On the 17th of April, I had the honor of being invited to witness something quite incredible. A rehearsal of a bilingual production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where all lines are expressed in Spoken English and in American Sign Language (ASL). This production is a joint-effort between Sound Theatre Company and Deaf Spotlight.
When I walk into the theatre, a stage manager quietly ushers me into a seat to watch the proceedings. There are at least two dozen people in the room, because this is tech week. 12 people are on stage, some of whom are deaf and hard-of-hearing, in various states of costume. 10 more people are in seats, watching them. Two people are in charge, directing the scene. These are Howie Seago and his co-director Teresa Thuman. Two interpreters are on the job. One seems to have the job of listening to whatever is being spoken in the room in English and signing what was said into ASL. The Deaf people in the room keep their eyes on this person while also noticing who is speaking. The other interpreter seems to be watching for Deaf people who are signing in ASL in the room, translating these expressions into Spoken English for people who don’t know ASL.
It is amazing to watch everyone work. It all comes together quite seamlessly. As someone who has been a stage actor, I can tell you that rehearsals can get quite chaotic. I am sure theatre artists reading this article will nod and agree on that statement. But here, in the Main Stage space at 12th Avenue Arts, everyone knows what they are doing. Everyone is conducting themselves professionally and expressing themselves clearly. The work comes together smoothly and discussions across two languages are carried out efficiently. Everyone is respectful and everyone knows that it is important to keep side-conversations to a minimum and to make sure conversations are non-exclusionary.
The goal here is for every line in the play to be simultaneously expressed in ASL and in spoken English. For hearing actors, they will be encouraged to sign as they speak. For Deaf actors, a hearing actor is assigned to be their spoken English voice. For hearing actors who struggle with signing, a Deaf actor is assigned to them to sign their lines. The seating arrangement has a center section that lies between two sections that face the stage at an angle. The center section will be reserved for the Deaf community so that they can clearly see the ASL signs presented by the actors, who will have straight sight-lines to this section. Hearing folks will be seated in the left and right seating sections to allow for this arrangement to happen.
Carolyn Marie Monroe, is a hearing actor who plays Cobweb and provides the English voice of Helena in the show. She is also learning ASL. She explains the matter to me further. “The show is created primarily for a Deaf audience. The point of focus and staging reflects that. Hearing audiences should keep in mind that it is going to be a little different. It is a creative visual experience.”
The stage itself is made of platforms of polished wood, at multiple levels and elevations. The floor is painted in swirls of green, representing the enchanted forest where Shakespeare’s famous quartet of lovers become lost in a comedic adventure, encountering a tribe of fairies and a band of rustic workers. The four-century-old story is a classic staple of English literature that many of us have encountered in our schooling or through regional productions.
I count the number of interpreters in the room. There are about 4 on the floor and one on stage, who seems to be an ASL coach for actors who are still learning ASL. The directors and the stage manager call out directions for everyone, which are immediately made available in both languages by the interpreters. The interpreters themselves remain vigilant, making sure they remain in sight-lines of everyone in the room. These interpreters are very passionate about what they are doing. Focused, determined, alert, they scan the room for anyone trying to wave them down for attention.
These interpreters are the most important people in the room.
During breaks, we can see how thrilled everyone is about being part of something so special. Deaf actors sign to each other excitedly. Hearing actors learning ASL shyly walk up to Deaf actors and sign to them, who in turn warmly encourage them to sign more confidently and provide minor corrections. The four interpreters and the coach keep an eye out for these moments, presenting themselves for assistance to ensure understanding and learning happens. Many of the Deaf actors can also lip-read, and this helps them correct their friends who are still learning ASL.
As a linguist, I am trained to observe the use of language in natural settings, observing the flow of information, seeing how the pragmatics relates to the sociolinguistic setting of the space. It is quite clear to see that there is a sense of camaraderie and bonding that is happening in this room, even as complex Shakespearean scene work is being blocked and rehearsed.
