The Disability in Theatre series on HowlRound explores issues of diversity, accessibility, exposure, and inclusion in the American theatre. This series is curated by Ariel Baker-Gibbs.

Going to the theatre as a child was always a production in my family. We would go out and buy four copies of the play we were going to see, then we would sit down around the living room, assign each other roles, and read it together. It’d take a couple of hours. Then a few days later, we’d go see the play. I’d take a little flashlight and my copy of the play, and we’d let the house manager know that I was deaf and would be reading along as the play progressed. One of my parents would sit next to me and help me follow along, keeping track of what parts they’d cut to streamline the script, and it’d turn into an elaborate game of jumping from scene to scene, over paragraphs, dropping a word or a line here and there, or waiting for a few minutes for the actors to catch up with the script. It certainly gave me insight on what goes into performing a script, and fostered my love of the language. It was also my first formal exposure to the perennial question that any Deaf person has to face when they go to the theatre: where do we look?

My first interpreted performance was Romeo and Juliet at Chicago’s Shakespeare Theater when I was eleven, and the experience blew my mind. The whole concept that I could watch interpreters signing Shakespeare in a way so I could actually make a connection between what I’d already read and what was happening onstage, all in a medium that was immediate to me was incredibly gratifying. Looking back, there were a few winning factors in that interpreted show, factors that I’ve learned to immediately concern myself with every time I enter a theatre.

  1. Where are the interpreters going to be?
  2. Where are the deaf people going to be?
  3. How is the lighting?
  4. How will they interpret it?

There has been and probably will always be intensive discussion of the ideal theatre experience, because everybody has their own preferences, especially in the Deaf community, but a lot of us can agree that good placement and lighting should be no-brainers. The standard for most theatres is to put the interpreters on the stairs leading down to the house floor at one end of the stage, and all the deaf theatregoers on that side of the theatre, which leads to a lot of missed action onstage regardless of whether it’s a proscenium or a thrust stage. There’s only so much neck-swiveling people can do, and if you’re at one end of the stage, you’re going to see a lot of backs. Since a lot of theatres sell the ASL seats at a discount, they choose the less popular seats to sell to deaf theatregoers, on less popular dates, such as the Sunday of Labor Day weekend. I once had the opportunity to buy tickets for an interpreted performance of Book of Mormon, but the only ASL seats available were “vision-obstructed.” Essentially, I could choose to see the interpreter, or see the stage. I chose neither.

This kind of accessibility in the theatre for deaf people has come a long way, though; it used to be a struggle to hire anyone at all. Interpreters were considered too distracting to the hearing audience members. Instead, it was on the Deaf community to organize interpreted showings. In Boston, in the early 1980s, the Boston Speech and Hearing Foundation (which has since folded) would buy 200 tickets for one show, and then sell them to deaf theatregoers, once they had arranged for interpreters—the same two interpreters who were interpreting all of the shows in town. But when Deaf rights came to the fore after the 1988 Deaf President Now movement at Gallaudet (which led to the appointment of the 124-year-old university’s first deaf president), the presence of the Deaf community became more noticeable everywhere, including in the theatre community. The struggle to book interpreters for theatre has become less arduous, though much still depends on the theatre’s prior experience with providing accessibility. For example, lighting can be an issue, because some productions still refuse to light or place their interpreters appropriately because it will interfere with the show. But now, hearing audience members will flock to the interpreters at the end of every show to tell them that they did a beautiful job, that they added so much to the play, and some people will actually say that they look to buy tickets for interpreted performances because they like watching the interpreters. So things do change.

But do they change enough? Or in the right way?

There are three typical ways that interpreted theatre happens. The first is “static” interpreting, the traditional extreme stage left or stage right position, and the interpreters don’t move from that spot. The second is “zone” interpreting, where interpreters are assigned their own space on the stage, but don’t leave it. For example, if all the action is taking place on stage center stage left, the interpreters will move from far stage right to middle stage right, mirroring the general gravitation of the blocking but not really acting as an organic part of it. The third is “shadowing,” which usually works best with a small cast, where interpreters will shadow assigned members of the cast, where deaf audience members can watch what’s happening on the stage as it happens seamlessly.

Sign language interpreter on stage
A sign language interpreter in Emerson Collleges production of Mother Hicks. 
Photo by Nick Heaton.

Some people argue that ideally, every play should have Deaf actors shadowing their characters onstage, or the other way round. While that has worked in the past to renowned effect—such as Deaf West’s production of Big River, where hearing voice actors shadowed the Deaf cast onstage—it is also an intimidating idea to hire a double cast. But the value of the Deaf audience seeing their own onstage, the visual beauty of the language, and the political power of the visibility would be worth it. Others say that, at the very least, having interpreters onstage, among or separate from the cast, is a huge step up from having them on a level with the audience. The immediate struggle for the deaf viewer is not to be forced to choose between the stage and the language.

There are productions where interpreters will be assigned their own blocking onstage to minimize visual interference for the deaf audience members; sometimes that includes costuming interpreters and treating them as signing members of the cast. This itself has resulted in a broad variety of responses in the Deaf community. It’s a great idea to integrate the interpreters into the production, and to lead deaf eyes to the stage, but it all depends: if they are taking on performing roles, then why not hire deaf actors to do that? It is not hard to organize cues and blocking, and if the point is to see ASL, why not get people whose main language is ASL? It’s been done before.

