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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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Every other kind of production expenditure, from staples to glue to scripts and costumes, is Diane’s problem. Her departmental purse strings remain tight, so a great deal of community support will be required to make ends meet. The grant proposal, which includes a detailed budget, assumes alumni donations of at least two thousand dollars, together with grants from other foundations totaling not less than seventeen hundred dollars. Ticket sales from the show itself will hopefully total $880, with the show expected to run for eight days over two successive Thursday-through-Saturday schedules. Privately, Diane hopes to funnel ticket income from Ghosts toward West Side Story, but she knows from past experience that monies generated by a given Mac department––theater in particular––do not always wind up back in the same coffers. Mac has many needs (the biology labs are a particular concern as of February 1999) and accounts get juggled to make ends meet. Diane finds this frustrating but freely admits that she has had tremendous administrative support, and thanks in no small part to Amy Wolff Stein’s donation, Diane has generally received the funds she has asked for. The contrast between 1999 and her first weeks in her new position remains striking. When she first approached Dean Jim Goulding in 1997 and asked about her theater budget, he replied, “What budget?”

Christopher Smith has signed on, although communication between Diane and Christopher is difficult and, so far, slow. Telephone calls aside, and with Christopher still in Chicago, Toronto, and elsewhere, e-mail has been the principal vehicle for discussions between director and choreographer. The catch: Diane’s native language is English, whereas Christopher prefers ASL. ASL is not, as many nonpractitioners may think, a signed equivalent of English. Instead, it is an entirely separate language with its own grammatical structure, syntax, and internal peculiarities.

Jumping from a visual language to a written language and back again reveals innumerable translational challenges, and nowhere is this more evident than in e-mail. In Christopher’s e-mails, emotion takes precedence over standard English grammar, and many messages begin with typed exclamations of, “Oh, Diane!” He frequently sets these off in parentheses. One full sentence in an e-mail sent February 22, 1999, reads, “Diane (smiling).” It is ironic that many hearing users of e-mail have not adopted similar practices; after all, the impetus for such inclusions is the physical separation that e-mail implies. The addition of facial expressions or parenthetical emotions is not so much a “deafism” as it is an attempt to bridge e-mail’s obvious visual deficiencies.

What Christopher keeps to himself is his fear that he won’t be up to the task. Although he has choreographed many shows, he has only once attempted to coordinate a full production combining hearing and deaf performers––and that show, an adaptation of Ain’t Misbehavin’, the story of and tribute to Fats Waller, had a cast of only six (two hearing, four deaf). In 1992, Christopher’s Ain’t Misbehavin’ had a short but successful run in Chicago, moving from the South Shore Cultural Center to a downtown venue and playing to thousands of high schoolers, mostly hearing. One notable difference between Ain’t Misbehavin’ and West Side Story: every member of the Ain’t Misbehavin’ troupe was fluent in ASL, thus eliminating the constant need for interpreters and the inevitable delays in communication that will soon burden West Side Story. Anticipating this, even ten months in advance of the first auditions, gives Christopher pause. Will it work? Can it work? And if the West Side ship starts sinking, who will be sufficiently experienced to save it?

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