During scene run throughs, as the words of the Bard of Avon are spoken and signed across the room, we see how important this event is for the Deaf community. “Because Shakespeare has traditionally come to us as a spoken performance, does that mean that the Deaf community can’t watch Shakespeare? We, in the hearing community, take Shakespeare for granted now. But what about the Deaf community?” says Teresa Thuman, the artistic director of Sound Theatre Company and one of the two co-directors on the project. “The hardest and most transformative idea in the first place is getting people to even talk about ASL-interpreted performances of regular English-language theatre, let alone actually go ahead with presenting it with an interpreter. Most productions don’t think about who is being excluded from their work, especially when they’re doing Shakespeare. But what if you integrated ASL into the performance from the get-go? What if we could do Shakespeare a new way?”
I ask Teresa how she got this amazing team together. She admits that it took a while to find the right folks to put together into a team. She started by talking to her network of theatre contacts, who put her in touch with people they knew. She remembers writing several cold-call emails. A milestone was reached when she contacted Howie Seago. Fans of Star Trek: The Next Generation will recognize Howie Seago from his role as Riva, a 24th century intergalactic mediator, who is deaf. He appeared in Season 2 Episode 5, “Loud as a Whisper”, that aired back in 1989, in a stand-out role that had a very strong impact on how the Deaf community is perceived. I still remember watching this episode as a child, where Riva demands that Captain Picard make eye-contact with him when he speaks, and not to his chorus of interpreters who follow him where he goes. Howie has since had an extensive career as an actor, both on stage and on screen, this includes acting at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and directing the recent Azeotrope production of Sound by Don Nguyen, which was produced at ACT Theatre Seattle in 2015, where he directed a fantastic ensemble of Deaf and hearing actors.
“When I got in contact with Howie, he said he would be in Seattle for this year and it pretty much went from there.” says Teresa Thuman. “We auditioned actors through the Deaf community. This was important because if I did general auditions, we would have so many hearing actors showing up and filling up our audition slots, when this show is really about Deaf artists presenting Shakespeare to the Deaf community. We knew that we wanted some hearing actors in the production though. Some hearing actors contacted me directly to be part of the show while others we reached out to ourselves. Everyone, hearing and Deaf, was asked to audition with a Shakespearean monologue, but they had to do it in ASL. They were asked to figure out the signs on their own and reach out to whomever they needed to for this task. Some people who didn’t know ASL sought out coaching and when they joined the production, we provided further coaching to them”.
Teresa has a lot of gratitude for The Hearing, Speech and Deaf Center (HSDC) in Seattle, who have come on board as sponsors for the project. “They gave us space and interpreters, some of whom are working pro bono.” As she says this, I nod and look across the room. The interpreters are on point and sharp, signing and speaking simultaneously, placing themselves in visible locations. People in the room gravitate around them to be in the flow of information. I can’t help but wonder how gifted they are at making all this happen. At any given time, one or two of them are taking a break while the remaining are on deck, providing interpretation even for casual conversations.
As the directors get into their work, I wander into the green room where I find several Deaf and hearing actors hanging out, with an interpreter in the room quietly monitoring conversations and producing signs or speech as needed. I introduce myself as a reporter who is writing a story on the production process of the show. The interpreter catches the attention of the Deaf people in the room and starts signing my words to them. They warm up to me and start signing to me. As they do so, the interpreter starts speaking to me on their behalf. Through this interaction, I meet several incredible people in a very short amount of time, more of whom wander in while they are on break and take notice of me in the room.
I recognize Kellie Martin immediately. Ze is a Deaf artist whom I saw perform earlier in the month in “She is Fierce: Criminal”, a variety show featuring non-cis-male performers. I remember the touching signed-poem in ASL that ze performed for us that night, about struggling with depression and anxiety while also being deaf, which had been passionately interpreted for us in sequence by an interpreter reading Kellie’s words written down in English while watching the timing of zir signs. Here, ze is part of the production team. Ze is a set design technician alongside Margaret Toomey. Ze is also the props chief and the stage manager assistant for the Deaf artist group. When I inform zir that I loved zir signed-poem performance, ze smiles shyly and expresses gladness that someone out there is appreciating zir work. As someone’s quiet service dog walks between us, we continue conversing via the interpreter. “This production focuses on our perspective, as a Deaf community.” ze signs. “We want people to partner with us on stage, backstage and in the audience, and understand that our languages are not the same.”
