Awakening the Senses on Broadway
Wall Street Journal
December 14, 2015
By Sophia Hollander
Awakening the Senses on Broadway
At ‘Spring Awakening’ deaf-blind audience members can experience the show through innovative interpreters
Ryan Odland sat raptly in the audience in the back row at a recent production of the Broadway musical “Spring Awakening” as one of the characters rose from the grave. Dancers swept across the stage, music swelling for the final climactic number.
“That was amazing,” said Mr. Odland, who is deaf and blind. “Amazing.”
Like any audience member, Mr. Odland was moved by the tragic story of teenagers discovering their sexuality in a repressive late-19th-century German society. Staged by Deaf West Theatre, the production features a mix of deaf and hearing actors, with almost every line either signed or captioned on stage.
But he was the only one there experiencing the show through an innovative combination of three interpreters. Two sign-language specialists switched off every 15 minutes translating the show’s onstage signing onto his palm, while another stationed herself behind Mr. Odland, using his back as a proxy for the stage to communicate the show’s complex choreography.
“His back is like a canvas,” said Marilyn Trader, who is trained in an emerging field known as touch or haptic signals. “I want to actually paint a picture of what’s happening on the stage.”
‘I could see it all. Is it high energy, low? Is it more quiet? Are people bounding around stage or being soft? What’s the sexual activity? I got all those moments.’
As far as they and others in the deaf-blind community knew, it was a historic moment: the first time a Broadway show had ever been translated in such a way.
“I had no idea how much was missing,” said Mr. Odland, who had attended theater before but never with three interpreters. “It’s very empowering.”
When “Spring Awakening” officials were first approached with a request for additional interpretation—they have received six total inquiries from deaf-blind theatergoers since September—“our first step was just to ask questions,” said Laura Quintela, the show’s assistant company manager.
They sought advice from Hands On, a nonprofit that facilitates cultural access for the deaf community in New York, arranging performances for deaf-blind patrons every year at select events such as Shakespeare in the Park.
Hands On Executive Director Beth Prevor said while she typically recommends two interpreters, she was open to the idea of three. But it might prove a tough sell to theaters: “Monetary constraints are always going to be a consideration,” she said.
Individual interpreters can cost as much as $400 each per performance—usually paid for by the production or theater.
There are currently about 3,000 trained touch-signal providers in America, according to the Helen Keller National Center. The formal system originated in Norway in the 1990s, but has only recently migrated to the U.S. Helen Keller published its first book cataloging the signals in July.
The gestures can be done discreetly on someone’s back, upper arm, foot, hand or knee. In total, there are about 100 “words” that can be combined or applied with varying intensity to create new meanings, said Ms. Trader, who has studied the system for more than a decade and volunteered to translate for Mr. Odland. Both work for the Helen Keller Center.
Mr. Odland, who likened his limited eyesight to looking through a paper-towel tube, began his experience before the show, touring the stage to understand the placement and materials of props. He ran his hands along set pieces like a wooden school desk, a carefully cracked standing mirror, the metal ladder leading up to the set’s second level.
Kathy Anello, who is deaf and also works at Helen Keller, was one of his sign-language interpreters. It was her second night in a row translating the show for a deaf-blind patron.
The first night she left aching, she said through an interpreter—and concerned that the theatergoer had received only a cursory understanding of events.
At points, characters sang different lyrics simultaneously. At other times, action was split between two sides of the stage. “I had to make decisions,” she said. “I told the deaf-blind patron I missed a lot.”
On Mr. Odland’s night, Ms. Anello, Ms. Trader and interpreter Maria Micioni, all friends with Mr. Odland and each other, worked in tandem. As one translated the words and lyrics, Ms. Trader traced the stage on his back and conveyed emotion with flicks of her fingers, marking the location of the actors, the sweep and shimmies of the chorus.
The women watched each other to make sure their translations were in sync. As Ms. Anello translated the words of a young woman ascending the staircase, Ms. Trader’s fingers rose up Mr. Odland’s shoulders.
She gave him the music beat through taps on his arm, then signaled the audience’s applause at the end of every number by drawing her fingers together.
With Ms. Trader concentrating on choreography and the interpreters translating the content, “I could see it all,” said Mr. Odland, as well as absorb the show’s subtler nuances. “Is it high energy, low? Is it more quiet? Are people bounding around stage or being soft? What’s the sexual activity? I got all those moments.”
Compared with everyone else in the audience, “I felt the same energy, I got the same feeling,” he said.
Asked if the multiple streams of information were confusing, Mr. Odland said they can be managed the same way people who can see and hear process different sensory experiences, such as listening to music and reading a book simultaneously.
But he cautioned, “it’s a learned skill.”