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July 15, 2004

Deaf, hearing worlds blend on Big River

From: Mendocino Beacon, CA - Jul 15, 2004

By AMY KATZ Of The Beacon

Working with the deaf community for over 30 years, translation and interpretation of music as her specialty, Mendocino resident Betsy Ford was the natural choice to join the Deaf West Theatre production of Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.

Big River, a musical based on Mark Twains classic The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, adds American Sign Language (ASL) to the existing music and lyrics by Roger Miller and book by William Hauptman. The Deaf West Theatre production of Big River includes deaf and hearing actors performing each role in a synchronized ballet of speaking, signing, gesture, song and dance. An ASL Master, Ford previously worked with Director Jeff Calhoun on the Deaf West Theatre production of Oliver!

The ASL Masters were responsible for taking the source material of Mark Twain and bringing it to life accurately and richly for deaf audiences. Ford said, It made sense to bring me in to work primarily on the translations of the 17 songs in the production. She was one of four ASL Masters working on the show.

Ford said she had two foci: teaching the hearing actors, who have spectacular voices, how to sign while they sang, and teaching deaf actors, who have ASL fluency, what the set translations were and then teaching them how to deliver the signs in time with music they cant hear.

That was the most fun of all, Ford said, .... using a drum and a special notation system during rehearsal sessions with the deaf actors, to guide them in the timing of the delivery of their signs. After a while, with special cues built in on stage, they were able to sign in time with the invisible music.

Starting off

After studying speech and communications at Lewis and Clark College in Oregon, Ford took a teacher training program for the deaf and knew that was her calling. She quickly tackled the courses so she could begin her work with the deaf community as a teacher at the California School for the Deaf in Berkeley, teaching junior high and high school age deaf kids in the early 70s.

I tried to bring them the most positive experiences they could have. I was concerned that some of their elementary teachers were being negative or not fully grasping the potential of the kids, Ford said. So I assiduously tried to undo that and give those kids positive feedback all the time. They responded so well. It was a very happy situation.

The bridge between teaching deaf students and the theater world came about during Fords early teaching years. During her lunch hour, Ford studied with a brilliant, deaf man named Eric Malzkuhn who was a sign master, an expert in sign language, for the then new National Theater of the Deaf. He taught deaf actors to deliver lines, especially poetic ones, more beautifully than they could imagine. He was teaching creative uses of sign language.

A local group was putting on Neil Simons Barefoot in the Park to raise funds for a deaf community organization and the lead female dropped out two weeks before the opening. Malzkuhn asked Ford to play the role, which had many lines. She agreed.

And he, bless his heart, wrote down notations for every one of my lines so I didnt even have to make up what my signs were, Ford said. He put them in my hands and when I went on stage two weeks later the deaf people were wondering how I did it. It was because of the language that he gave me to deliver.

Though she wasnt by any means a beginning signer, Ford said Malzkuhn gave her very sophisticated signs. She explained that it was like having Shakespeare teach an English 101 class.

So I gained this sense of the potential of what can happen on stage when you have this really good language master working you, Ford said.

This all occurred before there was even the term American Sign Language, Ford stressed. Sign language research had barely begun in the 60s, she said, so the term didnt exist when she first began teaching the deaf.

At that time people in the deaf community had a sense of its potential but outside the deaf community, and even in parts of it, it was considered sort of bad shorthand for English, English on the hands. If youd asked many deaf people back then, they might have had a negative feeling about sign language because of the hearing culture being the predominant one. The fact is that ASL is very complex and sophisticated, which is quite different from English.

Ford went on to study with the National Theater of the Deaf and began teaching deaf kids drama and working with music.

This all led to her foray into television. In 1974, a small group, including Ford, formed an organization called D.E.A.F. Media, which produced a weekly series for deaf adults on the local PBS station in the Bay Area. It was a low budget, and free-formed venture called Silent Perspectives, in which deaf people delivered community news, entertainment and interviews with off-camera voice over. The program won an Emmy Award.

It was an amazing time. We were pioneers, Ford said.

Silent Perspectives was the first full-length deaf program in the country. Along the way, deaf children being Fords particular interest, she discovered that many were watching the program even though the material was over their heads. Their reactions, she said were, Oh my gosh, somebody deaf like me. Hey, I could grow up and be a TV star!

Recognizing the sense of sameness, aspiration and empowerment that the program elicited in the young people, Ford began raising money for a show for deaf children. Rainbows End won an Emmy, too. A big thrill for them all was when the credits ran, The previous program has been brought to you in American Sign Language.

That was so exciting! Ford said. It had been antediluvian times. Then there was an explosion of change in consciousness in the average Americans mind about deaf people. I feel so blessed to have been a part of that little explosion.

Music as healing

Though Ford refers to working with the deaf community as her calling, she said it has been very healing for her on another level. Around six years ago, Ford was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer which had metastasized to her lungs. She had 20 lesions in her lungs. She and her husband moved to Elk from Berkeley as a six-month experiment. She committed herself to getting well through alternative means; she spent her days making art, meditating, doing visualization exercises, taking in the ocean. But it wasnt working, she said.

One night she had a dream about interpreting music which she hadnt done in years. She was interpreting in a sacred setting. There were two key figures, a deaf boy and a black woman. She had no idea what the dream meant, except that it had something to do with healing.

A couple months later, Ford was in L.A. for alternative treatment on her breasts and was drawn to a church she had heard of.

