As "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" spreads its costumed singers, nubile dancers, children's choirs, Elvis impersonators and other exotica across the stage of the Lyric Theatre, sign interpreters Kevin Campbell and Lynda Casserly capture its story in vibrant gestures.
The pair makes a mesmerizing, off-stage sight. To most in the audience, this display of American Sign Language is an increasingly familiar form of performance art. But for the deaf patrons grouped near the interpreters, it provides the bridge between nonsense and meaning.
Mary Bogucki of Parkville, who was born deaf, is enjoying her first Broadway musical.
"It inspired me about the Bible," she says through an interpreter. "I liked it very much because it was a true story."
While many deaf people praise sign-interpreted theater, others shrug, saying that plays written for the hearing hold little meaning for them. If you want to attract deaf audiences, they say, stage productions in sign language that are written or adapted by deaf playwrights and directors.
"Most of the time I don't enjoy hearing plays with interpreters," Sandra Frankel, a deaf assistant professor in the Interpreter Preparation Program at Catonsville Community College, says through an interpreter.
As mainstream America works to improve access for people with disabilities, theaters are learning that transporting the cultural treasures of the hearing into the world of the deaf is complicated.
Consider the physical barriers.
Because theatrical sign interpreters usually stand off-stage, deaf patrons must engage in an intense visual pingpong, constantly shifting their attention back and forth between actors and interpreters.
"Hearing people in the audience can look away from the stage for a moment, yawn, look at the program, and still hear what's going on," says Will Rhys, an artistic director of the National Theater of the Deaf. "If you are deaf, your focus is split. And if something catches your eye on stage, you may lose out on what someone was saying. . . . So you're always thinking, 'Oh, my God, I've missed it! I missed it!' "
Theatrical sign interpreters usually work in pairs with each person assuming several roles. Under the best of circumstances, it is easy for deaf patrons to confuse which character is talking.
"Imagine going to a performance that is in not your native language," says Martha Ingel, accessibility director of Arena Stage in Washington. "Now imagine there are only two people doing the voice-overs for as many as 15 to 20 characters. It may work for you if you have someone with a very malleable voice who can do a lot of voice changes and is very adept -- say someone like Robin Williams. But even then, you have an advantage [over a deaf person] of being able to listen and watch the stage at the same time."
The greatest obstacle, however, is the language itself. Theatrical sign interpreters usually interpret English into American Sign Language, the primary language of the deaf. American Sign Language bears no resemblance whatsoever to English. It has its own grammar, syntax and vocabulary and usually requires years of study and practice before fluency.
For many deaf Americans, English is a second language.
Plays that rely more heavily on talk than on action are difficult for deaf people to appreciate. The rich cultural meanings of rhythms and rhymes, puns, idioms, double entendres, timing and tones of voice are often lost even when skilled interpreters do their best to equally flavor their presentations.
Some plays seem to resist interpretation. Neil Simon's comedy "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," which ran recently at the Morris Mechanic Theatre, attracted only two hard-of-hearing patrons out of an audience of roughly 2,000, according to the theater.
"There were a lot of timing issues because it's a very quick play," says Mr. Campbell. "Each of us played at least four characters. Getting all of those nuances is very, very difficult. There's hearing humor and there's deaf humor. Comedy doesn't cross the cultural barrier that well."
Any discussion of theatrical sign interpreting illustrates the complexity of the deaf community.
"It's hard to educate hearing people that people who are deaf are not a homogenous group," says Ms. Ingel. "Circumstances for deaf people differ based on the age of onset of deafness, on whether their parents were deaf or not, on how their education was approached once they became deaf, on whether they are just hard of hearing and have had progressive hearing loss or on whether they suddenly became profoundly deaf.
"You can have a pre-lingually deaf child who's orally educated and doesn't sign, for instance. The needs in serving the deaf and hard of hearing and in providing access for them are very broad."
Roughly 180,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing people live in the Baltimore metropolitan area, according to a 1988-1989 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics, the most recent figures available.
