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April 14, 2003

Drawn to theatrical interpreting

From: Hampshire Gazette, MA - Apr 14, 2003

By LARRY PARNASS, Staff Writer
Monday, April 14, 2003 -- On Thursday night, Rye Zemelsky will again join the cast of "Flight," a drama now running at Smith College. For some in the audience, the work she does under the lights, dressed in black, will be key to understanding David Lan's story of a Jewish family that flees persecution in Europe before World War II and ends up in a nation, Rhodesia, where others are similarly oppressed.

Zemelsky is not an actor, though she has worked closely with the play's director, Ellen W. Kaplan. The 22-year-old senior from Durham, Conn., is interpreting the play for the deaf, using American Sign Language. Along with her mentor, Elizabeth Bjerke, Zemelsky will perform Thursday not from the sidelines but from the stage, incorporated into the scene for the ease of viewers and integrity of the whole.

Zemelsky's two nights of interpreting - she debuted her translation on Saturday - cap a months-long project she undertook through the Smith Scholars Program. Zemelsky, who serves as her class president, hopes to continue to pursue interpretation work through a program in Boston next fall, after spending the summer working on her parents' farm.

Q: What drew you to theatrical interpreting?

A: I was first introduced to signing in a theatrical realm from seeing the National Theater of the Deaf, based in Connecticut, and also the acclaimed a capella group Sweet Honey in the Rock. Something drew me to the multiple communication levels in those performances.

After a sophomore year with little direction, my parents point blank asked me, "What do you want to do?" I want to learn American Sign Language. So one summer I took a six-week class at a community college, a two-week class at Gallaudet University and then switched my plans for the fall and spent a semester as a visiting student at Gallaudet, the only deaf liberal arts college in the world. And that was it, sold!

Q: What's your approach?

A: The point of translation is to convey the concept in as close to the same tone and rhythm as the original text. ... ASL is a distinct visual language with its own syntax and grammar and with no written form.

Interpreting puts the translation into action. So the trick is to figure out the concept, which brings in so many issues of various understandings and perspectives, while also keeping in mind - in the context of deaf culture - what would be culturally acceptable and accurate. And visually interesting.

For longer monologues of a specific character, I need to keep in mind the point of the passage. There are so many ways to describe one thing, so the point is to make it visually interesting, perhaps using the visual equivalent to "rhymes and rhythms," but keeping in mind a character's motive.

Q: Which is more important to deliver as an interpreter, plot or character?

A: Can you separate them? Plot drives the character, characters carry the plot. It is important to separate the characters, so as not to muck up the plot. That is the hardest, especially when each of us interpreting has four characters each, all of whom interact with each other. Lots of separations are necessary, through shoulder shifts and head and eye gazes and other body language conveying personality. ... If the characters are not clear, the plot will be meaningless.

Q: How long did it take to translate "Flight" into ASL?

A: It took me four months to translate the script - meaning to write it all out in "ASL gloss," the concept of the English, assigning English words to signs, but arranged in ASL order.

For example, in English it might be: "I am going to the store." In ASL, it is: "I go store" or "Store me go."

The actual interpreting developed out of just being at rehearsals and signing the play many times, playing around with different signs and ways of using them and asking feedback from my deaf friends and other interpreters.

Q: What must guide interpretation for audience members who are both deaf and blind?

A: I have a really good friend from Gallaudet who is deaf and blind, so I have learned a lot about how to tactile sign and set up the surroundings. To my knowledge there is no one coming to "Flight" who is deaf and blind. For that, we would need another interpreter who would do tactile interpreting, or whatever the person needs for access, tactile or close-range signing.

That interpreter would copy us, but also describe more in depth what is going on in a scene, for instance, what the characters and set look like.

Q: Name a lasting lesson you've learned about this art from your mentor, Elizabeth Bjerke.

A: She'll say, "You're too literal. What's the point here [in this section]?"

Q: Do you feel what you do can be called acting?

A: That's a tricky question because the role of interpreters in other settings is a neutral body to facilitate communication. To call something acting means to take your understanding of the script and put specific nuances into a character. I am acting with full-body involvement but trying to copy what the actor has already processed. But if you count acting by how tired you are at the end of the show, then, yes, I'm acting!

"Flight" reopens Wednesday and runs through Saturday at 8 p.m. in the Hallie Flanagan Studio Theatre on Green Street at Smith College. Tickets for Wednesday are $1. Other nights, they are $7, or $5 for students. Call 585-ARTS.

© 2003 Daily Hampshire Gazette