Jake Merz, a Deaf actor who is playing the role of Peter Quince on stage, notices our conversation and comes forward to explains further. “60% of ASL comes from French Sign Language while 40% comes from a mix of other material!” he signs excitedly. “The mix includes material from Martha’s Vineyard Sign Language from way back in the day. It also includes material from various Native American Sign Languages as well as “home sign systems” that were developed by certain Deaf folks from before ASL was established. It all started from that mix and now the language has evolved over time, just as English has evolved.” he continues. The other Deaf people in the room sign excitedly in agreement on what he has just signed. It is clear that they like talking about the history of ASL.
I am struck by how aware they are about the history of their language. I doubt if a typical English-speaker would be this aware of the history of English. I start to wonder how often hearing folks sit and talk about the evolution of English from its Germanic and Latinate roots, as the conquest and reconquest of England shapes the structures of English as a language, among which the Early Modern English period remains captured in Shakespeare’s body of work.
“I think the biggest obstacle for Deaf people in society is the lack of opportunity.” signs Jake. “Whether it is acting, or a regular job. We have to go through more schooling and prove ourselves a lot more, just to get the same opportunity that a hearing person can get. A lot of Deaf people think about giving up altogether instead of fighting through these obstacles. We always have to prove to employers that we are worth the cost of having an interpreter on the job and worth the cost of workplace accommodations for us. That’s been my experience.”
As actors get called to stage by the stage manager, I find myself wanting to learn how to do the ASL sign for “break a leg”. The Deaf folks in the room show me a two-sign sequence, with the sign for “break” (two closed hands moving as if they are breaking a stick horizontally) followed by the sign for leg (tapping on the leg with a hand). They then teach me the sign for “break fingers” which is an ASL-specific expression that is synonymous with “break a leg”, which looks like two hands contracting fingers with palms facing the ground. As I attempt it, I get the angle of orientation wrong. The Deaf folks in the room laugh at my mistake and the interpreter points out that I accidentally made a naughty lewd sign. I laugh and apologize and try again, getting it right the second time. I find this new vocabulary to be delightful and start signing “break fingers” and “break a leg” to people who leave the room when called. This gets me a lot of smiles.
Ryan Schlect is a Deaf actor who is a company member of Deaf Spotlight. In this production, he is playing the role of Bottom. He enters the conversation when we start talking about how the ASL version of the play is being prepared. “It is totally possible to interpret Shakespeare into ASL authentically. This show is living proof that it can be done.” signs Ryan. “Really, the goal of this production is to create more opportunities for Deaf and Disabled actors. We can do what other actors are able to do. We can also make cultural inclusion happen. It’s about inclusiveness here. This is how we gain experience as theatre artists.”
I ask everyone if an ASL script has been prepared for the show beforehand. The Deaf actors express to me that they have been given artistic license to express their lines in ASL however way they see fit. As a linguist and as a theatre artist myself, this intrigues me and I ask further questions. Suddenly, the actors excitedly call forth Thawin Choulaphan, who is a Deaf actor-of-color playing Egeus on stage. I am told that even though this is his first big-stage performance, he is considered the best person in the room to discuss the portrayal of Shakespearean lines into ASL. A smiling young man with a beard and long hair is brought before me. He shows enthusiasm to be interviewed on this topic. “I have been involved with ASL storytelling for quite a while, but never have I experienced anything like communicating on-stage in the way we do here,” signs Thawin. “I know how I need to frame my facial expressions and movements, and apply that to acting. However, stage movement like this is a new experience for me. For the past month, I have been seeking advice on this matter. The real challenge is working with the hearing people when I sign my lines. Will my interpreter get it right when I’m on stage? How would they express my signs faithfully in English? If I want to be Deaf-friendly in my signing, it might pose a challenge for the interpreter who is expressing my signs into spoken English. We have an ASL coach on hand to help us through these issues”.
