There was a time when deaf people couldn’t experience the joy of a theatrical performance. This is all changing, thanks to Sign Language theatre interpreters.

Deaf people should enjoy a play as much as the hearing audience. This is the thinking behind the Americans with Disabilities Act, which requires that theatres become accessible to deaf people.
Theatre producers, on the other hand, are beginning to realize that such a feature makes their product attractive to a wider audience - with considerable financial rewards.

Interpreted theatre usually takes place as two or three performances in a theatre season. Preference for tickets is given to the deaf and their guests, but tickets are also sold to hearing people who are interested in seeing theatre interpreters at work.

It is a colossal project for the interpreters. Ian Cox works for SeeTheatre, a Chicago-based association of interpreters. He says, "for about a month we work with the support of a Sign Language consultant to translate and rehearse an entire play. The workload is immense. Consider that each actor in the play has about four weeks to rehearse his or her lines; we have to learn the whole play in as much time. And, when interpreting musicals, where timing, rhythm and harmonies must be practiced, the workload doubles."

The most important technical aspect of theatre interpretation for the deaf is the location of the interpreter. Placement strategies can be categorized into three styles: ‘placed’, where interpreters are located outside the acting space and do not move; ‘zoned’, where interpreters are within the acting space, but usually move only during a change of scene or act; and, finally, ‘shadowed’, where interpreters move freely within the acting space, shadowing the movement of the actors for whom they are interpreting.

The ‘placed’ style of interpreting in the theatre is by far the most common. The interpreters are side-by-side and face the audience (although some interpreters interact with each other as appropriate). The location of the interpreter is generally in one of three places: stage right or stage left, or on the floor of the house.

The ‘zoned’ style of interpreter placement is a happy medium between the ‘placed’ and‘shadowed’ styles. Here, interpreters are placed side-by-side within the acting space. Usually, they change position on stage from scene to scene - or from act to act - in order to be within the same ‘zone’ as the majority of the action. Zone placement makes it easier for the deaf patron to see the interpreters and actors at the same time.

The ‘shadowed’ style of interpreting is the most inclusive style of interpreting for the theatre. It involves placing the interpreters directly within the action - nearly making them ‘sign language actors’. The interpreters are ‘blocked’ into each scene, and literally shadow the actors. The advantage of this is clear: the interpreter is in such close proximity to the actor that the deaf patron need not make a decision about whom to watch - he or she can watch both at the same time. In the best of cases, the deaf patron mentally blends the interpreter with the actor, and forgets that the actor does not sign.

Theatre interpreters for the deaf are dedicated professionals who take great pride in their work. "Theatre," says Ian, "is the art of communicating beautiful ideas in interesting ways. Interpreted theatre, therefore, is an art in itself. Thankfully, instead of seeing us as ‘additions’, producers nowadays think of interpreters for the deaf as a new avenue to creativity."

(Upstream Upper-Intermediate B2+)