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November 24, 2003

Interpreters bring the arts to deaf people

From: Philadelphia Inquirer, PA - Nov 24, 2003

Connecting with the audience is in their hands.

By Dawn Fallik
Inquirer Staff Writer

Brian Morrison is explaining why Abba's music is difficult to translate for the deaf. His hands blur, flying fast and close to his face, even when there is no one around to interpret.

"So you think of a phrase like 'Mamma Mia.'... Literally you're thinking Mamma, which is this sign," he said, resting his thumb against his chin, fingers and palm in a high five position. "But the phrase doesn't really have to do with mamma, it's more like an 'Oh no!' kind of thing, particularly in the context of the play."

Think Swedish disco is hard? Try emoting the anger and grief of Rent, the musical, with your hands. Or keeping up with Janet Jackson's rapid-fire "If." Or being Kiss. Morrison has signed them all.

There are fewer than 100 American Sign Language interpreters for music and theater. Philadelphia has at least five of them, including Morrison. The others are in New York, working on Broadway, or scattered around the country, mostly in large cities.

Until a decade ago, the deaf community was mostly shut out of the Philadelphia art scene, said Carol Finkle, a local activist for the deaf community.

"We're a deaf and hearing family who raised two children here, and we spent 30 years with nothing to look forward to on the weekend, nothing for us to do as a family together," said Finkle, who has two deaf children, now grown.

Frustrated at feeling ostracized, Finkle started Creative Access, a nonprofit Philadelphia organization that provides interpreters and works with the arts community to increase awareness.

"Whenever people think about handicapped access, they think about ramps for wheelchairs," said Finkle, who started the program in 1992.

Funded by grants and donations, Creative Access provides interpreters - usually two to four for a show - for about 15 plays a year, fromMamma Mia!, the Abba play, to a Nutcracker ballet, to this week's production of Chicago at the Merriam Theater. There have been requests for music concerts, such as Billy Joel, but not many, she said.

The company, with Finkle as its only staff, also provides a sign "coach," a deaf person who works with the hearing interpreters. Theaters usually host one signed performance per show run.

"We've found that the best place is on house right, and the interpreters are right by the orchestra pit, so that they can see the interpreters and the play at the same time," said DeVida Jenkins, general manager of the Merriam Theater, which has been holding signed shows for about five years. About 20 signed seats are usually reserved for each show.

For every one performance, there are hours and hours of practice for interpreters, who are paid usually by the theater anywhere from $100 to $500 per show.

Rehearsal begins about a month before the show. The interpreters, who are all hearing for this play, get a copy of the script and then get together to divide up the main characters.

For example, in Chicago, there are 20 characters who detail the trial of Roxie Hart, a woman accused of shooting her abusive lover; her lawyer, Billy Flynn; and her sexy prison mate and infamous murderess, Velma Kelly.

Morrison plays Flynn, Donna Ellis takes Hart, and Jaci Urbani is Kelly. The 17 other speaking parts and solos are divided among the three - for example, all of them translate for "the warden" at one time or another.

"If I'm interpreting for two characters and they're on stage at the same time talking to each other, I'll shift from one side to the other, or sometimes it's in the body language or the facial expression," said Morrison, who has been interpreting for seven years and works full time as a staff interpreter for the Pennsylvania School for the Deaf in Germantown.

Mike Canfield, the coach for Chicago, works with the trio, both individually and as a group. He began acting in a signed-hearing rendition of Oklahoma!, playing Curley.

Canfield said that many hearing people did not understand why the deaf community would even want to see a musical or a play, because they cannot hear the lyrics.

"You can feel the music, and it's not just the music, it's a visual experience," Canfield said through an interpreter.

The biggest challenge, he said, is trying to turn the "English" into sign language. At a recent practice session at Community College of Philadelphia, he and Urbani spent a half-hour working on the phrase "all that jazz." Taken literally, it's about music. But in the play, it means something different.

Across the room, Ellis and Morrison practiced the courtroom ventriloquist act, "We Both Reached for the Gun," in which Roxie Hart acts as Billy Flynn's puppet as he gives those in the courtroom the answers they want to hear.

How do you make it clear that one person is merely acting as someone else's puppet - while signing?

"I need his deaf eyes to tell me if it works," Ellis said, waving to Canfield.

The coach watched. It didn't work. Morrison's signs were not matching Ellis as she mouthed the lyrics.

The practice continued, with less than two weeks.

"I want to make it visual, but I don't want to take away from what's on the stage," Ellis said. "That's still the main focus."

© 2003 Philadelphia Inquirer and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.