Sign Language Resources, Inc.

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Theatrical Interpreting


Alan Champion at the Theater
Sign Language Resources, Inc. is adept at coordinating theatrical interpreting services anywhere along the spectrum, from an elementary school recital, a high school play, community theater, to a large ongoing production.


Large productions of an ongoing nature, say a Broadway play, usually schedule interpreters for select performance dates rather than the whole season or full duration of the show. In New York City, the organization Theater Development Fund (TDF) provides support to theaters and shows with artistic merit, arranges interpreters, and offers discounted tickets. Link below.


About Theatrical Interpreting

Sign language interpreting in the theater requires a mix of emotional expression and technical accuracy. 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 provide access of the theater experience to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.



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.


Interpretation, Not 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 balance conceptual signing and description of the action on the stage. 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.


Access Without Stealing 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, allowing the audience to experience what the actors have to offer.



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 and tone. Subtle facial and body movements can underscore the meaning of the play and add to characterization. Shared experience is an ASL interpreter's ultimate goal, which is why so much preparation goes into each performance. Any time a member of the deaf community experiences the same emotion the play was intended to evoke (laughter, tears), the more it lets the interpreters know they are on target.


Alan Champion at the Theater
Extensive Advanced Preparation

Just like the actors who perform, sign language interpreters working in the theater business invest many hours of work, from dozens to even hundreds, beginning weeks in advance. By studying the script and watching rehearsals, interpreters can decide which signs to use and get a sense of the production's pace. They pore through scripts line-by-line and divvy up characters, often juggling two dozen or more between them, many of which speak simultaneously. Strategizing to find the best way to translate a play's words and story into a wholly different language that has a grammar and syntax all its own, while retaining as much of the script's subtler features ? such as cadence and double entendre ? as possible, requires at time research into the era of the play's setting, and learning about words and allusions that may not be obvious at first. Figuring out how to explain the reference in signs before the actors on stage have moved on to the next line is key.


Technological Developments
Although technologies are available like captioning, which present alternatives to live Sign Language interpreters, it seems 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 may be useful in other 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.


Also see Performing Arts Interpreting: Qualification, Recognition, and Betterment through Education


Also see Theater Development Fund