Performing Arts

Weekly conversations and insights on the fine line between setback and success in the performing arts. Fellow creatives share their own journey as artists and the lessons learned along the way with host Patrick Oliver Jones, an actor who knows first-hand the ups and downs we all face.

February 5, 2020

American Sign Language for Theater - Providing Access to Deaf Audiences with ASL Interpreters

This podcast mainly focuses on the artist and the creative, the actor or composer or director, etc. But in today’s episode I’m turning the tables and focusing on the audience, specifically those who are deaf and hard of hearing. Their access to what we do onstage is often limited and often times they can’t make it to the theater because there is no way provided for them to understand what is happening. That’s where sign language interpreters come in and provide access for this underserved community of theater-goers.

(Click here for a full transcript of this episode at the WINMI Blog.)

The history of ASL-interpreted shows is actually fairly young. It was not until the early 1980s that the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles would offer the first regularly-scheduled ASL-interpreted performances of theatre in the nation. This was spurred on by its own success with the play Children of a Lesser God in 1979, which went on to a Broadway production and won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1980. (Source: howlround.com, an essay by David Kurs)

In fact, Children of a Lesser God had a Broadway revival a couple of years ago and I was grateful to have one of the actors from that play, John McGinty, on the podcast. (Listen to that conversation here: smarturl.it/johnmcginty) As I was putting together this episode, I contacted John again and asked him about the importance of ASL-interpreted shows:

"It is imperative to show that audiences prefer the personal aspect that a great, certified, sign language interpreter can bring to a theater performance. It helps build a “family” and a sense of belonging in the audience for those who happen to be Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Also, once the audience sees that the show is interpreted, they will be able to leave and say, 'Hey, I saw a show that was interpreted.' This will at least build a foundation and awareness of the Deaf/HoH community in their future."

Recently one of our FOOTLOOSE shows on Norwegian Cruise Lines was ASL-interpreted by two women who travel to many different events and venues to provide sign language interpretation, Heidi Johnson and Mia Engle. In all my contracts aboard ships I’ve never seen ASL done for any show, so it was a real honor to be a part of the night’s presentation and it was an even bigger pleasure to sit down with them and talk about the important work they do. These are some of the people and topics covered in this episode:

  • Mairéad MacSweeney - Director of the Deafness, Cognition, and Language Research Centre at the University College London
  • Children of a Lesser God - A play by Mark Medoff based on a story written about deaf characters for deaf actors in the late ‘70s—featuring a deaf woman named Sarah Norman who falls in love with a speech therapist named James Leeds.
  • John McGinty - Deaf actor and advocate, who also teaches sign language
  • David Kurs - Artistic Director of Deaf West theater company
  • Prosody - the rhythmic structure, intonation, and stress in spoken and signed languages

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