Deaf Interpreters in Colorado Springs Production of ‘West Side Story’ Help Unite Hearing, Deaf Communities

06 Aug 2015, by Auslan Stage Left in Articles

This article was originally published by Jen Mulson on The Gazette.

What would “West Side Story” be without the songs “Tonight” or “America”?

We come to a Broadway musical to get caught up in the sweeping ballads and intricate dance moves. But what if you’re deaf or hearing-impaired and the deaf interpreter is way off to the side of the stage? By taking your eyes off the action at center stage to figure out what characters are saying, you miss half the show.

Many of us probably don’t think twice about what a play or musical would be like if we couldn’t hear it. Not local theater director Renee Davis. She’ll direct a production of “West Side Story” with shadow interpretation for Village Arts of Colorado Springs, a nonprofit Christian arts organization that provides performances and educational opportunities throughout the Pikes Peak region. It opens Thursday at Village Seven Presbyterian Church.

“It’s not enough for the deaf to come and watch a show that is interpreted over in a corner,” Davis said. “It’s not fair and it’s not a good experience. Theater is not accessible to them. We’re trying for accessibility for the deaf community, especially with regard to a musical. We want them to see the music and to be completely incorporated.”

Three professional deaf interpreters will be on stage with the 37-person cast of local actors. Between them they’ll sign for all of the characters and the music and even participate in some of the dance numbers.

“We’ve realized it was more work than we ever anticipated,” said interpreter Noelle Moritz. Handily for her, she starred in a musical version of “Anne of Green Gables” in high school. Her fellow two interpreters have also had some experience on stage.

“We don’t have concerns about using the language,” she said, “but it’s so different in that if you audition for a show you get one character and that’s who you are for the whole show. But we have multiple characters to do and we have to do an analysis for each one.”  Davis’ daughter, a sign language interpreter, inspired her mother to consider ways to meld the hearing and deaf communities. Theater was a natural way for her to do that and the 1957 Tony Award-winning show was the ideal vehicle.

“I have thought for years the only show I could see doing that with was ‘West Side Story,'” Davis said, “because of the message of forgiveness and uniting of culture and not dividing.”  The show is about more than providing a pleasant theatergoing experience for the hearing-impaired: It’s about bridging the gap between the deaf and hearing communities.

“The message of this play is that dividing ourselves on an us versus them basis is painful in every way and it’s wrong,” Davis said. “There needs to be a forgiveness, understanding and welcoming. It is more beautiful to move our community in that direction. So we are modeling that on the stage by saying to the deaf and hearing communities that this production is really more than either one of them could have done alone.”

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