effort to expose them to the existence of American Sign Language (ASL) through its use in the arts.
During the time in which we shadow interpreted for local theatre companies, we learned about shadow interpreting as well as forged our own unique brand of shadowing that veers from the traditional form. InterAct uses shadows on stage who follow the actors—truly as if their shadows—and interpret into ASL for deaf audiences and/or voice into English for hearing audiences. The shadow interpreters are hardly the distraction the uninitiated would think they would be. In InterAct’s shows, they become characters just as any of the scripted characters are. They interact with the actors in unique and creative ways that further enhance character dynamics.
When mounting productions, InterAct ensures that the shadow interpreters are integrated into the process from the very beginning of rehearsals, since all productions are mounted with a deaf audience in mind. Of paramount importance to the company while creating a show is what the show must look like for someone whose language is uniquely structured to fit the needs of the eyes, as American Sign Language is. The company also emphasizes the importance of a Sign Coach, a deaf individual who can provide sign consulting during the rehearsal process and ensure that all interpreting and signing in the show is understandable and as conceptually accurate as possible.
Needless to say, hearing actors (who know no sign language) who work with InterAct for the first time learn a great deal about deafness, signed languages, and the like. Deaf actors, I found, learned a lot about the pacing of lines with spoken dialogue. What a challenge! Often what it takes us sentences to say in English can be said very economically and beautifully in ASL with a single flick of the hand mixed with just the right facial expression or eyebrow lift. (Could there be a more beautiful language than ASL? I don’t think so, but then I’m a bit biased, eh?). Pacing was a challenge for everyone involved!
And, you may wonder, what specifically does this have to do with children’s literature? InterAct’s mission is the following: “ . . . to further expose deaf and hard of hearing children to theatre and literature by bringing children's stories to life on stage; expose hearing children to the existence of American Sign Language through its use in the arts; and bridge the hearing and deaf communities.” Notice the bringing-children’s-stories-to-life-on-stage element. With just a few exceptions in the past, all of InterAct’s productions have been stage adaptations of children’s literature (and there’s been heavy fairy tale use, to say the least). This is in an effort to expose more deaf children to the stories on which the scripts are based, and this is done via pre-production outreach to the children. We know that merely including shadow interpreters in a production is sometimes not enough; the connection with the children before the show is often vital. Outreach packets for shows that are based on stage adaptations of a piece of children's literature can also serve to make children who are deaf interested in the story itself, which can lead to them reading the book on which the play is based.
The company still performs two shows annually (fall and spring productions). The next show will be a stage adaptation of “The
Princess and the Pea,” the first public performance being on April 23 in
Knoxville. For more information, you can visit InterAct’s web site—however, I will add that the site is hopelessly outdated, in my opinion. And I’m not knocking anyone by saying that; I created it myself. It was the very first site I ever created (by hand), and . . . well, I think that’s pretty obvious. The company is currently in the process of finding a new webmaster and may overhaul the site altogether. Nevertheless, there is more information at that little spot in cyberspace, should anyone be further interested.