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Are Theater Sign Language Interpreters Acting?

06 Aug 2015, by Auslan Stage Left in Articles

This article was first published by Cindy Gimbrone on Hands Up Theater


Often, when ASL interpreters are out in the local community interpreting theater or concerts, non-signers believe that we are acting. Here is a good explanation of that from Chloe Veltman writing for Theatre Bay Area:

After a recent American Sign Language (ASL)-interpreted performance of Russell Lees’s play Nixon’s Nixon at San Jose Repertory Theatre, interpreters Charlotte Toothman and Joe Quinn were standing in the theatre lobby chatting, when a female audience member approached them. “You guys were so expressive,” she said. “You looked like you were really acting.”


As the founders and codirectors of Stage Hands of the Bay Area, a local ASL-interpreting service for live theatre, Toothman and Quinn are used to receiving this kind of feedback from non-deaf theatregoers. After all, a signed performance certainly looks like acting to the untrained eye. In Nixon’s Nixon, Toothman (interpreting the role of Richard Nixon) and Quinn (as Henry Kissinger) appeared to be as involved in the action as the actors on stage. Often signing their lines to each other rather than out to the audience, they seemed to be engaged in a heated conversation. When the actor playing Kissinger became over-animated, Quinn’s gestures appeared larger than life. When the onstage Nixon raced through half-finished sentences, Toothman interrupted her signed phrases. When both actors paced about the stage in thought at one point, the interpreters, seated on stools directly in front of the stage on the far right, pensively rubbed their chins.



In some ways, the process of preparing for an ASL-interpreted performance is similar to that of an actor. Toothman and Quinn begin by familiarizing themselves with a play or musical by reading the script and/or listening to the music. They divvy out roles and rehearse together. They even work with a “director” (a bilingual native ASL expert known in Stage Hands parlance as the “sign master”) on refining their performance. But despite the theatrical setting and the expressiveness of their work, ASL interpreters consider themselves to be translators, not actors. Every gesture and facial expression serves a linguistic function. “We’re not performing, we’re providing a service,” says Toothman. “We try hard to make sure we’re not too obtrusive. Everything we do is in service of the show.” While Toothman considers stage presence to be a positive quality for an interpreter, language skills are more important. “When we hire interpreters, we’re looking primarily for translation skills,” she says. “Some interpreters come from a theatre background, but having a deep fluency in sign language is more important than having a stage background.” (See the full article)


The next time you see us interpreting a show, remember, if you are a non-signer, it may look like acting but it’s not.

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