Accessibly in Theatre: Interpreters and Captioning

Erin Karll

  • OnStage Missouri Columnist

Recently #deaftalent has taken center stage in main stream entertainment. You can search social media and find some amazing art in many genres. Nyle Dimarco is a role model in the Deaf community after winning ‘America’s Next Top Model’ and ‘Dancing with the Stars’. Deaf West moving their production of Spring Awakening to Broadway and earning a Tony nomination for Best Revival shows that the world is ready for more ‘Deaf Talent’.  But how can we make the theatre world more accessible to the ‘Deaf World’? There are some simple things that people in the theatre need to do in order to bridge these worlds.  Over the next few blogs I hope to share some ideas, and show the little things that can make a big difference.

The first idea is to simply offer interpreted events. American Sign Language (ASL) is not English so like any other time you are dealing with someone who does not use the same language there needs to be an interpreter. They not only know both language, but can help smooth over some cultural differences. If you are managing any aspect of the house make sure that the interpreting team can be seen and the Deaf audience knows where to go before, during, and after the show. Ushers that know at least a few signs would be an amazing asset on these nights. With this I would also add to have those that can sign use it in every conversation. There is a huge controversy in the Deaf community about that. It’s called Sim-Com meaning using English and ASL at the same time, but in this situation I believe it would open the eyes of the audience. Showing exactly what is going to happen during the show, and obviously code switching back to ASL with the Deaf guest if. To find local interpreters you can start with a search for agencies that provide interpreters. Asking other theatres where they found interpreters would also be a good idea.  Make sure to check into license and certification that are required as that changes from state to state. You may want to see if there are students from local ASL and ITP (Interpreter Training Program) classes that could volunteer.

Culture Note: Not every Deaf person uses caption. They may prefer ASL and not use English since the word order is so different. Spring Awakening’s recent revival was performed in ASL and interpreters and captioned nights were offered for this reason.  I was lucky enough to attend Broadway Con and went to a workshop about accessibility in the theatre. A few things that were said stuck with me. The first was a man who works for a captioning company and his dream is that every theatre would caption every performance. Not just to secure his business (he had to point that out) but because the hearing audience would soon not only ignore the extra stage equipment, but maybe even use it themselves. This would also allow those Deaf who use captioning to attend anytime and not have to wait for special nights. The second lesson happened when I went to the Deaf West Spring Awakening Panel. Sandra Mae Frank, the actress who played the signing Wendla, commented that she was jealous of Austin P McKenzie, the actor who played Melchoir, because he went to three shows in one day. She wanted to join him for one of them, but it was not interpreted or captioned. These two stories connected in me deeply they remain knotted in my mind.

Educated yourself and your theatre about what type of service works best for you and the Deaf guest. It may not always be a full house signing “Applause” at the end of the show, but there could be one person who connects and becomes a lifelong fan now that they have that access. And those connections are what theatre is why theatre is so important and why there should be access everywhere.