fbpx Where Do We Look? Going to the Theater as a Deaf Person | HowlRound Theatre Commons

Where Do We Look? Going to the Theater as a Deaf Person

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.


The immediate struggle for the deaf viewer is not to be forced to choose between the stage and the language.


Sign language interpreter on stage
A sign language interpreter in Emerson College's 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.


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?


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.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark
Thoughts from the curator

This series explores issues of diversity, accessibility, exposure, and inclusion in the American theatre.

Disability in Theatre


Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

Ariel, thank you for this excellent piece! It's true about the layer cake of interpretation that happens at live theater-- as you put it well, "interpreters interpret the production’s interpretation of the playwright’s work" (which is itself an interpretation of life, I guess?)-- and how interpretation creates distance at every instance.

I'm curious about the experience for members of the Deaf community before the curtain rises, so to speak, and how other theaters are approaching questions of marketing and audience engagement that occurs in the arena outside the performance space. Here at the American Repertory Theater, we've worked with our ASL Coach (Michael Krajnak) on ways to engage Deaf audiences beyond subtitling promotional videos; things like interpreted video interviews with cast and creative team members (like this: https://www.youtube.com/wat... and straight-up ASL promos (like this: https://www.youtube.com/wat.... We made several of the interpreted interviews for "The Glass Menagerie," and they were essentially our only promo videos for the show; therefore, all patrons interested in learning more about the production would also become aware that we are interpreting the production. Like a point of advocacy for A.R.T. access programs in addition to being a great interview (I think it's a great interview).

In any event, would love to hear your perspective on the before and after of a live theater experience, particularly now that audience engagement and arts participation activities are gaining traction at many theaters. Thank you!!!!


Your experience in the first paragraph sounds a lot like mine--having to get creative with making theatre accessible within your own means! Happy to see I'm not alone in this.

The questions you brought up in this article are completely spot on.

I want to illustrate that these issues can be addressed as a design problem as opposed to purely an accessibility problem. These concerns can be a part of the show from the very start, where integrated design or design mindful of possible accessibility features that can be easily "snapped into place" and integrated instead of looking like it was taped on at the last minute. For more on this see: http://www.tcgcircle.org/20....

I also want to clarify something you said about Deaf West's Big River. You said that the Deaf actors are shadowing their characters onstage--this is incorrect: it is the voice actors that are shadowing the signing characters, or they will sign and speak at the same time. Deaf West Theatre has always made sure that the signing characters are given focus, and the speaking actors are giving that focus to them by "lending" them their voices. So in a way, it's a reverse-interpreting situation, where the hearing audience is being given the benefit of a spoken accompaniment to the signing onstage.

I also want to expand your thinking here: Boston is not unique in hiring Deaf consultants to advise interpreting teams. Washington, DC has a strong tradition of this, as well, and with several interpreters and ASL coaches mixing things up. The concept of an ASL coach leading an interpreting team seems to work really well here, and we do look for moments where we can "throw focus" to the onstage action and how we can do this. It's a delicate balance and dance, and guiding audience focus is one of the most challenging things that I've wrestled with in all of my time working on theatre translation.

Now, your question about the ASL coach as dramaturg is a good one. If the interpreters are to adhere to a strict rendering of the already-interpreted performance, they would need to see quite a number of performances to inhabit the inner life and choices of the characters that they will be signing for. It is my belief that within the time constraints imposed on the entire translation/interpreting process, it is much easier for interpreters to come up with their own rationale for character choices which will then influence their sign choices. If they are lucky enough to be allowed a few show viewings before their scheduled time to interpret, they can revise these choices based on the onstage action. In a way, the interpreters I work with have a hybrid process where they are both translators and actors (rendering the text into ASL, and knowing why they are signing their lines). I simply shepherd them into as much clarity as possible, and it's not always possible to be 100% accurate, especially with the time crunch.

I am not a fan of interpreters showboating ("Look at me, Ma! All hands!"), or making shortcuts because they can't be bothered to find a better solution. The role of an ASL coach is not simply to help the interpreters translate, but to also function as a director of the performance-within-a-performance that is an ASL interpreted show.

And finally:
Yes. Deaf actors onstage beats interpreters onstage. Amen to that.

All best--

Hi Tyrone,

Thanks so much for your detailed, thoughtful response. I'm so sorry about my incorrect description of Big River--I didn't intend to imply that the hearing actors were the main ones on stage, in a Deaf West production, of all things. Thanks for the clarification, and it's fixed now. I hope that's better!

