Two Performances, One Stage
In the kid-friendly production "Stories by Shel," Deaf West Theatre takes advantage of different aspects of stage communication to reach both hearing and deaf audience members.
The collaboration of signing and voice actors on individual roles demanded attention, and though I could not understand the signing, so did the signers' dramatic gestures.
After first learning about Deaf West Theatre, a North Hollywood company that includes hearing and deaf actors, I wondered how the actors worked together during rehearsals. General manager and producer Laura Hill explained that because of the short rehearsal time for "Stories by Shel," which will finish after two performances this Saturday, all actors were required to know American Sign Language (ASL). In other Deaf West productions, hearing actors have learned the signs for their roles, much like memorizing the steps of a dance or mime.
Sign language, involving the use of posture, hand gestures, and facial expressions, is more physically expressive than speech. So it is more than coincidence that actors involved in theater and mime would be interested in ASL, or the reverse. Tommy Korn, the only deaf actor in this production, grew up learning sign in a family with many deaf and ASL-interpreter relatives. Abby Walla, raised by a deaf father and interpreter mother, learned to sign before she could speak. Brian Edward Campbell, now also a professional interpreter, became interested in theater after his ASL professor asked for volunteer male voice actors for a play. Actress Travina Springer, who started studying ASL in high school, continued by taking college courses in the subject during her senior year of high school.
Blending spoken English, ASL, mime, music, improv and dance, Deaf West's production of "Shel" is not merely accessible to audience members who are deaf and hard of hearing (HOH). It's a two-track experience for deaf and hearing theater-goers that also, in the words of director C.J. Jones, "bridges the gap between the two worlds." The show presents bilingual ASL and spoken English interpretations of nine poems by the popular children's writer Shel Silverstein.
As a hearing person with no background in ASL, I did not know what to expect from a performance for a mixed deaf and hearing audience. I assumed that I would be limited to watching and listening to the voice actors, missing out on the signing portion of the performance. However, the collaboration of signing and voice actors on individual roles demanded attention, and though I could not understand the signing, so did the signers’ dramatic gestures.
Jones explains that the poems were chosen based on how funny they were, as well as their rhythm and movement. He and the actors used different strategies for each poem.
In "Sick," the signing and speaking actors give little Peggy Ann McKay four different faces and three voices for the implausible complaint that's supposed to keep her home from school. Like puppets, signers pop out from behind a table to deliver each line while a different actor, hidden from the audience, speaks the same line. Keeping the voice actor out of sight let hearing audience members focus on the signing actor.
Since the symptoms of Peggy Ann's pretend illness are all unrelated, making use of multiple actors is appropriate. She gradually incorporates parts of her body in the monologue: "I have the measles and the mumps,/ A gash, a rash and purple bumps./My mouth is wet, my throat is dry,/ I'm going blind in my right eye." When Peggy Ann realizes that it's not a school day, the actors all pop up to sign and say the last three lines of the poem. "What's that? What's that you say?/You say today is. . .Saturday?/G'bye, I'm going out to play!"
An entirely different approach is used for "The Giving Tree," a poem about a tree that keeps giving parts of itself to a little boy who grows older and demands more (first apples, then branches to build a house, and finally the trunk to build a boat). Springer begins as the narrator and signs her own lines. When the tree begins to narrate the story, Korn signs and Campbell speaks, merging their identities. The two actors are accustomed to working together and having to be in sync, so that Campbell was able to effortlessly interpret for Korn for this article. Wala, who plays the boy, signs her lines accompanied by Springer's voice. Springer also provides the sound effects when Wala chops down the tree. The "tree" narrates when the boy is present, and Springer narrates when there is a transition between scenes, such as: "But the boy stayed away for a long time. /And when he came back, the tree was so happy she could hardly speak."
For hearing audience members, Springer commands the most attention when she speaks and signs at once. When speaking for the boy, she interprets for the hearing audience, standing off to the side of the stage just as a sign interpreter would during a typical spoken play.
Two final showings of “Stories by Shel” will run at Deaf West Theatre at 11:00 a.m and 2:00 p.m on Saturday, April 11. DWT will also perform the show at Southern Californian schools. For more information, visit www.deafwest.org.
Published: Wednesday, April 08, 2009