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Ohio class teaches sign language interpretation for theater

December 22, 2018

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — It’s safe to say that most American Sign Language interpreters probably don’t do a lot of twerking while translating a live theatrical production for deaf audience members.

Yet there was Lindsey Longbrake — hands on the ground, posterior in the air — backing it up on the Shadowbox Live stage on a recent Friday night. What better way to interpret a skit in which Kim Kardashian dances on hubby Kanye West?

Sure, Longbrake could’ve simply stood still with her head down, as translators typically do during non-verbal moments. But where’s the fun in that?

During the performance of “Holiday Hoopla” — a signature show by the performance troupe in its Brewery District theater — Longbrake and five other student interpreters instead added a little flair to their translating duties.

The hope was that this would help any patrons with hearing impairments in the audience pick up on every nuance, emotion and joke just by watching the interpreters. No need to constantly ping-pong back and forth between interpreter and actor, said Stacie Boord, the theater’s executive director.

The performance was part of the final exam for the students, all of whom were part of a Columbus State Community College class focused on teaching sign language interpretation for live theater performance. Boord said she believes it’s the only such partnership in the country between a theater and college. (The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders does not track this, an official said.)

“Some of these kids are so good, they’re so fun,” Boord said. “It’s almost an added bonus to the ticket price to come and see this.”

Boord thinks something is lost when interpreters stick to standard signing, translating words in a static manner. After all, she said, if patrons with hearing impairments are to enjoy the show as much as anyone else, then shouldn’t the interpreters be just as dynamic as the performers?

So when a deaf patron shared those concerns with Boord in 2015, she decided to approach the Interpreter Education Program at Columbus State Community College with a proposal for the class. Though artistic interpreting had been covered in a special topics course, no class in the school’s curriculum had been devoted entirely to the topic, according to program coordinator Royce Carpenter.

Debuting that fall, the course remains a popular elective for students in their second year of the interpreting program, Carpenter said. Students in the class — which is co-taught by Carpenter and adjunct professor Marlena Smith — spend the semester preparing for three performances in Shadowbox’s “Holiday Hoopla” show.

At the outset, students work from old Shadowbox scripts to learn how best to inhabit the show’s characters and give them life while interpreting their words.

What mannerisms or affectations should they exude? What posture or facial expressions are most suited for any given character? What other hands movements or gestures outside of official sign language could be appropriate?

Someone interpreting an actor playing a frail grandmother, for instance, may hunch her back. Or if a characters is reading a book, the interpreter may hold his hands up, palms facing in, to simulate the action.

“They have to become the character,” Carpenter said. “We want to make sure they (deaf patrons) see the show through our students.”

When the class receives the script for that year’s holiday show, the students begin to meet at the theater to work with Boord and Shadowbox actors. Many of the students have no background in theater, so they learn stage etiquette and theater terminology.

“You can’t be shy,” Smith said. “The actors aren’t holding back; they’re giving everything they have, so we have to do the same thing.”

Students in the second year of the two-year program already have a firm grasp on sign language itself, so the Shadowbox class offers a chance to step outside their comfort zones. Some students in this year’s class said they relish that opportunity.

“It’s been great to watch my classmates grow,” Longbrake, 22, said. “We’re told not to draw attention to ourselves as interpreters, and now the opposite is true.”

Abigail Ahearn, 23, took the class last year and decided to take part again — though not for credit this time — because of how meaningful the experience was to her. She said she understands the nerves that come with being in front of an audience, so she helped encourage her stage-shy classmates.

“People are definitely intimidated because of the acting portion, but, once you get on stage, it’s easy,” said Ahearn, a Westerville resident.

About 30 people had requested seating in the ASL section for the Friday 10:30 p.m. performance, Boord said.

Before curtains, the students — wearing black shirts with quarter-length sleeves — mingled in the lounge and provided interpretive services to any hearing-impaired patrons who arrived. Their jobs included pointing out restrooms and exits, showing guests to their seats and translating for the waiters.

When the show began, up to three interpreters shared the stage at a time, animatedly translating for the actors. They mimicked every smile, every scowl and every jolly belly laugh elicited by Santa Claus.

At a musical performance of Dropkick Murphy’s “The Season’s Upon Us” — set in a raucous Irish bar — Ahearn and Andrew Drobnick went so far as to simulate the dancing and fistfights taking place stage right.

Several of the students who have taken the class have gone on to do artistic interpreting. Some of them even returned to Shadowbox, which tries to offer translation services when requested by patrons, Boord said.

“To be able to teach interpreters how to perform better in an artistic setting and to serve an audience that might not be able to enjoy it to the level they should,” Boord said, “it’s a win-win situation.”

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Information from: The Columbus Dispatch, http://www.dispatch.com