A Bit of Coffee Talk
Little House on the Lam

Signing the Story: Children's Theatre for the Deaf, by Julie Danielson

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.


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Julie, thank you so much for the fascinating and inspiring guest column. I wish I lived near Knoxville so that I could see the spring production.

Thanks! That feels like it was a life-time ago, but it was fun.


This was so interesting to read, and to picture in my head the beautiful dance of sign language taking place alongside the actors on stage.

I grew up in Knoxville. My parents took me to productions at the Clarence Brown theater, and in high school, I did a lot of drama. My teacher's name was Linda Lyle, and I think she started a theater company in Knoxville much later. Do you think you ever worked with her?

Thanks, Susan, for asking Julie to write this!

I learned a lot from this article. Thanks, Jules.
More pictures of last fall's Interact production can be seen at the school for the deaf's website above. http://tsdeaf.org/what/what.html Then click on Chanticleer and the Fox. A few pix there and at the bottom of that link is a link to picasa for many many pix of the actors and the audience.

Sara, I used to interpret at Clarence Brown a lot (not shadowing, but on-the-side-of-the-stage interpreting), and it was my favorite, FAVORITE job of all! I enjoyed that even more than shadowing, yes. Loved it! Never heard of Linda Lyle. Sorry.

Betty, thanks for the pics! Hadn't seen those.

Nice job, Jules. Not the least bit rambly.

And I just have to chime in and say that, having seen a few InterAct performances back in the days when Jules was involved, it was always very entertaining. They always recruited very talented people for their productions, and did a nice job adapting the stories.

I'm surprised my earlier comment went through on the BlackBerry.
Anyhow, here's a more specific web site with the 36 pix of the latest play.
Let the curtain rise at:

Hi Jules,

My teen daughter has taken sign language for two years, and my middle-grade story in progress has a deaf character. I have learned a great deal about the deaf community from this, and yet I have a lot to learn. I like how Interact's mission seeks to connect the deaf and hearing worlds for kids -- it makes sense. Thanks for sharing.


Hi - Linda Lyle here. The very same former theatre teacher...

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