The Language of I Was Most Alive With You

I Was Most Alive with You is presented in two distinct languages, English and American Sign Language, each with their own grammar, style, and strengths. For this play, the process has included three workshops over the course of two years; the playwright and director Craig Lucas has worked in tandem with the Director of Artistic Sign Language, Sabrina Dennison, to develop ways of thinking about how the two languages could co-exist onstage. Dennison and her assistant John McGinty discuss their work on the play thus far.

This interview was conducted before the beginning of rehearsals for I Was Most Alive with You. John McGinty subsequently withdrew due to a scheduling conflict. Catie Eller served as the Associate Director of Artistic Sign Language on the production.

What does a Director of Artistic Sign Language do?

Sabrina Dennison (Director of Artistic Sign Language): To have this job, obviously, you need to be Deaf, fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), and it’s highly recommended to have some theatre background. The Director of Artistic Sign Language (DASL) has multiple tasks [combining] script analysis, training actors and interpreters, translation, public relations, and working in rehearsal.

John McGinty (Assistant Director of Artistic Sign Language): It also gives extra “deaf eyes” to the production to understand if certain things would work for the Deaf/hard-of-hearing audience. We would also support the director’s vision and allow that to be more effective for the audience who happens to be Deaf/hard-of-hearing. Not only that, we would give some suggestions on how the hearing audience will experience the play.

What does it mean for a person to identify as Deaf versus deaf?

SD: A person who identifies themselves as deaf with a lowercase ‘d’ refers to the audiological aspect of not hearing sounds; Deaf with an uppercase ‘D’ refers to Deaf people who share the same language (ASL) and culture. These are people who, in the words of Carol Padden and Tom Humphries,“have access to the knowledge, beliefs, and practice that make up the culture of Deaf people.” I’m definitely a “D.”

JM: Sometimes “the small d” deaf do not associate with other members of the deaf community and may not have the access to the knowledge to the culture of Deaf people. But, it does not apply to ALL people who are small “d.” Before assuming, it is better to ask the person what they prefer to be called. However, I do not believe in labeling them.

How has language and culture shaped the identities of the characters — both hearing and Deaf/deaf?

SD: “In the play,” as in real life, Deaf or deaf people reflect who they are by how they are brought up, their beliefs, how they communicate: oral, sim-com communication, Sign “English,” and ASL will inform each of the characters. Also, for hearing people, same as in real life, [their] relationship with Deaf/deaf family members [reflects how they have been] educated or misinformed [regarding] stereotypes about deafness. [How a person communicates] depends on the writer/director’s image of their identity.

JM: For instance, I went to Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton, MA from 1998-2002. I did not become fluent in ASL [until] when I was in college. So, with that being said, I am a late bloomer when it comes to finding my Deaf identity. This  applies in the play as well because you will see and discover how people will embrace identity and communication with one another.

What would you like audience members to know before seeing the play? (Are there different answers for that question for audience members who are hearing versus those who are Deaf?)

SD: [In] ASL, [I will] preview [the play for] the audience to give them “name signs ” of the characters, brief background of who the characters are, places, and a summary of the story. As a member of the Deaf community, sometimes I will share and give a heads-up to the Deaf audience members about sensitive issues, if any, in the play.

JM: Be open-minded and have an open heart with this play. We want to ensure that we will provide an experience for BOTH audiences. In that case, for hearing audiences, to experience what is like to be part of the Deaf world. Also, I want everyone in the theatre to know that you all are the same, no less or more. This may not be a Deaf play. But, it is a play that happens to have different topics about [being] gay, Deafness, and drugs.

What is your vision for the production?

SD: My job as a DASL is to make this play as clear as possible, giving as much access to the Deaf audience. My vision of this play is to try and create something that allows the hearing and Deaf community to see and hear together.

JM: I will say that my perspective on the play is that it is a stunning story. I can see many layers and struggles that Knox has. It has NOTHING to do with his deafness. As well with Farhad’s story too. But, I can see that Knox is going through something just like anyone else in the world would. My vision is that we want to tell the audience Knox and Farhad’s story in the most accessible and authentic way. We will make sure that all the actors/interpreters/ settings/projections will bring out the clarity and ease for the audience. We will need to figure out how to balance reality and artistry.

SD: I would like to see the Deaf patrons leave with good feelings with the passion to discuss the play — whether or not they agree or like the play — with a positive attitude. I hope the hearing patrons will have knowledge that Deaf/deaf characters in the play will not reflect every Deaf person.

JM: I want them to spark a conversation about the play. That’s what theatre is all about!

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