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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets, and a Classic American Musical

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An actor using SimCom signs and speaks at the same time. In addition to performing arts settings, SimCom is often used in educational settings, sometimes in conjunction with other manual and visual cues. Within the Deaf theater community, the general feeling is that SimCom, while easy on the eye, becomes in practice an inherent betrayal of the text. Because word-for-word translation between spoken English and ASL is not possible, the resultant signed message becomes an inexpressive shorthand for English, and the underlying meaning is lost. To further complicate matters, speaking and signing simultaneously drastically limits facial expression, which might be like skipping every fifth word in a speech. Finally, because spoken words flow off the tongue faster than the hands can sign, actors must slow down their oral delivery to use SimCom.

Shadowing has its own drawbacks, because it assumes that a given actor cannot sign and therefore must have a double following him or her around the stage. During a recent performance of Willy Conley’s Broken Spokes at Chicago’s Bailiwick Theatre, the interpreters remained seated downstage right throughout the performance, even when the rest of the cast had retreated to the opposite end of the stage, a technique known as stationary interpreting. Diane, who saw Broken Spokes, does not want to follow in that show’s footsteps. She tells Bob and Ruth-Ann that she wants West Side Story’s interpretation to be integrated, to ebb and flow, to move in sync with the onstage action.

Even providing interpreters will be a challenge, because no one expects the interpreters to volunteer their services (except in casual conversation or with friends). Unfortunately, this has the effect of hog-tying West Side Story, because the budget of the show cannot absorb the cost of a full-time interpreter through the projected nine weeks of rehearsal. No one has an immediate solution.

Ruth-Ann, meanwhile, mentions another aspect of interpreting, and that is an interpreter’s effective neutrality––sometimes tacit, often explicit––in any given situation. She brings up Stephen Beuscher’s commedia performance as an example, stressing that Stephen “violated [the interpreter’s] code of ethics.” Stephen, playing a poverty-stricken clown named Arlecchino, chose to interact directly with the interpreter, thus dragging her, willing or not, into the performance. Ruth-Ann understands that commedia is essentially improvisational, but she stresses that the interpreter should have been left out of it, period. The interpreter ceased, at that moment, to be an interpreter and became instead a kind of prop, a situation that prevented her from being the unbiased conduit of communication, which is her sole function as an interpreter. As Mac’s Deaf Ed Department sometimes teaches, interpreters are equipment. They should receive no more notice, when working, than their technological double, the telephone.

Bob and Diane point out that in a scripted production, such a violation would be unlikely to occur because the interpreters’ performance, as with the actors’, would be rehearsed in advance; the interpreters’ neutrality could only be compromised if the actors broke character. Shortly after reaching this conclusion, the meeting ends. One week later, Ruth-Ann is fired. Her dismissal comes as a surprise to everyone, including Bob, and her involvement with West Side Story’s development ends with just that single meeting.


Ronald Dorn is new to Mac, but he is among the most powerful figures on campus. He oversees the business office and his department handles all financial affairs, from expenditures to paychecks. On February 20, 1999, Diane surprises him by announcing that she needs his signature on a proposal directed to the Illinois Arts Council (IAC). On any other day, she would have approached Jim Goulding, the dean of the college, or President Larry Bryan, but both are out of town and the deadline for her proposed grant has arrived. Both Goulding and Bryan have been kept up to speed on West Side Story’s financial needs, but few others on campus are even aware that the project, still a year away, exists.

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