Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Magical "ASL Midsummer Night’s Dream" is a Massive and Beautiful Effort

ASL Midsummer Night's Dream (Ken Holmes)
ASL Midsummer Night’s Dream
Sound Theatre Company
(at 12th Avenue Arts)
Through May 12, 2018

Our city owes Sound Theatre Company a huge THANK YOU for taking on and mastering this special effort to translate Shakespeare into ASL and make an inclusive ASL+spoken event! If you know anyone from 6 to 96 who is hearing impaired or deaf and has had a hard time seeing only-spoken theatrical events, you MUST tell them to come to this show! It is completely magical in every sense.

Co-directed by theatrical master Howie Seago, who worked through the translation of ancient English poetry to ASL with co-director Teresa Thuman, the production has equal numbers of hearing and deaf actors and every word is both signed and spoken. Deaf audience members are prioritized for the best-sighted seats and the sound design (by Michael Owcharuk) deliberately uses very loud bass hum to allow deaf audience members to feel it, as well.

What is clear from the ASL beginning, not every moment of the play is for you, majority hearing audience member. Aspects of the play are meant for those who sign, especially the beginning, which is a sort of choreo/ASL moment of story-telling. It sets the tone and the stage for what is to come.
Just think of the efforts that must be made to bring such an event to stage: translate Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter into ASL, for starters. So, Helena is feeling jealous of her best friend. The man Helena loves, Demetrious, loves Hermia instead. When Hermia says Helena is good looking (“fair”), Helena says,

“Call you me fair? that fair again unsay.
Demetrius loves your fair: O happy fair!
Your eyes are lode-stars; and your tongue's sweet air
More tuneable than lark to shepherd's ear,
When wheat is green, when hawthorn buds appear.
Sickness is catching: O, were favour so,
Yours would I catch, fair Hermia, ere I go;
My ear should catch your voice, my eye your eye,
My tongue should catch your tongue's sweet melody.
Were the world mine, Demetrius being bated,
The rest I'd give to be to you translated.
O, teach me how you look, and with what art
You sway the motion of Demetrius' heart.”

It rhymes. It uses words we mostly don’t use, like lode-star and bated. To translate this into ASL does not mean hand-spelling “lode-star” and “bated” – it means packing many words at once into a graceful gesture that somehow incorporates all that expression – and poetically to boot. That is an art, not a science.

So, one actor, Bruttany Rupik, signing this speech as Helena to Hermia (Elizabeth Ayers Gibson), expresses this, as a speaking actor looks on and says that entire speech as a live interpretation. Syncopated with the signing, the speaker must perhaps speak a little more quickly than usual, since the signing is probably a bit shorter in length. But still those hearing must understand everything, too.

The full Shakespearian text has been shortened a bit, and therefore, some hearers might miss some passages, but most of the famous words are there. I have no way of evaluating the poetry of the ASL. I just know that the deaf audience there seemed to relish the entire experience, as did I.

But think about other aspects – unseen, behind the resulting production: A stage manager has to manage a system of lights back stage to cue deaf actors it’s their turn to enter again, for instance. Something not needed in all-hearing productions.

Or just to make a directing adjustment during rehearsal, saying to actors, “Let’s pick it up on Line 45” might mean a 5 minute “wait, what do you mean… oh, this line…where was I standing… ok, we’re ready to start again” and if there are blocking changes, it might mean a 20 minute focus to redo it and redo it once more to lock it in. That’s something hearing actors might do in mere moments, when not coordinating a complex script with deaf actors and interpreters and stage managers.

Certainly, this is not at all to say this production and the resulting extra work needn’t be done or to criticize. It’s to bring home just how much more time and effort realizing this concept means to a small company in comparison to the same amount of time it takes to produce one of their regular all-hearing shows. It is to celebrate their effort and their desire to ACTUALIZE INCLUSION and bring all our fellow citizens the joy of live theater.

Also, the result is magical, many of the actors, both hearing and deaf, are completely awesome as actors (as opposed to the rest being regular awesome), and at the end, I found tears in my eyes. Unbidden, as Shakespeare says. Who cries at Midsummer Night’s Dream??? Apparently, I do.

For more information, go to or or call 206-856-5520. 

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