Thursday, January 29, 2004

Signers bring drama to the deaf

Intense training and preparation enable them to interpret what's happening onstage

By Jackie Demaline
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Reggie Willis as Anela Myalatya in My Children! My Africa! is being interpreted by sign interpreter, Bob LoParo, during rehearsal at Gabriel’s Corner in Over-The-Rhine.
(Photos by Brandi Stafford/The
Cincinnati Enquirer)
Anne Valauri as Isabel Dyson in My Children! My Africa! is being interpreted by sign interpreter, Jeffrey W. Johnson.
Bob LoParo makes a fist, thumb out, opens his hand and swoops it down in a gentle start of an "S" curve. His moving hand works like a flash card, and the image he evokes is the continent of Africa.

With Jeffrey Johnson and Michelle Rinehart, LoParo is a founder of SignCinnati Theatre Group, which provides sign interpretation for the deaf and hearing-impaired audiences of My Children! My Africa! and for all productions at Know Theatre Tribe.

Rehearsing last Sunday, LoParo and Johnson's hands and fingers fly in an expressive and fascinating language that's seen rather than heard, a language that involves eyes, mouth, even ears, nose and throat as facial expressions underline thoughts and telegraph meaning.

Their signing styles are as different as are they: LoParo dark, confident, and more of a talker, Johnson fair and more reticent.

LoParo likens signers to musicians, who always have an individual flair, what he calls "differences in tone - do you sign quickly or slowly? Larger or smaller? Your linguistics - the way you produce signs. People will interpret a concept completely differently. It's not unlike regional dialects."

Tonight's opening is, as always, a culmination of hours of preparation.

For SignCinnati, interpreting for theater began with each member of the trio making separate trips to New York for a 60-hour intensive course of study at Juilliard School. The special program includes translation, interpretation, script analysis and even technique for proper stage posture. The practical experience includes signing a Broadway show.

For My Children! My Africa!, a drama of South African apartheid, the process began by reading the script in early January. They've assigned interpreters to individual actors based on the best physical match and, as the snow flies outside, they watch their first rehearsal.

Johnson watches and takes notes. "I want to make a connection with the character," he explains. "I don't have to memorize the lines, but I do need to know the action."

That's because along with interpreting text, they have to communicate the meaning behind the words.

If a character is angry, gestures are large and forceful. If a character is timid, the signs are brought in closer to the body, and perhaps dialogue is presented as questioning rather than in declarative sentences.

LoParo studies the humor. "How can a verbal joke be translated to something visual?"

What: My Children! My Africa!

Where: Know Theatre Tribe, Gabriel's Corner, Sycamore and Liberty streets, Over-the-Rhine

When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, through Feb. 14

Tickets: $12 adults, $10 student and senior citizens. 300-5669.

Signed performances: Tonight and Saturday. Tonight includes a pre-performance interpreted question-and-answer session.

Sarcasm is tough, they agree, because conversation can be funny with a stiletto hidden in the middle. If an actor is smiling when he delivers a killing line, tone can be all. The signers' facial expressions will more accurately reflect a line of dialogue's true meaning.

'Meaning for meaning'

"We can't interpret word for word," says LoParo. "People talk too fast. It's concept for concept, meaning for meaning."

Which is why it's called "interpreting" rather than "translating."

Johnson is committed to opening the world of the performing arts to the deaf community but grins and confesses that the work lets him "feel like an actor without being onstage."

Johnson has loved theater for as long as he can remember, but knew early on that "acting was not my forte."

LoParo has been acting, singing and dancing since high school, but what he loves about signing for theater is "seeing a deaf person's eyes light up, knowing that after the show we're going to be able to have a meaningful conversation about what they're seeing."

Samantha Vande Voorde of College Hill is a member of the deaf community who loves theater and for whom strong signing makes all the difference in the world.

She attends Playhouse in the Park, some Aronoff productions, Know Tribe and occasionally Ensemble Theatre. Vande Voorde was an avid theatergoer who lost her hearing later in life.

Discovering sign-interpreted theater, she says, was a thrill because "I realized that I could still be a part of something I love."

Good signing is vital, she says, because "if the person is not skilled, they often become overwhelmed and the meaning is lost or the characters become confused."

SignCinnati came together informally in 2001 when Johnson, LoParo and Rinehart met at Cincinnati State Technical and Community College as all of them worked on associate degrees in interpreting.

Johnson took his first sign language class on a whim in high school in Hillsboro. "I took it with my friends so we could talk to each other in class. I fell in love with it."

LoParo came to sign language completely by accident, when he was studying psychology at Xavier University and took a weekend job as a resident counselor at St. Rita's School for the Deaf in Evendale.

Johnson and LoParo are already professional interpreters. Johnson works for the Hamilton County school system; LoParo is a part-time instructor in Deaf Studies at the University of Cincinnati as he works on a master's degree in education.

They embrace the challenges, which can be many.

Sometimes a concept can be an easy reference for a hearing audience but requires additional explanation for the deaf and hearing impaired. SignCinnati will digress a little from the script as they try to make a situation clearer.

That means in plays where the words are all-important - Shakespeare and the classics in particular - the poetry of the language doesn't survive.

"If we're signing Shakespeare," LoParo says, "chances are the (deaf and hearing impaired) audience has read the play before they come to the theater."

The scenes that challenge them most are the ones where the lights go off and something vital and sound-related happens, like a gunshot.

Children's shows hard

Surprisingly, though, children's shows can be the most problematic, because they often star puppets, which have no expressions. And if a script has nonsense words, they have to invent nonsense signs. For those reasons, it's not uncommon for SignCinnati members to go into the theater before the show to prep the audience on certain key elements.

Part of their job is also getting to know the stage manager, actors and director, because it's necessary for members of the theater company to understand the needs for the signers - primarily being well lit in the audience's sight line, without interfering with the drama onstage.

"We're not there to steal the show, we're there to provide a better sensory experience for our deaf and hearing-impaired audiences," says LoParo.

SignCinnati wouldn't mind being in theaters 50 weeks a year, if the funding were available. (Cincinnati State students sign performances on a voluntary basis, and some theaters have a long-term relationship with Hearing, Speech and Deaf Center of Greater Cincinnati.)

This year, a $1,700 grant from the Corbett Foundation covers SignCinnati's fees for two signed performances of every Know Tribe production and workshop. (A two-day session on signing for theater is scheduled for the end of March.)


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