Among the audience at Friday's performance of ACT's annual presentation of "A Christmas Carol" will be about 80 members of Seattle's deaf community, the result of a coordinated effort by a group called TADA! (Theaters, Allies and Deaf Audiences) that seeks to improve the frequency and quality of ASL-interpreted theater.
Seattle’s Rhonda Cochran inherited her mother’s love for theater, even though — being deaf — she couldn’t hear the performances they went to see.
As an adult, her interest was rekindled when she attended a performance of “Fame” at The Paramount Theatre, which was interpreted in American Sign Language. That led her to believe most shows were.
But under the Americans with Disabilities Act, theaters are required only to provide “reasonable” access for such events, and the 34-year-old Cochran has found her theater options generally limited.
Cochran, who works with deaf and hard-of-hearing children in the Edmonds School District, has channeled her frustration into something positive as a member of a group called TADA!, or Theaters, Allies and Deaf Audiences.
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This week, TADA!, which promotes more and better interpretation of theater shows for Seattle’s deaf community, will mark its second major event when about 80 deaf patrons are among tonight’s audience at ACT Theatre’s annual holiday presentation of “A Christmas Carol.”
The number is significant in light of the handful of deaf patrons who typically attend such events.
Several years ago, interpreter Anne Del Vecchio was getting complaints from other interpreters unable to find theater work or frustrated over the long hours it took to prepare for shows that drew only one or two deaf patrons, or none at all.
Theaters, too, grumbled about offering the service for no-shows, while deaf patrons bemoaned the resulting lack of interpreters.
“Frankly, I got tired of hearing people complain,” Del Vecchio said.
She began recruiting members of each camp to the cause, and TADA! was formed. Its primary goals: To raise the number and quality of interpreted shows; to coach interpreters in the craft of theater work, and to promote deaf attendance and let the community know which shows are interpreted.
“We’re hoping to develop a body of deaf, hardcore theatergoers,” said interpreter Billy Seago, a deaf member of TADA!’s steering committee.
The group urges theaters to hire qualified interpreters and to provide them with necessary materials and access, as live performances present challenges that typical interpretation doesn’t.
Theater interpreters must not only translate dialogue, but also help deaf audiences make sense of scenes that feature multiple characters.
Having access to scripts and DVDs of performances allows them to convey the moods, mannerisms and onstage positions of the actors, which in turn helps audiences know who is saying what.
“We basically have to memorize the play,” Del Vecchio said. ” I need to know exactly when my character is saying a line, and to whom.”
Earlier this week, the craft was demonstrated when Seago and interpreter JoAnna Ball attended a performance of “A Christmas Carol” in preparation for tonight’s show. Having long ago decided who would sign each part, they practiced their signs in the shadows of a back row, Seago reading script pages by the light of his cellphone.
When a character humorously said “Mr. Scrooooooge,” drawing out the word, Ball moved her downward facing palm away from her chin just as slowly, as though she were pulling taffy. And when a group of performers sang “12 Days of Christmas,” she and Seago swayed their arms in side-to-side unison to reflect how the lines were being sung.
In some cases, interpreters must be more informed than most audiences expect to be. While hearing audiences may accept that some of Shakespeare’s Old English may go over their heads, interpreters must know exactly what it means if they are to convey it to deaf audiences.
The quality of interpretation has long been an issue, Del Vecchio said. The craft requires more than a fluency in ASL, and some signers, unsatisfied with pay rates, don’t put in the long hours to prepare.
She and others recommend that venues hire deaf advisers to coach interpreters doing such work
TADA! also hopes to encourage theaters to coordinate the schedules of ASL-interpreted performances so that deaf patrons aren’t forced to choose between competing events. Typically, such shows are scheduled for less-than-popular times, so the few available choices sometimes bunch around the same dates.
For example, Seago says, three shows will be interpreted on an upcoming February weekend. Even sooner, in addition to working at Friday’s show, Ball will interpret “Peter Pan” at Seattle Children’s Theatre on Saturday and notes that Sunday’s performance of “Equivocation” at the Seattle Repertory Theatre will be interpreted as well.
“There’s only so many deaf theatergoers,” Seago said. “People are not going to spend all their money and all the time commuting at one time.”
Many credit TADA! chairperson Mark Hoshi, a Vashon Island electrician who is deaf, for tonight’s event, which will be preceded by a deaf community social. “You have to go out and sell it face to face,” Seago said. “Mark really took that on.”
Harley Rees, ACT’s audience-services director, agreed. “We’ve got somebody within the community talking about the show. That’s why it’s been successful.”
Some theaters offer at least one interpreted version of every production, and the 5th Avenue Theatre actually offers three — one in ASL, one with captions displayed on a video screen to the right of the stage for hearing-impaired patrons who don’t know ASL, and one with audio description via a listening device for patrons with impaired vision.
“It’s the right thing to do, in my opinion,” Rees said.
Theatergoer Cochran thinks so, too. “I find myself going to theater more often, because I have so many options,” she said. “… It’s an enriching part of my life that I hope to pass down to the future young deaf generation.”