I ask if any material gets lost in translation. Thawin smiles and signs to me, “Oh, lines have to be changed around so that they can be signed efficiently. Let me give you an example!”. Here’s where my mind is blown because Thawin starts to get technical about it. He shows me the following English line in the play: “And she is mine and all my right of her”, spoken by Egeus about his daughter, Hermia, who he would like to wed to Demetrius, even though she loves Lysander. Thawin then shows me an “ASL-gloss” of how he would express this line in ASL. It consists of the following sequence of ASL signs: “mine” + “money” + “my house” + “my things” + “my daughter” + “giving to” + “him”.
I can see that it’s all about creating a context-sensitive concept from the English line, and then expressing the ASL sequence from that concept, capturing the same meaning. I can also see how the ASL-gloss might not be fully in-line with ASL sentence patterns, which would introduce some level of difficulty to an interpreter who’s expecting a typically arranged sentence structure in ASL. I can see how repeated rehearsal is definitely the best way to get past this kind of challenge.
“It’s up to me as an artist to make signed Shakespeare happen for my character.” signs Thawin proudly. “I need to make my signs match the culture of that time, as you can see from the line I demonstrated. We don’t figure out the signs in a word-for-word manner from the English. We go sentence-by-sentence, figuring out the meaning of each sentence, producting a sign-sequence for that sentence accordingly. So you see we don’t have an ASL script for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and we don’t need one. It’s all about every actor reading the essence of each English sentence they have in their character’s lines, and then expressing the meaning of that sentence into ASL, to have equivalency that way.”
As we converse, a very charismatic man in a green fairy costume walks in and quietly observes our discussion. This is Guthrie Nutter, a Deaf actor who plays the role of First Fairy as well as the role of Royal Interpreter to Oberon. He takes interest in what we are saying and starts signing to me when I ask how Shakespeare’s famous puns would go through a translation process like this. “Well, the puns are why The Bard is so much fun, right? We really need to keep the fun preserved when we express these concepts in ASL,” signs Guthrie. “We know that Shakespeare wrote his plays in a different form of English than what was regularly spoken at the time. At the same time, ASL and English are very different languages. Different structures. Different rules. It is important to recognize the differences between the two languages and recognize the best approach to translation. Shakespeare stitches his writing together in such a cool way. His words give us a visualization to work with. We can use this visualization to express puns and humor into ASL faithfully. For example, there is a moment where Oberon is yelling at Puck, because Puck squirted the love-potion flower juice on the wrong person. We know that there is a dirty naughty pun here about squirting someone with something. In ASL, you’d express this with the sign for “flower” and then a sign for “squirt” and then a sign for “love” which itself would be augmented with a sign that elicits “lust”. It’s still naughty, but more revealingly so. The English line would be a veiled suggestive pun but the ASL line would be dead-honest, with signs that don’t leave anything to the imagination. There is something REFRESHINGLY HONEST about this kind of signing. This is how we are choosing to do it for this production.”
Guthrie gives me another example, involving Oberon’s line “Some true love turn’d and not a false turn’d true”. He then presents the sign sequence of “you think” + “you’re falling in love” + “one person” + “then” + “you fall in love” + “another person”. Something clicks in my head when I see this. There is a build up of poetry as these signs are presented in sequence. It’s a unique realization of the material that is different from what we realize when we read the English, yet it means the same thing. My mind continues to be blown.
The conversation in the room shifts towards the sociolinguistics of ASL and the sociological issues currently faced by the Deaf community. Guthrie shares with me his thoughts on these topics. “I went to Gallaudet University and so did Thawin. It is a private university for the education of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing,” signs Guthrie. “I took a course in ASL Linguistics over there. What I learned in that course is really useful for me now, as an actor for this production. However, in that course, I also learned that Deaf children are denied a language-acquisition window in the first year of life, because families usually introduce a sign-language to them much later than when hearing children are typically exposed to a structured spoken language. It makes life harder for Deaf children because they have to work harder to acquire language, after their brains have become less amenable to the faster language-acquisition mechanisms that exist during the the first year of life. We hope that a medium like this production will inspire people to be more open to bringing ASL to young Deaf children, as early as possible. We need to normalize that approach.”
