The Do’s and Dont’s of Sign Language in the Theater

15 May 2015, by Auslan Stage Left in Articles

This article was first published by Alison on Accredited Language Services.

Image by David Shankbone

Image by David Shankbone

Sign language interpreting in the theater requires a mix of emotional expression and technical accuracy that is difficult for even the most skilled sign language professionals to achieve.

From musicals on Broadway to Shakespeare in London’s West End to small productions in community theaters, sign language interpreters work in all kinds of theater settings to ensure that the deaf and hard-of-hearing community can enjoy these spectacles. No matter what the setting, however, sign language interpreters in the theater can improve their performance by following these guidelines:


Don’t Interpret Verbatim

Sign language interpreting for theater has the benefit of having an expressive visual backdrop to help tell the story.

Consequently, sign language interpreters in the theater should avoid signing every word — it’s more important to convey the overall story. This allows the audience to follow not only the skilled sign language interpretation, but also the action on the stage.

Do Prepare in Advance

Just like the actors who perform, sign language interpreters working in the theater business have to put in plenty of work ahead of time. By studying the script and watching rehearsals, interpreters can decide which signs to use and get a sense of the production’s pace.


Don’t Interpret the Obvious

Sign language interpreters in the theater don’t have to convey information that is obviously demonstrated by the action on stage. If a character falls, there’s no need to sign this; the audience can see it for themselves.


Do Work in Teams

Since almost all theater productions include multiple characters, many of them on stage simultaneously, it’s usually necessary for sign language interpreters in the theater to work in teams. For major characters with big parts, one interpreter may be assigned to each character, while another interpreter handles the signing for multiple smaller roles. This provides consistency and keeps sign language interpreters energized so they can keep the pace.


Don’t Steal the Show

Simple and straightforward signing is essential to good theater interpreting. You might think that a sign language interpreter for a flashy Broadway musical should be super active and exuberant to match the tone and style of the show – not so! The interpreter should never detract from what’s happening on stage by being overly physically exaggerated. Maintaining restraint allows the signing to remain technically accurate and easily understandable.


Do Show Some Emotion

While a sign language interpreter for a musical theater performance shouldn’t be dancing alongside the chorus line while signing, he can contribute to the audience’s experience by conveying emotion in his face. Subtle movements, like widening of the eyes or a raised eyebrow, can underscore the meaning of the play and is far more engaging to watch than a robotic, straight-faced sign language interpreter who seems to have zero interest in the performance.


Technological Developments in Interpreting on Broadway

A New York Times article about Broadway interpreting discusses the rise of technologies like captioning, which may present competition for sign language interpreters working in the theater industry. For the most part, however, it seems that audiences prefer the personal aspect that a great sign language interpreter can bring to a theater performance.

For some theater-goers, watching a skilled sign language interpreter who knows the play intimately and is able to convey real emotion via subtle facial expressions makes for a more moving performance than impersonal captioning technology. Captioning is useful in many circumstances, but when it comes to the world of theater, many deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons feel that skilled sign language interpreting gives a personal touch that elevates the viewer’s experience from adequate to amazing.


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  • Marg Tope Reply

    Congratulations on the creation of Encore. Your posts to date have been great reminders for our Interpreting team who annually gather to interpret our local Primary School theatre production.
    We look forward to more postings!