I like the reframing of the question as a design issue. I loved the TCG link (I've followed that series for a while. It's really good!). The performance-within-a-performance question is so interesting. The rhythm of focus is definitely a discrete aspect of interpretation, and of the play as a deaf person sees it. I wonder if that kind of focus is something that hearing directors think about for their hearing audience, even if it's just figuring out where people should be looking on the stage? Do you find that you work with the director and the hearing cast, or just have some conversations with them about that, when you are working on an ASL interpreted show?

Also, thanks for noting that Boston is not quite that special! I should have known! I'll see if I can add a note of the Washington, DC theater community as well. If not this time, then next time. I freely confess I haven't spent much time in DC yet, but is there a common practice of all the big theaters of hiring ASL coaches for shows?

Thanks again for the response. Much appreciated. I always stand to learn more.

All the best,

Well--Boston might not be unique in using the coach-terp model, but it is quite ahead of the game, apparently. I just saw the ART video promos shared by Brendan Shea. We could definitely steal a few ideas there. :)

Interesting questions on the access-as-design issue. Let me respond to them individually:

-Yes, many (if not all) directors (and choreographers) do think about where people should be looking onstage. I don't know, it's just obvious to me that any director should be thinking about where focus is thrown or drawn, whether through through the visual, tactile, or auditory channels. (Give me a little time on taste and smell: I'm still thinking about how one might direct using those senses. :) ) I think that directors are completely unaware of (or if they are, completely unconcerned about) accessibility initiatives being used at the theatres they work at. If these features are part of the conversation at the first design meeting, and the creatives know that they have some ability to shape and influence how this accessibility is utilized in the show, I think some of them might even get excited about it. What do you think?

-We're lucky if we even get into the rehearsal room or have access to the creative people in any production. This might be due to the idea that the process of ASL interpretation for theatre might generally not seen as a creative one. It's likely that things will change when the narrative and ideas surrounding interpreting do. Again, being in that room at the first design meeting will definitely go a long way in helping things in that direction.

And we all could stand to learn more. I'm definitely learning, and appreciative of you writing this piece and sparking conversation.

Thank you.

Thanks for this clear, balanced article.
You covered every major issue I've run into and worried over.
I'm a lifelong theatre artist (actor, director, playwright, producer) -- and an ASL interpreter who's interpreted a few plays.
A few responses --

I think the biggest constraint is financial.
In America, theatre is a poverty belt (except Broadway and a few large regionals).

Here in LA, we have more than 250 theatres. Only a handful can afford to pay director or actors. Hiring interpreters is a crazy dream, because our "budgets" (seldom even written down) are too small to qualify for grant support.

The best solution I've seen is to ask interpreters who love theatre to become part of the show -- rehearsals and all -- so we can find the most organic way for them to work.

I dream of doing what Deaf West does, auditioning Deaf actors (which requires an ASL user or two in the casting chairs) and shadowing them with hearing ones when they get the part.

For the next show I direct/produce, I guess I need to just step out and do it.
Thanks for the encouragement.

I don't worry at all about the interpreter (or signing actor) creating an "interpretation of an interpretation ..."

That's what theatre IS, by its very nature.

The playwright imagines a play ... the (producer and) director imagine their version(s) ... then the cast and crew members each imagine their versions ... and finally, in each audience, the members imagine and experience theirs. The play can't exist unless it comes through each of these people, as it changes from a dead script to a living experience.

It isn't the director's job to suppress the actors' and crews' imaginations -- but to encourage them, and to weave the whole into something new, far beyond what s/he imagined when reading the script and agreeing to take it on.

Interpreters (and signing actors) simply add another step in this beautiful artistic process.
I've been brought to laughter and tears by glorious stage interpreting (and signed acting). But the signing has never taken me out of the play, only deepened my experience.

For example:

I've seen and/or taken part in a half-dozen stagings of "Vagina Monologues."

This year, I saw a local version produced and directed by ASL interpreter Alek Lev. All the actors were Deaf, or ASL users (interpreters who are also professional actors).

It delighted, disturbed and deeply shook me as if I'd never seen it before.

I could go on and on.
But this is a conversation, one that needs to grow steadily wider as Deaf culture becomes a more and more integral part of American culture.
Thank you again for starting the conversation in this corner of the room ...

Thanks so much for all the thoughts! The third part is especially interesting to me. I love that idea that ASL interpretation is just another interpretation happening in the theatre space--that's a really lovely way to look at it--and it adds to the richness of everything that's happening at the same time. But I still do want to say that when it comes down to the basic question of understanding what people onstage are saying and doing, and seeing them saying and doing those things with our own eyes, sometimes that answer of "everything is an interpretation" just won't be enough. I've heard a lot of Deaf people be ambivalent about interpreted plays, saying, "What's the point? I don't want to pay to watch two of the same old hearing people sign. I want to see a PLAY." Sometimes it's just not possible to think about how seeing interpreters represents something about theatre in the big picture, if they're the only thing you see when you're in the theatre.

