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A New Bilingual Play At The Huntington Puts American Sign Language Center Stage

A scene from "I Was Most Alive With You," which features shadow interpreters to create a richer experience for deaf audiences. (Courtesy The Huntington Theatre Company)
A scene from "I Was Most Alive With You," which features shadow interpreters to create a richer experience for deaf audiences. (Courtesy The Huntington Theatre Company)
This article is more than 6 years old.

The Huntington Theatre Company in Boston is forging new territory with a world premiere titled, “I Was Most Alive with You.” Every show is bilingual, with hearing and deaf actors performing in two languages: English and American Sign Language.

The play is three-time Tony Award-nominated writer and director Craig Lucas' experiment in creating true accessibility.

"Any deaf person or any hearing person can come to any of the performances of the play and be assured they’re seeing what everyone else saw," he says. "Normally there are designated performances, which I feel is like putting Rosa Parks at the back of the bus."

What It Takes To Stage A Bilingual Play

A recent rehearsal makes it immediately clear: This play is different.

For one, there are a lot of bodies in the room. In between scenes, Lucas has a little trouble getting an actor's attention.

"Tad, for the purposes of everybody ... Tad? Oh yeah, he’s deaf, I keep forgetting," says Lucas, laughing.

In one scene, 11 people are on stage — that’s four more than the seven actors in the credits. Most everyone is singing, but some are doing it with their hands. There's a sense of controlled chaos as this experiment in bilingualism and access unfolds.

Deaf theater veteran Sabrina Dennison explains through her American Sign Language interpreter Caity Snyder what makes this production unique.

Sabrina Dennison. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Sabrina Dennison said she's been working with Lucas since 2013 to translate his play into ASL. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

"What we always have are two interpreters that are off-stage and producing the sign language of that play," she says. "But what it ends up being is like a tennis match. You have to look between the stage and the interpreter and the stage and the interpreter, and it’s exhausting. This has no tennis match."

That’s because this play includes shadow interpreters — people smack in the middle of the action — creating a richer experience for deaf audiences. They stand behind, next to or across from the other actors and translate their spoken English into ASL. As the play's director of artistic sign language it’s Dennison’s job to orchestrate the signs both deaf and hearing theatergoers see on stage.

"The hand movements, the facial expressions — it is an art," Dennison says. "And being able to hear and see what that is simultaneously that’s the real gem of this play."

'This Is What Access Is In Two Languages'

The play revolves around Knox, a young, gay, deaf, alcoholic ASL interpreter. The Bible's Book of Job shapes the narrative. So does a generational scourge of addiction. Knox and his family are dealt loss after loss. His mother refuses to learn ASL, which means her character has a lot of dialogue in the play. Dennison cast a deaf actress — Amelia Hensley — to shadow interpret the actress playing the mom.

"The first time that Amelia got to be up on stage and did her rendition with the actor next to her I got goosebumps," Dennison says. "This was equal access, this is what access is in two languages."

On stage, Hensley transforms verbal dialogue into visual gestures using her hands, arms and entire body. Her eyes go wide, then squint as her face scrunches and opens up to convey emotion. Through her ASL interpreter, Jackie Emmart, Hensley says it's gratifying to be part of a production with so many different roles for deaf theater professionals, which she says playwrights rarely create.

"They will incorporate someone in a minor role who doesn’t ever learn to sign, who has to speak and read lips," she says. "But there are so many deaf children who are starving for these deaf role models. Yes, American Sign Language is beautiful, of course, and so finally to have Craig include us in a play at the forefront of it is a gift. It’s rare. And we’re not 100 percent sure Craig knows what he’s in for," she says, laughing.

Lucas appears to be enjoying every second of this rehearsal. He tells me, "I knew that I wanted to write a play for some deaf actors."

That's partly because the playwright and director was eager to work with the deaf actor Russell Harvard, who plays the main character Knox in this show. Lucas was moved by Harvard's performance in the Academy Award-winning film, "There Will Be Blood." And also because the writer wanted to create a new level of accessibility.

But to pull it off — even though the writer says he's studied ASL for 20 years, has a lot of deaf friends and ha even used the visual language in other projects — Lucas needed someone to translate his nuanced dialogue.

"Because the play is often written in a heightened language — one that has some poetry to it — the feeling was that the ASL should be not simply functional, but that it should have an eloquence and a beauty to it," Lucas says. He says a lot can get lost in translation.

It was Dennison's job to help it retain the spirit of Lucas' piece. She says "it’s a challenge because it’s not always going to be exactly the same."

Three Years In The Making

Dennison, speaking through her interpreter, says she's been working with Lucas since 2013 to translate his play into ASL — which includes lyrical passages from the Book of Job.

For theatergoers who don’t know ASL, the performance is translated into text projected above the stage. (Courtesy The Huntington Theatre Company)
For theatergoers who don’t know ASL, the performance is translated into text projected above the stage. (Courtesy The Huntington Theatre Company)

"What’s important is that the meaning behind it is still conveyed," she says.

The team even had to create new signs to capture the emotional truth, symbolism, mood and tone in the playwright’s words. Hearing actress Marianna Bassham had to learn ASL for her part in the play and calls the whole experience eye-opening, especially watching Dennison in action.

"You have a line, then Sabrina and her associate Katie and my shadow interpreter will all get together and go, ‘What is the best sign for this?’ and I had no idea how many options there were and how much nuance there was," Bassham says.

For theatergoers who don’t know ASL, it’s translated into text projected above the stage. If it sounds like there’s a lot going on, that's because there is. There’s even a note in the playbill warning hearing audiences that the level of visual stimulation might be overwhelming. Lucas just hopes his new work will connect with everyone.

"That said, there are deaf audiences that do not speak ASL. And there are hearing audiences who do speak ASL. And to be totally inclusive there are hearing audiences that don’t read very well," Lucas says. "So there’s always going to be someone who finds it insufficient."

Even if being totally inclusive is impossible, Lucas says it's definitely been worth trying. And while it's been challenging, he adds with a smile that it's also been a lot of fun.

Looking ahead, Lucas added an author's note to his play, stipulating that all future productions are required to provide full access for hearing and deaf audiences — at ever performance. He also stated a director of artistic sign language must be employed.

I Was Most Alive with You” is at the Huntington's Calderwood Pavillion in Boston’s South End through June 26.

You can see a cool video of artistic sign language director Dennison below:

This segment aired on June 10, 2016.


Andrea Shea Senior Arts Reporter
Andrea Shea is WBUR's arts reporter.



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