It was the sacred place in my dream, Ford said. This rock em sock em gospel, Black-led church had a strong deaf contingent. It had a little piece of every religion and denomination. It was huge; there was a 150-person choir, and 1,500 people at the service. It was so, so positive. I approached them afterwards and said I was available to interpret on Sundays, especially the music. They said yes.

As soon as Ford began interpreting there, all 20 lesions stopped growing. Over a three-and-a-half-year period of traveling between Elk and L.A., all the lesions disappeared. Fords doctor proclaimed it a spontaneous remission because she was not taking any medicine, chemotherapy or radiation treatment.

I guess my point is that when I work with music and sign language it feels like a blessing and a gift. When I was doing it I would ask myself how I could make something better, clearer, funnier, more beautiful to match what I was hearing so that the deaf people could have a similar experience of the music. So I dealt with the material intellectually, but also moved the message through my heart. All that energy is centered on the area around the lungs. Thats why I think I have that healing there. I am filled with joy when I work and I guess that may be the most powerful treatment there is.

Music and the deaf

To set up her theory of bringing music to deaf people, Ford began with a discussion of Big River.

Its the story of Huck Finn and Jim the slave each seeking freedom in his own way. Along the journey, they learn to trust each other, Ford explained.

Sign language and spoken word augment the idea of people being different but the same. In the Deaf West Production, Ford said, Huck is played by a deaf actor and Jim by a hearing actor. A deaf man named Ed Waterstreet is the artistic director of Deaf West Theater in Los Angeles.

As a deaf child, Waterstreet had seen signed theatre, but wondered what musicals were all about, Ford said. He thought it would be neat to go into a theater and provide deaf and hearing audiences with an equivalent experience of a musical.

Waterstreet started out as an actor with National Theater for the Deaf. He became a producer for deaf actors in L.A. where he connected with Tony-nominated director-choreographer Jeff Calhoun. Ford said Calhoun has a brilliant choreographic mind and heart and an ability to see things that those of us in deaf theater never conceived of. That ability to see the invisible, combined with Waterstreets vision, was the genesis of Big River. The show began in a 66-seat theatre and shot all the way to Broadway two years later.

The sign masters hired to work with the production were deaf people, native signers, third generation deaf people who, as Ford said, live and breathe the best of ASL. As the only hearing sign master, Ford said she was deeply honored that they asked her to work on the music.

I was this honored bridge person; bridge to the music. So we could all speak about the material on the same wavelength, Ford said.

The head sign master and herself did most of the song work. Ford would explain what the music sounded like.

We wanted to be faithful to Roger Millers music and Mark Twains meaning and what the characters were thinking and feeling at the time, Ford said. Then I would show them what the rhythm and tone was like, and wed figure out how many signs per line would work so it would look rhythmic.

The question was if a deaf character were signing by himself, could he, if given the internal beat, stick to the rhythm.

A multitude of things impact each translation decision, each sign selection, Ford explained. For example, what the character is thinking and feeling, whether the character is rich or poor. Visual rhyming was then incorporated.

There is one song when slaves that have run away are caught and brought back in chains on a ship being returned to captivity. Jim the slave says to Huck, Theyve been caught, and now theyre crossing back. Huck asks how he can tell and Jim says, I can hear it in their singing. Its a beautiful song in which a hearing actor, Jim, and a deaf actor, Huck, sign together, Ford said.

The hearing actor is just enough in view on occasional signs so the deaf person knows he is on tempo.

The slaves are in chains in the production, which is a double metaphor for the deaf person because the idea of hands in chains is very scary, like having your mouth duct taped, Ford said.

Thus, Ford thought it a good idea to have the signs mirror the simplicity of the pain and yearning in the song for freedom.

We made all our sign choices for the song translation with only two hand shapes so it looked very simple, elegant and pure to match what the characters were feeling at the time, Ford said.

Once the translations were set, Ford taught the hearing actors, who didnt know sign language, how to sign while they sang. Many found they grew as actors through the challenge of learning to sign while they spoke and sang. But most of all Ford loved working with the deaf actors.

Some had great rhythm and others didnt, just like hearing people, Ford said. So it was fun to figure out ways to help them find the inner rhythm. We used a big base drum and mallet so the deaf person could feel the vibration in their chest. Over time the rhythms grew more sophisticated.

I cant say enough about the vision of Waterstreet, Calhoun and associate director Cloy Middlebrook who all blew us away everyday during rehearsal. They stretched the envelope in terms of working with the music, developing interesting cues so the deaf actors knew when to come in with which line and which song and having two actors play one character, Ford said.

Projects on the back burner for Ford are the development of an interview TV series and a spiritually-oriented screenplay. Shes looking for the right partner, because though she has edited screenplays, she doesnt know how to develop one from scratch. Since living in the Mendocino area, Ford has been interpreting in Santa Rosa and along the coast.

People often say to Ford, Oh, those poor deaf people, youre doing so much for them.

She adamantly insists, No, there is no us being better than them and us lifting them up. I emphasize again. This is their gift to us. Thats what makes this production so, so special. The gift is all for me. Its the most fun and I feel so tremendously honored to be helping with these productions.

The Deaf West Theatre production of Big River just finished its run at San Franciscos Curran Theatre. The show will play in Sacramento from Jan. 24 through Feb. 6, 2005.

© 2004 Mendocino Beacon