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29 January 2005

This is a four show week for me, with Thursday night off.  Wednesday we attended the touring Broadway production of Big River

Fascinating show!

The production was put on by "Deaf West Theatre" and the actors are a mixture of Deaf, hard-of-hearing, and hearing.  The entire production is signed by all the actors, signing as they recite their lines or sing.   There are speaking/singing actors on stage who say or sing the words of the Deaf actors, while the Deaf actor does the acting--it works beautifully, as the "speakers" blend into the action on stage and don't stand out as being there strictly to speak.  (E.g., the guy who speaks for Huckleberry Finn also plays Mark Twain, as the narrator of the piece, and so is on stage throughout.   His speaking was so subtle that it was 2/3 of the way through the first act that I realized he was speaking--until then, I thought it was someone backstage doing the speaking.

The whole thing is a visual delight, especially in the chorus numbers, where all the hand movements are exaggerated and it becomes very visual, as well as pleasant to listen to.

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photo by Joan Marcus

While this goes beyond "sign language interpretation," those people who stand by the side of the stage and translate the dialog and/or the music for the Deaf in the audience, those interpreters have always fascinated and amazed me.

The first time I ever saw a sign language interpreter may have been in the 60s or early 70s when we attended what ultimately was probably one of the worst productions of Fiddler on the Roof I'd ever seen.  But what saved the production for me was watching the signer.  I never understood how a Deaf person could experience music, but as I watched this guy, I finally did.  I think he won a local theatre award that year for his "performance" -- and it was a performance that went waaaay beyond merely translating the dialog or lyrics to the audience.

Lawsuit once did a charity concert for the local Art Center, which was trying to raise money to pay sign language interpreters to work with Deaf children on art projects.  They had two signers who worked the show as well.  I'd never heard of a signer for a rock concert, but these women were incredible.  At the end of the concert, a woman, who realized I was a band mom, stopped me with tears in her eyes and told me how wonderful the concert was and how it was the very first time her Deaf daughter (a high school student) had ever danced.  It wasn't the band that did it for her, it was the signers.

American Sign Language (ASL) has always intrigued me.  I've always thought I'd like to learn it.  I can do the Deaf alphabet reasonably well, though not with the speed of anybody fluent in ASL--and I have to stop and think about each letter if I'm watching someone else spell out a word, but Jeri and I have, from time to time, been able to send signals to each other across a room by spelling out words in ASL.

In the publicity packet that I received for Big River was a fascinating background on ASL and its history.  In 1817, the first school for Deaf children opened in Connecticut.  They began to use a new sign language developed by Laurent Clerk, a deaf educator from France.

Today ASL is one of the most commonly used languages in the U.S., other than English.   Different countries have their own language, though you'd think that "signing" could be a universal language.

In this country, it is the second most popular foreign language taught in colleges and universities, behind Spanish.  Some schools offer a bilingual degree in English and Sign Language.

There was a long period when sign languages were banned from schools and Deaf children were forced to attempt to learn to speak, if you can imagine having to speak when you have never heard sound and have no idea how to formulate the words, use your vocal cords, etc.  Children were punished for signing to each other and were put in classes for the "slow" kids because they couldn't speak.

ASL began to be accepted only as late as 1967 when the Theatre of the Deaf was formed.  That amazed me because it seemed to me that signing has been around forever.  Walt and I attended an early performance of the Theatre of the Deaf, so may have been in on the ground floor.  Now signers are everywhere--on television, in the theatre, at many public events.  It seems that they are routinely included in any political gathering, expanding the candidate's potential voter base!

Big River is, though (I think) the first production that incorporates sign language with choreography and the dialog and combines a hearing cast with a non-hearing cast.  It's a new art form and, judging by how entertaining--and in places downright exciting--this production was, I hope that we see more of it in the future.

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Tyrone Gioradno as Huck and Michael McElroy as Jim
perform "Worlds Apart," my favorite song from the show

Photo by Joan Marcus

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