Ariel, a colleague of ours at TDF shared this article with us. It is so meaningful to us to read your shaping memories about your experience here at Chicago Shakespeare. We are very proud of how we think about and approach our ASL-interpreted performances here. Thank you so, so much for giving us the "long view" of one student's experience here. I hope that one day you'll return to Chicago for a visit and we'll have a chance to welcome you again to CST--this time as our guest.
Marilyn Halperin
Director of Education
Chicago Shakespeare Theater

I am a frequent interpreter for the Chicago Shakespeare Theater and possibly one of the interpreters of that "Romeo and Juliet" performance (depending on how long ago you were 11). :CST has been and remains one of the top theaters for accessibility in Chicago. They have tremendous respect for both their Deaf audiences and the professional interpreters who work with them. I was pleased to read this.

Thanks for this article, I learned a lot. As the Artistic Director of Liars & Believers, a small experimental theatre, I'm struggling with access for deaf audiences right now for our upcoming show. I want to reach the deaf audience, but how can we afford it? Last year I directed a producton of Romeo & Juliet elsewhere that had ASL interpreters. It was a phenomenal experience. I loved their work, which only added to the play. It was beautiful. However, they did such a great job because they were in rehearsal with us for weeks. They put in the same work, intelligence and creativity as the rest of the actors. Now with Liars & Believers, we can't afford to hire such interpreters.

Instead, we're pursuing captioning the show. How do you feel about captions - assuming they're done well, focusing on usability and creative interpretation? It seems to me that captions serve both the Deaf and the deaf audiences.That said, I don't know what it's like for someone who is deaf. What is your experience?

Yeah, money is a big issue for a lot of smaller theatres--totally understandable. I know little about what funding is available (not much, no doubt), but I wonder if there are any grants for providing accessibility specifically? And I'm so glad to hear that the interpreters were included in the rehearsal process for that production of Romeo and Juliet! I didn't have the chance to mention it above, but excluding interpreters from the production process is one of the hugest blocks to good interpretation, yet it happens for so many reasons: time, money, travelling productions, resistance to the interloping interpreters...

Personally, I love captions! And I love any form of accessibility more than no form of accessibility. My only real observations about open captioning are that the open captioning performances that I go to are always a bit jarring because of how the timing works. I'd suggest letting the lines go up just half a second before they're said, so we can know what's being said as it's being said, rather than while or after it's being said, otherwise we've either looked in the wrong place or missed the action entirely. Think about how it works in movies with pre-set captions. It's nice. Usability and creative interpretation sounds great as long as it doesn't become distracting. However, some Deaf theatergoers will always prefer ASL to English, no matter what. Captioning is great for some, and better than nothing for some, and simply ineffective for others.

But as part of an accessibility push at some big-name Broadway shows, they've started giving out PDAs with the script to deaf theatergoers, and I would advise against that, as it "violates" the cardinal rule, which is that it splits the focus. One production I went to had some surtitles projected on the angled ceiling--that worked well. Hope that helps!

As a person who is not deaf, I've been worried about being insensitive inadvertently. Thanks for the replies. They're really helpful. In case you're curious, the show is ICARUS, which we're doing at OBERON in May. Your feedback will make a big difference in how we approach the captioning. Thanks!

As a medically "late Deafened Adult" and strong proponent of art in both field and stage, I recall an effort at MSU to caption their commencement speech's on an overhead marquee. It easily allowed the deaf to navigate from the caption to the stage with a casual roll of the eyes. I was there and it mattered not where your seating was. It was the best "For the Deaf" inclusion I ever attended.

Watching captions is indeed a stupid idea. I can stay home and read the script and see pictures of the actors and stage for free. To get extra funding for your barrier-free production, write to Bill Gates and ask his foundation to fund the added costs to put ASL performers on the stage. Or go to the funders of musical productions to give its fair share from the huge profits from the concerts to deaf artists.

Thanks for writing this thoughtful article. My mom has been blind for 15 years (and had extremely low vision for probably 15 years prior to that) and so I have tried to be alert to accessibility issues whenever I attend theater and other arts events. My observation is that, in general (there are, of course exceptions), the theater community does an appallingly poor job of providing access for persons who are differently abled--even though the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) is now 24 years old. It behooves each of us reading HowlRound to bring up the issues of disability access at all of the theaters we work with.