News Column

The Idaho Statesman Dana Oland column

July 18, 2014

By Dana Oland, The Idaho Statesman

July 18--The line from William Shakespeare's "Hamlet" "... words, words, words ..." offers the context that most people experience when watching a play. But for people who are deaf, that context of words holds a hazy meaning, because words are only part of the equation.

Instead, they experience the story, action, metaphor and nuance of theater through the physical articulation of American Sign Language.

Every movement is part of the language, says Holly Thomas-Mowery, a performing arts interpreter who coordinates the Signing Shakespeare program at the Idaho Shakespeare Festival.

"Adjectives and adverbs become expressions," she says. "Eyebrows have meaning grammatically. Facial expressions don't just communicate language, they communicate emotions."

And that's what a good interpretation does. It's definitely not like reading captions while watching a film or TV, because at this level, literal translation doesn't cut it. The interpretation should add another layer to the performance.

"That can be really dull if when you hear 'car,' you sign 'car'," Thomas-Mowery says. "Instead, we're listening to the words being spoken on stage; we're translating them into modern English -- not into a musical form, or not exactly what Shakespeare wrote -- but what it means today. Then, we translate that into American Sign Language, while we're hearing the next line. It's taxing to the nth degree."

Signing Shakespeare is a key part of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival's Accessibility Program, which allows people from senior, refugee and a variety of communities a chance to experience a performance in the festival's amphitheater.

For the past three years, ISF has offered an interpreted performance for each of its five plays. The next will be "Les Miserables" on Aug. 5.

About 12 percent of the population nationally is deaf or hard of hearing, says Steve Snow, executive director for the Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. That's about 180,000 in Idaho.

Hearing loss varies from people who are slightly hard of hearing -- which is the majority of that figure -- to those who are profoundly deaf. The majority of the first group are senior citizens who would not benefit from the interpreted program, although ISF offers an amplification system people can use at the site.

There are about 3,000 people in the Treasure Valley who are deaf and use ASL like Snow and his wife, Davina, who is an ASL lecturer at Boise State University'sDepartment of Modern Languages.

About 100 people from the deaf community and their families attend each interpreted performance. That includes sign language students and others who are involved in the deaf community. And that's a bigger social event than just a night of theater, Davina Snow says.

"We enjoy each other, we know each other," she says. "On an interpreted night, after the ovation and the majority of the audience is gone, you'll see us over there talking. This is our time to be together. And at intermission we talk about the meaning of the play."

It takes two interpreters to perform each play.

They each take on different characters, work in tandem and play off each other to create a dynamic experience.

"You can look at me, you can look at what's happening on stage, and look back at me, and it feels like I belong there," Thomas-Mowery says. "Not that we're more or less than what's going on stage."

Turning a Shakespearean play or Broadway musical into an ASL event requires hundreds of hours of preparation to create a complex mixture of American Sign Language and the intentions of the theater artists and writers who create the production.

"Sometimes we keep the simile or the metaphor, sometimes we don't," Thomas-Mowery says. "It depends on how well it translates. Some translate beautifully into a visual medium, others are just ridiculous."

Because the deaf don't hear how words sound, they don't understand if something is said with inflections that add to the irony or humor of the message. The interpreter must convey that somehow, and that can mean playing with the text a bit.

So, don't tell The Bard -- but sometimes Thomas-Mowery changes Shakespeare's words.

For example, "To be or not to be" -- arguably Shakespeare's most famous line -- might not have the same meaning to a deaf person when translated into ASL because "to be" is strictly a function of English and it doesn't translate well.

"So what does it mean in this context exactly?" she says. " 'To exist or not to exist.' So, that's closer to what we sign."

In the musical "Les Miserables," one of the signature songs is "One Day More." The phrase gets repeated in multiple ways by different characters. The interpreters must understand its meaning in the context of when it's said, and by whom.

"Sometimes it means 'I can do this one day more,' other times it means, 'God, I have to deal with this one day more,' " Thomas-Mowery says.

Those are subtle but important nuances.

"We have to be able to understand all of those in the moment and in the rhythm and timing of the music," she says.

Thomas-Mowery is one of six interpreters who are working with ISF this season. They are compensated in both money and tickets. She will perform three of the five plays with different interpreter partners.

She also has a theater background and has performed with Music Theatre of Idaho and Alley Repertory Theater. For that company, she and Davina Snow performed together in "Love Person," a love story that is performed in Sanskrit, ASL and English.

Though she's not from a deaf family, Thomas-Mowery started signing as a teenager. Her family moved from Idaho to Tennessee and happened to attend a church with several deaf people in the congregation.

"I just fell in love with the culture and the language," she says. She was fluent by the time she was 15. Eventually, she returned to Idaho, married and had two kids. She had another child, Jordan, in her second marriage and that child is deaf.

Jordan, 12, loves theater, he says, and really enjoys the chance to see his mom interpreting a play.

People in the deaf community are hungry for opportunities to experience theater, Thomas-Mowery says.

She's always looking for new opportunities. Earlier this year, she interpreted two performances of "Wicked" when it played the Morrison Center. It's a new relationship with the theater, but she hopes to do more in the future.

"We're grateful to interpreters, because through them we have access to theater," Davina Snow says.

Having a quality interpretation adds to the quality of life for deaf people, Steve Snow says.

"Being able to access theater like anyone else is huge for us," he says.

And having quality interpreters is a key. That's why he and Davina are ASL coaches for interpreters.

The hard part is getting the word out to Idaho's deaf that these interpretations are happening. The Snows and Thomas-Mowery work with ISF to produce YouTube videos of an ASL synopsis of each play and do outreach to encourage more people from the deaf community to attend.


(c)2014 The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho)

Visit The Idaho Statesman (Boise, Idaho) at

Distributed by MCT Information Services

For more stories covering arts and entertainment, please see HispanicBusiness' Arts & Entertainment Channel

Source: Idaho Statesman (Boise)

Story Tools Facebook Linkedin Twitter RSS Feed Email Alerts & Newsletters