Open To Interpretation

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Interpreters Anthony Verdeja and Carrie Moore welcome deaf and hard-of-hearing guests to the Straz Center. (Photo: Rob/Harris Productions Inc)

The Thursday night show during each Broadway run has a special performer, one whose acting and choreography chops never make a sound. As part of its Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) initiative, the Straz Center secures a sign language interpreter for the Thursday night show in the Broadway series, with The Illusionists being the first of this season.

While any Straz Center performance falls under the ADA guidelines and can have sign-language interpretation on an as-needed basis, this initiative guarantees a regularly scheduled interpreted performance that guests can expect.

Far from being a literal English translation of the script, a signed performance requires that the interpreter don all artistic hats at once: the interpreter must emote, understand motivation in gestures and artistically translate a musical script from English into a visual language unto itself. The common misconception that American Sign Language (ASL) merely invented gestures that correspond to English words greatly underestimates the complexity of ASL as its own novel language, complete with its own grammar, nuance and expressive capability. In other words, an interpreter creates an adaptation to visual language in real time, giving deaf or hard-of-hearing patrons the thrilling emotional experience shared by patrons who can hear the performance.

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An interpreter becomes a one-person show, transforming a musical into ASL with the same need for fluency that someone would need to translate Chinese poetry into English verse. There is an ‘essence’ that must be captured in the language, and apprehending this elusive quality requires a strong set of skills and no amount of stage fright.

This tall order cannot be filled by just anyone who happens to know ASL. “We’ve engaged an exceptional company to provide sign language services,” says Straz Center director of production services Mike Chamoun. “This group is just tremendous. They add the emotional interpretation like actors, conveying that much more. Most interpreters like to locate the deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons before the show, meeting them and asking about what they want from the performance and having that dialogue inform their interpretation. It’s quite something. They are excellent at serving the patron.”

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The minority-woman owned company, Absolute Quality Interpreting (AQI), hires only nationally-certified sign language interpreters. Lisa Schaefermeyer, AQI’s founder and CEO, ensures that her interpreters deliver a great performance of the show. “There’s a difference,” she says, “between someone who knows sign language and someone who can perform. There’s a skill level needed to stand on the platform and do what they do. We are fortunate to have interpreters who specialize in the performing arts.”

Chamoun requests a copy of the script from the show, then forwards the script to AQI so the interpreters have time to prepare their own performance. “But they don’t get months of rehearsal,” Chamoun says. “They’re lucky if they get two weeks.”

“The additional prep time allows the interpreter to give a better performance for the audience. She or he has time to think about the right sign to reflect what is happening on stage. Imagine a monotone reading of an audio book, read by someone with no training,” says Schaefermeyer. “Then imagine a great actor performing the text of the same book, and you’ll get an idea of what is possible with great sign language interpretation.”

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Typically, a Broadway show requires two interpreters to cover the many parts. In Morsani Hall, they stand in a small, specifically-designed alcove complete with its own lighting so that the interpreters fade out or blackout in sync with the main show. “It’s under the house right mezzanine,” says Chamoun. “So, it’s not on stage but on the orchestra level so patrons have a good view. We encourage our deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons to call the Ticket Sales Office and have a representative make sure they get seats with a good view of the interpreter. We want to make sure they get the same Straz experience, and we are happy to do what we can.”

“We are so excited to be able to do this,” says Schaefermeyer, who has a few decades of experience in the field. “Our interpreters love their jobs, love to spend time with patrons and getting to know cast members. And that comes through in the interpretation.”