ASL Interpretation at the Huntington: A Conversation with Wendy Watson & Meg O'Brien

The Huntington is committed to making theatre more accessible for all members of the community. Each season we serve more than 4,800 audience members with accessibility needs, including patrons in wheelchairs, blind patrons, and those who are Deaf/deaf and hard of- hearing. The Huntington provides American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation of select performances for our Deaf/deaf and hard-of-hearing patrons and is committed to expanding our accessible programming so that by the time we are in our newly renovated home on Huntington Avenue, every production will have at least one ASL-interpreted performance. Recently, access coordinator Meg O’Brien spoke with season ASL consultant Wendy Watson about the challenges and rewards of ASL interpretation at the Huntington.

Meg O’Brien (Huntington Access Coordinator): Audiences may falsely believe that ASL interpretation occurs “in the moment” as a real-time translation of the actors’ dialogue. Can you describe the roles of each member on an ASL team, the work that goes on before the show and behind the scenes, and provide an overview of the rehearsal process?

Wendy Watson (Season ASL Consultant): Translation of performance work is a labor of love! Interpreters are responsible for transmitting the meaning, nuance, emotional tenor, and intention of the creative team for the production. Performance work is a “hybrid” set of skills; of both simultaneous interpreting (in the moment) with rehearsed translation in preparation. In these settings, the interpreter is listening to what is happening in this show today, as well as drawing on planning and rehearsal that occurred in preparation. If the actor skips a couple of pages of the script; the interpreters skip, too. But unlike many interpreting jobs, in performance work we aren’t hearing it all for the first time. American Sign Language (ASL) is often misunderstood to be a visual representation of English. It’s easy then to assume that ASL interpreters are just producing “word-for-sign” what they are hearing in the moment. This is not the case — ASL has its own complete linguistic structure. It also has a community of users who share a common culture. Therefore, the representation of the same nuance, meaning, tenor, and intention must be expressed not only in a different modality (visual vs. auditory), but also to an audience who doesn’t share the same worldview. Many decisions must be made about how the storytelling mastery and visual features on the stage can be used to create equivalent experiences for the audience in ASL.

For a typical production, two or three interpreters are hired, as well as an ASL consultant. This role is performed by a Deaf native-user of ASL. The team rehearses for a couple of weeks before a performance. They will also attend the show once or twice as audience members. Once they’ve seen the show, choices will be made about which interpreters are best suited to interpret for which characters. They will study the physical characteristics of the characters they will portray and look for moments in the show when the action on stage is more salient than the dialogue (or vice versa). The Deaf/deaf audience is gleaning the whole experience through their eyes, so sometimes choices or adjustments in timing must be made. The team will note timing of speeches or songs, lighting cues that might be affected by the light on the team, etc. Then the actual rehearsal process can begin! Teams work differently depending on years of experience, and other team members’ preferences and familiarity with the material also come into play.

But there will be “hands-up” work to make the translation dovetail with the requirements of each show. The ASL consultant watches the rehearsals to refine characterizations, translation choices, and timing issues.

MO: Can you describe your relationship to the Huntington and share a favorite moment or story from your work with the access program?

WW: I have worked with the Huntington under contract as a season consultant for nine seasons. I have also had the pleasure of interpreting many productions over the years. I function as a liaison between the theatre and the interpreting and Deaf/deaf communities. I hire the teams for each production, make sure that they have the resources they need (scripts, recordings, and access to performances) to prepare. The Huntington is special for a couple of reasons. One is that we are allowed connection to the creative team for most shows. We have unfettered access to rehearsal opportunities, and to seeing the show as many times as needed. This is not always the case in other theatres. Another perk at the Huntington is that we always get to perform each show twice; once for a student matinee, and once for a general audience. The student matinees are definitely my favorite events. Particularly those shows that reflect the life experiences of the students; shows that leave the kids feeling known and represented.

MO: My favorite moment of work with ASL interpretation specifically was during a performance of The Jungle Book; two children who are Deaf were so inspired by the work of our interpreters in the first act of the play that they spent the entire intermission on the ASL platform recreating moments and signing their own version of the show. I watched their faces for much of the second act and saw pure joy and awe as they were allowed to experience the story through the interpretation. Tell me a bit about the challenges facing the implementation of ASL interpreting (or accessibility services in general) in regional theatres like the Huntington. What is needed to be in place in order to provide the highest quality programming to meet the needs of the Deaf/deaf and hard-of-hearing communities?

WW: The biggest challenges are in finding and funding! Finding interpreting teams and in funding the access. ASL interpreters take years to hone their skills; those working in performance settings are even more specialized. There are not enough interpreters to cover the work in the state of Massachusetts, so those willing to put in the extra time and effort to work on performance competencies are hard to find.

On the upside, there is more and more use of Deaf/deaf interpreters onstage of late. How I Learned What I Learned last spring was interpreted by a Deaf/hearing team. In this approach, a Deaf/deaf person who is trained in translation and has native skills in the language is in the spotlight, while a hearing interpreter “feeds” them the dialogue happening onstage. This approach can deepen the ability to present a culturally-sensitive and effective representation of the show.

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