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June 21, 2004

Class helps aspiring deaf actors take stage

From: Raleigh News - Raleigh,NC,USA - Jun 21, 2004


RALEIGH -- Stage actors are fond of larger-than-life gestures and loud, expressive voices.

So it was a little surreal to watch acting teacher Sam Parker explain exposition and monologue using sign language.

"Acting is reacting," he scrawled on the chalkboard.

The four students, two deaf and the other two hearing but fluent in sign language, watched. The scratching of chalk disturbed the silence. The Coke machine whirred. No words interfered.

The class, at Raleigh Little Theatre, is a nod to the increasing number of deaf people auditioning for productions.

Over the past few years, the theater has performed several shows incorporating sign language. "Jungle Book" used shadow interpreting, in which producers doublecast the performance so that each character had a speaking actor and a signing actor.

In May, actors signed "A Secret Garden" while an interpreter translated the signs into English. "Children of a Lesser God" -- which is known for being spoken and signed -- was produced in August.

Occasionally, as with the character of Puck in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," there are opportunities for deaf actors in hearing productions. The theater has never done a performance solely in sign language; the audience would be quite limited.

But theater officials realized that deaf actors or aspiring ones had no place to train and work on their acting skills. So they started the class, enlisting Parker -- who can hear but has deaf parents -- as the instructor.

The class meets Sunday nights, and the students don't have to be deaf. The only prerequisite is fluency in American Sign Language.

Parker teaches the class through a series of exercises. Students spend a lot of time working on making sign choices. Whereas speaking actors pride themselves on memorizing their lines just so, deaf actors have more poetic license.

"There are millions of different ways to sign things," Parker said. "It's about getting actors to tap into their creative juices."

But that doesn't mean they have the liberty to change intent. Rather, they struggle to select the best signs to convey the written word. "A lot of people have the misconception that American sign language is just like English," he said. "It's not. It's a translation."

Translating humor, for example, is especially hard and doesn't always work.

In a recent session, the students worked on setting up a scene from "Crimes of the Heart."

Their homework was to bring in a photo of what they think their character looks like. Then they had to become that character. Watching their transformation was like observing a game of charades.

Ann Donnelly, a petite woman who took dutiful notes, went first. She patted her hair, wiggled her hips, smiled coyly. She was supposed to be a sensuous woman stretched out in a come-hither pose.

Parker wanted more improvisation. Suppose you break a heel, he signed. How would you react? Donnelly, who is deaf, stumbled unevenly. Maybe, Parker suggested, his fingers flashing, your character might be such a diva that she would compensate, walking on tiptoe instead of adopting such an awkward gait.

Donnelly, who works for the Navy as a human resources assistant, wrote via e-mail that the acting class has shored up her self-confidence and her faith in her independence, helping her cope with some of the obstacles in her daily life.

It's all communication

To Donnelly, it's important to not draw a line between hearing and deaf actors. In the end, she explains, it's about communication.

"You asked me if I think acting classes are more difficult because I cannot hear," she wrote. "Well, can you imagine vice versa? Hearing students with no sign language skills would feel lost in the Deaf's acting class because they cannot 'hear'...The signing hands do speak more loudly than you might realize."

Parker, who has undergraduate and graduate degrees in theater, has directed three plays at Raleigh Little Theatre. He commutes from Greensboro because he says there's no appetite for a deaf acting class in the Triad. Aside from Gallaudet University, Washington's school for the deaf where acting is a major, deaf acting instruction is hard to come by, he said.

"It's very rare this type of class is offered," he said. "Most theaters are not interested in working with the deaf population, I guess because they feel they don't come to the theater."

But Sarah Corrin of the Raleigh Little Theatre said she'd like to change that perception.

"Any theater should want as many people as possible to come to its shows," said Corrin, who does public relations for the theater. "Its part of our mandate to ensure we're accessible to as many people as possible."

Increasing sensitivity

Jo Ann Miller-Kinsey applauds that goal. She is an interpreter who has translated shows at local venues including the BTI Center, and she is taking the class to help her professionally. The child of deaf parents, Miller-Kinsey can hear and could take a regular acting class, but learning with the deaf heightens her sensitivity.

When she was a girl, people made cruel comments about her parents. "People like that shouldn't have children," they would say. They didn't realize she could hear. The discrimination made her more open-minded.

"Deaf people want to be part of the mainstream," she said. "A lot of deaf people see themselves as a social minority, like blacks or Asians."

Deaf actors interested in taking the next class can send e-mail to

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