At this point, another Deaf actor joins the conversation. His name is Kai Winchester and he plays Lysander on stage. He describes a few sociologically-relevant moments in this production that the directors brought in on their own. “There is one scene where Demetrius (who is hearing) and Helena (who is deaf) are arguing in ASL,” explains Kai. “Suddenly, Demetrius start speaking to her in English. Helena protests that she needs Demetrius to sign to her in order for her to be actually included in the conversation and understand what he is saying. Demetrius then goes back to signing. This is an example of a Deaf-hearing conflict.”
He then describes to me a sociologically-relevant situation with the character Thisbe. This character is hearing in this production, and starts off their arc by signing in ASL nervously when interacting with Deaf characters towards the end of Scene 5. Over the course of the story, one of the fairies casts magic upon him, which has the result of giving him a sense of confidence when he is signing. His subsequent ASL signs are done more fluidly and confidently as a result.
Kai also describes an arc with the character Titania, who is played by the legendary Kathy Hsieh, a hearing actor who is learning ASL. This character is hearing and does not know how to sign in ASL in the beginning of the show. However, in this production’s story, the magic of the forest is known to make people connect better with each other. The magical effect leads to Titania obtaining the ability to sign in ASL, which is demonstrated in her scene with Bottom, one of the comical characters.
Kai doesn’t believe the bilingual performance format for the show is about simple translation. “Everyone is just expressing themselves, in a language-agnostic way. There are so many layers to it and we shouldn’t be so conscious of the language in which the audience is consuming the lines. We have a rich ability to express ourselves and fluidly understand each other in ASL.” signs Kai.
Kai doesn’t believe that the hearing and Deaf communities should be separate from each other. “This is our chance to demonstrate our culture to hearing people in the audience. We should not be segregating ourselves from each other. We can work together and be together in society.”
At this point, the actors bring my attention to a new person who has just entered the room, wearing a resplendent green fairy costume. This is Michelle Mary Schaefer, who is playing Puck. They say she is from out-of-town and it is clear to me that she is quite popular in this group.
“I’m from Austin, Texas, and I have never heard of the Seattle Freeze!” signs Michelle. This gives me a sense of relief. At least the Seattle Deaf community has found a way to avoid developing the infamous Seattle Freeze. Perhaps they should teach the rest of us how to interact with each other in a friendly manner?
I ask Michelle what is the most exciting part about playing Puck. “Really, Puck is the most physical and challenging character I have ever had to portray,” she signs. “I have had to do several physical things on stage, at the same time as signing. Moreover, Puck’s magic makes him go around the Earth in 40 seconds. I have to match that image of Puck in my movements. I have to be so physical: running, jumping, doing squats and so many other things. It’s definitely a thrill!”.
She agrees with Kai’s sentiment about togetherness. “I don’t like to keep track of who is hearing and who is deaf. We are all actors. We are collaborating. We are working together to make ASL Midsummer Night’s Dream happen. We have to be together in this to make this work.” she signs. “This is a beautiful ASL performance of a classic Shakespeare play, with plenty of Deaf talent. These kinds of opportunities are often not given to us. But here we are, Deaf artists and hearing artists, collaborating with each other in a positive environment. This is the beauty of teamwork. We are able to recognize each other’s talent, whether that talent is on-stage or backstage.”
I ask her what the best part is about working with her fellow actors. “Oh that would have to be working with my voice actor, Jason,” she signs. When Jason Treviño (who plays Moth and also voices Puck) hears his name spoken by the interpreter at this point in the conversation, he quickly walks into the room, alert and vigilant, but smiling warmly, looking for Michelle, making sure she has what she needs. It is clear that the voice actors have a bond with the Deaf actors that they will be providing spoken English lines for. “All the Deaf actors are paired with a hearing person. So you always have someone shadowing the other. Jason and I make a great team!”, signs Michelle. “We have become very mischievous together on set. We have great chemistry!” When Jason hears this, he becomes shy and leaves the room, smiling to himself. I find this quite endearing.
Another Deaf actor named Michael Schweiger joins the conversation. He is playing Theseus, the Duke of Athens, on stage. “My experience working with hearing and Deaf casts is quite diverse. You have to get used to the differences and when you do, it meshes really well. It is important to have a relationship of equity between the actors. If that occurs, we can remain in sync with each other. That is how we can succeed in a production like this”.
