Theater’s unsung heroes: Sign Language interpreters

American Sign Language interpreters: the theater world’s unsung heroes


Sunday, January 2, 2011

Doug Hlavay, with the American Sign Language interpreters, interprets for the deaf patrons at a performance of “Beauty and the Beast” at the San Diego Civic Theater. Photo by Earnie Grafton/The San Diego Union-Tribune.

ASL-interpreted performances are offered regularly at La Jolla Playhouse, Broadway/San Diego and San Diego Junior Theater, and by request at the Old Globe Theatre and other theaters. Liz Mendoza’s Stage Signs of San Diego maintains a calendar of ASL-interpreted performances throughout Southern California via its Yahoo group. Upcoming interpreted performances include:


Billieann McLellan signing “welcome.” Photo by David Brooks / Union-Tribune

LynnAnn Garret signing “theater.” Photo by David Brooks / Union-Tribune

Suzanne Lightbourn signing “heartfelt.” Photo by David Brooks / Union-Tribune

Billieanne McLellan looks sharp as she stands outside the Casa del Prado Theater in Balboa Park one recent Saturday, wearing a black-velvet blouse, black trousers and black patent-leather shoes. Her long, red hair is pulled back into a low ponytail, and her nails are impeccably manicured: Today they’ve got to look flawless. She cuts through the bustling lobby and dashes toward the front of the theater, where her partner (or “team,” in industry parlance) is waiting near the stage. Also dressed in black, Lynn Ann Garrett has her hair slicked back and her eyelids shaded dramatically in dark shadow, to better show up under the hot lights of the theater. Against the heavy, black-velvet curtain, the two women seem to almost disappear as if into a blue screen, only their hands and faces standing out from the sea of black.

And that is just the way they like it. Because they’re American Sign Language (ASL) interpreters, two of about 10 actively working in San Diego theaters, all of whom would tell you it’s their job to be invisible, as much as possible anyway, so as not to detract attention from the “real” stars performing on stage. That humble attitude, combined with the huge volume of work that goes into doing what they do, makes this one of the most underrated gigs in show business.

Interpreters typically work in teams of two to mount a single ASL-interpreted performance, for which they spend many dozens of hours — some say even hundreds — preparing. Beginning weeks in advance, they get together to pore through scripts line-by-line and divvy up characters, often juggling two dozen or more between them, many of which speak simultaneously.

With their “team,” they will strategize to find the best way to translate a playwright’s words into a wholly different language that has a grammar and syntax all its own, while retaining as much of the script’s subtler features — such as cadence and double entendre — as possible. They will read up on the background of the playwright and research the political history of the epoch in which a play is set. They will Google the definitions of words they don’t know, or allusions they don’t get. Then they will try to figure out how to explain the reference in signs before the actors on stage have moved on to the next line, because otherwise the whole thing derails.

And they will try to make their interpretation appropriate enough to avoid raising the ire of a discerning deaf patron like Tom Humphries, a UCSD professor and frequent theatergoer.

“The really good theater interpreters know when to make the translation literal enough to preserve the original English of a playwright,” Humphries writes in an e-mail. “The best example of this is with Shakespeare or a well-known musical, when I want to see the famous lines, not bad translations of them.”

The Bard is a particular challenge for ASL interpreters.

“It requires almost a double interpretation,” says McLellan. “Once from Shakespearean English to English that I can understand, then from English to ASL.”

While some things (like iambic pentameter) are bound to be lost in translation, certain other literary devices don’t have to be.

“If there’s, say, a rhyming joke in English, we have to make it rhyme in American Sign Language,” says Liz Mendoza, whose company Stage Signs assigns ASL interpreters for productions at San Diego Junior Theater and Broadway/San Diego.

She explains that just as spoken rhymes comprise words that sound alike, signed rhymes are built from hand shapes that look alike. “It might not be the exact same translation, but it’s the exact same experience.”

Shared experience is an ASL interpreter’s ultimate goal, which is why so much preparation goes into each performance. It’s not enough to merely translate a play word for word (though theaters that lack a budget for interpreters may employ captioning services to do just that). Interpreters also try to visually convey the kinds of aural cues — a foreign accent, a tone of voice — that help hearing audiences better understand a character. To do this, interpreters will attend as many dress rehearsals or performances of a given play as possible in order to see what the actors on stage are doing. Mimicking certain physical traits — a hunch, a trademark scowl, a haughtily upturned nose — can add texture to a deaf patron’s understanding of a character, while also clarifying which character is speaking.

“ASL is as much about facial expression and what the entire body is doing as what their hands are doing,” says Stephen McCormick, La Jolla Playhouse’s Director of Education and Outreach who oversees the interpreters. “It’s a beautiful art form.”

While signing songs from musicals, for example, the interpreter’s gestures may become larger, more rhythmic and graceful, to impart a bit of the melody and lyricism a hearing patron takes for granted. Interpreters complain of sore backs and shoulders from having to stand and sign constantly for two hours, breaking only at intermission. And that’s to say nothing of the emotional toll that some plays may take.

“I equate it to when actors play murderers, or people that are a little bit crazy,” says interpreter Suzanne Lightbourn, who observed a change in herself while preparing to interpret the vile lead character of Man in the La Jolla Playhouse’s recent production of Dostoevski’s dark “Notes From Underground.” “My team said she noticed she was snapping at her partner a lot, and I realized, yeah, I’ve been taking my grumpy pills in the morning! It gets in you.”

This raises the inevitable question: To what extent should sign-language interpreters be considered actors? The answer varies depending on whom you ask.

According to Mendoza, who received her training at a weeklong interpretation workshop at Juilliard, the overlap is minimal.

“We mimic what the actors do on stage, in order for the deaf audience to identify who’s speaking,” she says. “We’re not actors per se, because we’re just taking what the actors give us. It’s not originating from us.”

Lightbourn, by contrast, says the two are very close: “Probably about 99 percent. You can’t be inhibited with your body. You have to really put yourself into the actor’s role and give what the actor’s giving.” Many who have some acting or theatrical training in the past say the experience has improved their interpretations.

The line between robotic, detached translation and overacting is a fine one to walk.

“Many interpreters have the false belief that they need to perform or act the lines in a play. I’m sorry, but most interpreters are terrible actors and can’t pull that off,” writes patron Humphries. “I guess the difference between good and bad interpreting is a bit like good and bad acting: You certainly know it when you see it.”

The work, though demanding, is not exactly lucrative. Paid around $500 per performance, an interpreter’s hourly rate, with all things considered, can be as low as a few dollars. And there’s a limited number of outlets in San Diego that even have the budget for their services: Broadway/San Diego, San Diego Junior Theater and the La Jolla Playhouse are the only major houses that offer a regularly scheduled interpreted show, while others, including the Old Globe Theatre and Moonlight Stage Productions, may provide interpreters upon request.

“You can’t make a living off of just interpreting for theater,” Mendoza says flatly, noting that even her peers in New York City are not able to make ends meet without taking day jobs interpreting for public schools, hospitals and courts. Even the most active theater interpreters spend only about 20 percent of their working hours on performances.

“We really do it for the love of it,” says Mendoza.

For Mendoza’s frequent interpretation partner Doug Hlavay, the payoff is more than just economic: “Any time a member of the deaf community has an experience at the theater that evokes some type of emotion — laughter, tears — that makes all the prep worthwhile,” he says.

“They’re having a direct relationship with the content of the play,” echoes Lightbourn. “You’re not in the middle anymore. That’s when it feels like you’re doing a good job.”

Maya Kroth is a San Diego writer.