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May 21, 2007

Woman bridges the worlds of the hearing and the deaf

From: Fort Wayne News Sentinel, IN - May 21, 2007

By Kay Miller

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)


MINNEAPOLIS - Every few minutes, Patty Gordon's cell phone or pager goes off - a dozen times in two hours. Each is a call for an American Sign Language interpreter. If Gordon wanted, she could work 24/7. She is among Minnesota's top interpreters, best known for her skill in interpreting performing arts.

With each call, Gordon glances at the pager screen. Nope, she can't take any of the jobs. She's booked.

"Patty is an interpreter god," said Jan Florand, director of interpreting operations for Communication Services for the Deaf, the largest referral agency in Minnesota for interpretative services. Florand gets 1,200 to 1,300 requests a month for interpreters.

For 20 years Gordon, 45, has worked as a bridge between the worlds of the hearing and the deaf. She is known nationwide for nurturing the next generation of interpreters as a mentor, teacher and creator of StoryBlend, an annual two-week ASL immersion theater workshop with deaf actor Nic Zapko, held each July in St. Paul, Minn.

But she's also been in private medical examining rooms to convey a doctor's grim news that a deaf patient had cancer or that a fetus had died. She has learned to ad lib at rock concerts when the sound monitor went haywire and to stay more than an arms' length from one (unnamed) Washington politician who was a little too touchy-feely.

With tears in her eyes, Gordon recalls the ache of interpreting for one extraordinarily capable worker, who was repeatedly passed over for promotions. The only plausible - but illegal and unstated - reason was the employee's deafness, Gordon said.

"I can't imagine going through my life with an ever-changing third party present for some of my most challenging moments. Yet deaf people do it constantly," she says. "I have been so lucky to have fantastic mentors and extremely generous deaf people who have guided and shaped my path."

Gordon grew up in a theater family in Oak Ridge, Tenn. It was an odd little town, created by the federal government as one of three Manhattan Project sites, where physicists, chemists and nuclear scientists secretly developed the atomic bomb. Most were cultured Europeans who "got stuck in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains behind a fence." To entertain themselves, they created a ballet company, symphony and community theater, which Gordon's father directed for 34 years.

While acting in a Memphis production of "A Christmas Carol," Gordon met a deaf actor, who taught her a little sign language. She moved to the Twin Cities for the theater community and saw an audition notice for the Northern Sign Company, a new deaf theater company.

Gordon went to try out. Transfixed by the people and the work, she felt as though she had found home. She was a member of the Northern Sign acting company for six years, absorbing skills from famed interpreter Sandra Gish and deaf actors Bill and Leslie Yount before getting formal ASL training and certification.

At a recent production of "Merchant of Venice," Gordon and interpreter Nancy Niggley split up the play's 17 characters. Gordon is fastidious about preparation, studying the script and actors at rehearsals for a unique stance or gesture that she could mimic to instantly distinguish characters. "I did King Lear a number of years ago and he always pointed two fingers. Every time I did this" - she sets two fingers against her chest - "`Oh, she must be Lear now.'"

There is rhythm, poetry and eloquence in Gordon's every movement. To express a shipwreck, she starts with both hands in a boat shape, expanding it to indicate a large ship. With her right hand she plants rocks on the shore, crashing the ship from her left onto them, spilling its cargo to the bottom of the sea. All the while, her face, shoulders, torso and arms add expression and dimension to the story.

As an actor, Gordon knows that sometimes the most evocative thing she can do is step aside and let deaf audiences simply watch.

"She gives me background information I needed to understand the whole concept in the play. Or even, she will explain what the phrase in English means," ASL poet Cara Barnett wrote in an e-mail. "Her attitude and respect she has for us, deaf people and ASL helped her form into this kind of interpreter. She is our ally for our community."

Each venue has its own distinct challenges, Gordon tells 21 female ASL students at the College of St. Catherine, where she's a guest speaker. It's a warm May day and St. Kate's students come into the early afternoon class droopy, chatting and text-messaging. Soon they are captivated by Gordon's patter, gestures and funny stories.

Students pepper her with practical questions. What does she do when actors go off script? Does she portray the character? Does she demand to be lighted?

"That's very challenging," Gordon says. "The director and all the actors have worked really hard to create a certain picture. Suddenly, I'm in the picture and messing up their lighting because I have to be lit." But she's clear that they are the performers.

Her interpretations are rarely word-for-word translations. Rather, Gordon seeks to capture meaning and create as rich an experience as possible, fully knowing there's no way that a show for hearing audiences ever will be an equal experience for the deaf.

"Deaf people don't want to hear," she said. "They just want to know what's going on."

Musicals with overlapping sung lines are a special challenge. So she and another interpreter spent hours planning paired interpretations for "Jesus Christ, Superstar." It turned out that at least one deaf patron didn't require all that help.

"She knew the words backwards and forwards. We had to give her exactly what the English words are," Gordon says. "It was great. She sang the whole time."

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