I ask him if he has advice for Deaf folks who want to get into theatre acting. “My advice is to build professional relationships with other Deaf actors and with hearing actors as well. Work together as peers. If that peer-relationship cannot be successful, everything will fall apart.”
Reggie Scott, a Deaf actor who is Black, is playing Snug on stage. He agrees with Michael’s perspective. “In my experience, I am not really pursuing an acting career outright. I’ve acted on stage only a couple of times and I’ve never actually experienced any obstacles. Things just came together naturally. Everyone has been very respectful.”
Carolyn Marie Monroe, the hearing actor I mentioned earlier, then shares her experience working with her Deaf colleagues, as the interpreter signs her words for everyone else to understand her. “I have worked on previous productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that were just in Spoken English. With this production, I have had to re-prioritize my choices as an actor and reform my approach to acting. I have grown so much as a result.”
I ask Howie what is the most special thing about this production. “There is a well-established structure in the production, through the framework provided by Sound Theatre Company,” he signs. “They have the momentum and the logistics already ongoing, we just have to plug into it. They know what they are doing. I don’t have to do anything extra to make things happen. This makes my job easier and more fulfilling.”
I ask him what he would like to tell the audiences who are considering or planning to watch the show. “Come and be ready for a great show that has lots of laughter!” he signs. “There is such beauty in ASL signing and there is nothing that you need to prepare for beforehand to experience it. Anyone can appreciate the visual movements that ASL provides to a performance. I deeply appreciate the opportunity that Sound Theatre Company gave to us, to show the power and beauty of our language, as well as the opportunity for members of our community to perform on stage.”
As the Artistic Director of Sound Theatre Company, Teresa Thuman has presided over a period of time where her company has won the Gregory Award for Theatre of the Year three times (2014, 2016, 2017). She is a force of nature, leading a brave call for “radical inclusion” as the official theme for this year’s season of productions, existing in a political era of Trumpism that has repeatedly demonstrated a policy of social-exclusion for vulnerable demographic groups. She tells me that even though she did not get the grants she applied for when it came to funding this production, she still went ahead with it. “I’m concerned about equity. If we paid everyone what they were worth, per hour, it would be a wonderful set up. But we don’t live in that perfect world. I am thrilled that so many individuals have come forward to be part of this production but I regret that I cannot pay them all at a professional rate. I would love to see more of this kind of work in Seattle and more support for it. The talent pool from the Deaf community needs to be enriched and nurtured.” When I ask her what she would like to tell people who are considering or planning to watch this show, she says, “I would love hearing-audiences to experience this classic play in a new way. I would love for them to share space with a Deaf-centered project. I want them to get a sense of being together as a community, through a cross-cultural experience. Everyone will be better for it!”
As I say my goodbyes and make my way out of the theatre, the cast and crew prepare to start a full run-through of the play. Everyone is energized, motivated and determined to give their best. As interpreters take their places at the front of the stage, I spot the very kind, patient and committed interpreter who interpreted all my conversations with the Deaf artists. Like a diligent reporter, I ask her if she is comfortable sharing her name and whether she would like to be given credit in this article for all her interpreting work. She responds profoundly in a quiet voice, “It’s not about me. It’s about them.” She will therefore, remain anonymous. After thanking her deeply, I then left the space, to avoid spoiling the official performance for myself. I’ve already got my ticket. Have you?
ASL MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM
All Shows Bilingual in ASL American Sign Language / Spoken English
English by WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE, ASL by Howie Seago
Produced by Sound Theatre Company in Partnership with Deaf Spotlight and sponsored by Hearing, Speech & Deaf Center – HSDC
WHO: Sound Theatre Company
WHAT: ASL MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM by William Shakespeare
WHERE: 12th Avenue Arts mainstage -1620 12th Ave, Seattle, WA
WHEN: previews begin Thursday, April 19th & April 20th 8pm
– Relaxed Sensory performance: Saturday May 5th 2:00 pm
Tickets: $15–$25; www.soundtheatrecompany.org For information call – 206-856-5520