Right now, the Boston theatre community is impressively unique in its custom of hiring what used to be called Deaf consultants to provide feedback to hearing interpreters, a pair of deaf eyes to watch and advise the interpretation, and most importantly, to tell them when to stop signing and direct the audience’s gaze to the stage. That position’s name has changed several times; variants include ASL coach, ASL consultant, director of “artistic sign language,” and interpreters have also been referred to as “sign performers.” Even as the role of the ASL coach continues to evolve dramatically and subjectively, it is now common practice to have an ASL coach for all interpreted shows (usually three or four showings per run) at major theatres in the Boston area: you can find them listed in the program at Broadway Across America at the Boston Opera House, the Huntington Theatre, the American Repertory Theater, the Wheelock Family Theatre, and more.

Jody Steiner, a Boston interpreter actively involved with the theatre community since 1983, explains: “The general feeling was ‘This isn’t my native language, so I’m going to get a Deaf consultant to tell me how to do it.’ It seems like a new thing now, but we’ve always had Deaf [involvement in interpreted theatre], even back in the 1980s.” In the early 1990s, there was a group called the Theater Access Group (TAC; since dissolved) comprising producers, directors, and both deaf and hearing members of the theatre community, who would assemble a calendar every month for things that were happening in the cultural scene around Boston. They were also a central resource for connecting theatres and Deaf consultants and interpreters. Steiner, among others, ran training out of the TAC for Deaf ASL coaches about how to read and analyze scripts, how to look at the English version and envision the ASL, and convey the nuances of the English language—an ASL dramaturgy, in a sense.

However, this approach to interpreting plays as a dramaturge, while absolutely necessary, has its own risks. The role of the ASL coach and the interpreters can be seen as taking on a holistic responsibility for the artistic translation, or re-expression of the play, but the play has already been interpreted by the director and actors. So, re-expressed at what cost to the actual production taking place on the stage? Or to the integrity of either language? I have seen incomprehensibly interpreted shows where the interpreters didn’t use grammatical ASL and just tried to illustrate with artistic gesture the English dialogue. When that happens, it’s easier to see why even the nomenclature has sparked debate. What exactly does it convey, or what does it allow, to call interpreters “sign performers,” or to call ASL interpretation “artistic sign language,” as has been promoted by some? There are good arguments on both sides, but it is a tightrope act. It is important that interpreters, deaf or hearing, invest themselves in the theatricality of the experience in order to convey that to the deaf audience members, but where does that turn into subtly appropriating the performance, or worse, showboating? The risk of stealing the focus from the actors onstage is heightened by placing the interpreters in the traditional static stage right or stage left positions; the risk of stealing the potential employment and representation of deaf actors onstage comes from treating the hearing interpreters as actors. Where is that line between interpreting and performing?

And that has been the biggest question that has come up in all of the conversations about theatre that I’ve had with members of the Deaf community, Deaf or otherwise. There have indeed been many excellent interpreted plays, but with ASL interpretation come these ineluctable questions. As Steiner puts it, there’s a difference between having interpreters onstage and having them dance. A well-interpreted play is very difficult to accomplish to everyone’s satisfaction, because after all, when we go to see an interpreted play we are watching interpreters interpret the production’s interpretation of the playwright’s work. I want and expect of an interpreted performance an accurate reflection of what is happening onstage, and not just in the script, and one that allows me to make those observations for myself. It’s a tall order, but one worth making.

Finally, there’s always the option of doing away with interpreters altogether, and putting on all-ASL productions, which are usually equally accessible to hearing people. Simply put, all-ASL productions are the most accessible form of theatre for Deaf people. As the Deaf community’s identity evolves, the opportunities for visibility becomes more of a salient point for many Deaf audience members. Many interpreted plays are just watching two or three hearing people standing at the end of the stage sign. While it’s still important to attend hearing theatre for the richness of what it has to offer, sometimes it just seems like a lot of work. Deaf culture and history is built on storytelling and poetry. The power of this tradition also finds its way onto the stage in Deaf theatre, and it has its own richness as an unmediated experience for the audience. Storytellers are fêted, and there is always support for grassroots community theatres. Acclaimed professional Deaf theatre companies include Deaf West Theatre and The National Theatre of the Deaf/Little Theatre of the Deaf, and there are community theatres such as the Rocky Mountain Deaf Theatre in Denver, and the particularly active New York Deaf Theatre, which is currently showing The Signal Season of Dummy Hoy, about the first Deaf baseball player.

The landscape of theatre accessibility for deaf people bears a lot of questions, many that lead back to the question of art and its purpose. Throughout the course of talking with people for this article, I’ve heard several stories where the power of theatre really did trump all: there was the deaf-blind woman attending a tactilely interpreted performance of The Miracle Worker who understood what was happening on stage at the same time that Helen Keller first understood that water was water, and shouted out in her deaf voice, “Bootiful!” There were the two deaf girls who were so enchanted by the songs of Pippin that they were signing them to each other all over again during intermission. And there’s how, for the first time, I didn’t worry about what line it was on the page, and got completely swept up in the tomb scene, and saw a tear glisten in the stage light as it dropped off Romeo’s face onto Juliet’s body, a tear that only I noticed. Theatre and art inspires us—that’s the goal. All this conversation is really about how to do that. But how can deaf people be inspired by the theatre if we can’t look at the stage? And how can we be inspired if we feel like we can’t be a part of it?

Note: Capitalized “Deaf” refers to deaf people who use American Sign Language as their main, or one of their main languages, and identify with the culture. Lower-case “deaf” is a broader term that refers to those who physically have some form of hearing loss. For the purposes of this discussion, all Deaf people are also deaf, but not all deaf people are Deaf.

I would like to thank Wendy Watson, Jody Steiner, Jessica Doonan, and all the signing people who go to the show and then come out to talk about it afterwards, for their knowledge and opinions.