Center Stage and the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts, which stages shows at the Mechanic and the Lyric Opera House, have full-fledged theater-interpreting programs. But, any theater group that receives money from the Maryland State Arts Council must make sign interpretation available with sufficient advance notice.
Despite public service announcements about sign interpreting and discounted tickets, however, Center Stage and the Mechanic usually get less than a dozen deaf patrons for each of their productions. So far, the most popular shows have been the visually exciting musicals "Das Barbecu" and "Joseph."
In contrast, roughly 400 deaf patrons recently attended a deaf production at Catonsville Community College. Presented by actors using American Sign Language, "A Deaf Family Diary" explored the conflicts at a wedding between a deaf man from a hearing family and a deaf woman from a deaf family. It was written and directed by deaf members of SignRise Cultural Arts, an organization dedicated to celebrating the language and culture of deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Sign-to-voice interpreters translated the work for hearing patrons.
A clear preference
There's no doubt that most deaf theater-goers prefer signed productions to interpreted ones, according to Patrick Graybill, a deaf actor and director who has worked as a theatrical interpreting consultant, or sign master, since 1979.
"I like to go to interpreted shows, and I know there are many like me," Mr. Graybill says through an interpreter. "Yet I must be honest by saying we are a small crowd in proportion to many who are not too crazy to attend interpreted shows.
"There's an art to following a show with the help of interpreters. It is not something one can pick up overnight."
Because of the impediments they face, theatrical sign interpreters are extremely dedicated specialists who work long hours for less money than they earn on routine assignments such as medical, legal or classroom interpreting.
Mr. Campbell, an actor who is passionate about the theater, was the first male graduate of the Interpreter Preparation Program at Catonsville Community College, the only such program in the state. A real estate banker during the day, he recently formed his own company, Associated Interpreters of Maryland Inc., which specializes in performing arts interpreting.
Ms. Casserly, who studied at Gallaudet University in Washington, coordinates the interpreter services at Western Maryland College.
In Baltimore, theatrical interpreters usually make between $300 and $500 per production. Proper preparation requires many hours studying a play and absorbing the director's perspective, then determining how best to translate the text into the context of the deaf culture.
Many theaters also hire a sign master, a deaf person who possesses theatrical skills as well as a thorough knowledge of English, to select the interpreters and guide them through the process. (Center Stage uses a sign master, the Baltimore Center for the Performing Arts does not.)
One theater company, the National Theater of the Deaf, created a new form of theater by using deaf and hearing actors on stage with a combination of American Sign Language and spoken words. Established in 1967, the organization brings a full range of theater to the deaf while expanding hearing patrons' concept of theater.
After decades of international acclaim and a Tony Award for Theatrical Excellence, however, the National Theater of the Deaf still labors to attract deaf patrons. Its deaf audience has increased to 10 percent, a rough approximation of the number of deaf people in the general population. "We're all exploring how ,, to make a theater piece accessible to the deaf audience," Mr. Rhys says.
Arena Stage in Washington is experimenting with a dialogue captioning system that shows the words of the play on a small vacuum fluorescent display at the patron's seat. The display is linked to a computer that advances the text in time with the performance. Theaters can also become more accessible by "warming up" deaf patrons before a performance, Mr. Graybill says.
"With the help of a sign language interpreter, a guide can explain the synopsis of the play," he says. "This can help [patrons] visualize the production to some degree and feel more prepared to follow the show."
Observers point out that sign-interpreted theater is still establishing itself; "The Elephant Man" became Broadway's first interpreted show in 1980. And they say theater has always lost patrons to more popular entertainment.
"Just because we only have a handful of deaf patrons show up at a performance doesn't mean we're necessarily doing anything wrong," says Rita St. John Gunther, accessibility coordinator at the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington. "There are a lot of hearing people who don't come to Shakespeare because they think they won't understand it."
"Theater will always be -- although it shouldn't be -- a difficult art form for people to accept and deal with," Mr. Rhys says. "It's valid for people, hearing or deaf, to say, 'I didn't relate to that material.' Not all theater is easily relatable -- unless you have a history of going to the theater and of being exposed to the various ways it can communicate."