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May 19, 2007

For These Actors, The Song Is In Their Hearts

From: Scranton Times-Tribune, PA - May 19, 2007


As “Sandy,” 19-year-old Marilyn Wanner moved across the stage Friday to the iconic song “Summer Nights” from the musical “Grease.”

Only Marilyn couldn’t hear the music. She was signing along with her hands.

Marilyn is a senior at the Scranton State School for the Deaf, which this year took on a unusual challenge — adapting the well-known movie musical into American Sign Language.

The process is more complicated than simply substituting a hand motion for each word. ASL has its own grammatical structure, requiring the students to translate the script and memorize it.

“It took me a long time to say yes,” said English and drama teacher Donna Keller, who directed the show. “The reason is — it’s a musical. We’re deaf. The kids couldn’t do the singing part.”

Eventually, Mrs. Keller, who also is deaf, became convinced the students could convey the drama of the songs in their own way, she explained through interpreter Arnine Weiss.

Some parts of Friday’s performance were spoken through sign language. Other parts, like the song “Grease Lightning,” were filled with facial expressions and movement.

The result was a unique blend of the familiar and the adapted that had the audience clapping — ASL style, by wiggling their fingers high above their heads.

“The first time people saw it, they were shocked,” Marilyn said through an interpreter.“They couldn’t believe deaf kids could do it. People think we’re handicapped. It feels really good to show that deaf people can do anything and everything.”

Because the audience included both deaf and hearing people, interpreters gave voices to the teens’ sign language and helped cue them to the songs and stay on beat. Vibrations from drums helped in a cheerleading scene.

Junior Branden Wilmot played “Danny,” complete with the cocky attitude, slicked-back hair and pocket comb. To him, the play was a chance to show off his funny side to his parents, grandparents, siblings and friends who came to cheer him on.

Branden, from Montrose, is a day student at the school, while Marilyn, from Shoemakersville, lives at the school.

The play quickly created an increased camaraderie among the 20 performers and staff.

“I have to be honest, it’s my first kiss,” Branden said through an interpreter about his romantic scene with “Sandy.” “And it’s my second, and third and fourth.”

The students, between eighth and 12th grades, began practicing in March. The coordinated dance moves were timed and practiced, and the original script was shortened and edited. Staff helped sew costumes and one student obtained a half of a old Chevrolet to bring the 1950s feel.

The end result was amazing, Mrs. Keller said.

“Everyone loved seeing the kids shine,” she said.

Marilyn and Branden said they would love to take on more plays and musicals in the future.

“We succeeded with music — and we can’t even hear it,” Marilyn said. “This is a perfect way to show we can do anything.”

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©The Times-Tribune 2007