In 2009, I was commissioned by Open Circle Theatre to write a signed/spoken musical. The subject was the battle between Alexander Graham Bell and Edward Miner Gallaudet over who would control Deaf education in America. In simple terms, Bell wanted Deaf children to learn to speak and Gallaudet believed in educating them through sign language. Gallaudet’s views ultimately prevailed (Gallaudet University is named after his father), and every Deaf person in America who signs has been the beneficiary. But there are echoes of the sign-versus-speech battle all around the country even today.
Granted, this important but little-known history is not exactly your typical subject for a musical! But hey, a great story is a great story. And the high drama of the battle and the fascinating cast of characters around these two men soon made this one fly out of my pen and onto the page.
I’m a native Washingtonian and D.C. is the center of Deaf culture in America, so I’ve been around signers my whole life. But, even so, when I started working on the book and lyrics that became Visible Language, [su_highlight background=”#fffb99″]I—like most hearing people—knew very little about sign language. Working on Visible Language converted me.[/su_highlight] I’m now a big fan of sign language and Deaf culture. And I believe Visible Language will speak to other hearing people with exactly the same power.[su_dropcap size=”4″]T[/su_dropcap]o give you a preview of what I mean, here are five fascinating things I learned about sign language that will be evident onstage when you see Visible Language.
- [su_highlight background=”#fffb99″]American Sign Language (ASL) is not word-for-word signed English. It’s its own language, with its own vocabulary and grammar. [/su_highlight] This was really important information to me as a playwright. Half of the main characters in Visible Language are Deaf, and I wrote their lines of dialogue in English. However, onstage the majority of those characters will communicate through sign. Thus, the actors playing those roles will perform their dialogue in a language different from the one in the script.
- People who translate English into sign are called Interpreters not Translators. This is because there is no one-to-one correlation between English and ASL. A sentence in English might be conveyed in ASL in a number of different ways. In addition, there are regional, ethnic, and generational distinctions in ASL. Teenagers might use different signs than their grandparents. A Southerner might use different signs than a New Englander. Thus, any one of my lines of dialogue could be signed in dozens of ways.
- Plays that involve sign language require a Director of Artistic Sign Language (DASL). It is the job of this person to come up with a signed version of the dialogue for the actors. For Visible Language, the DASL is Aaron Kubey.
- [su_highlight background=”#fffb99″]Theatrical sign language is different from conversational sign language, just as theatrical speech is different from conversational speech. [/su_highlight]Signed dialogue onstage must be easy to see and understand for anyone sitting anywhere in the audience. This is very tricky and takes a lot of skill and experience. At Gallaudet University’s Art, Communication and Theatre Department student actors learn how to sign onstage.
- ASL is a living language. New words are added all the time. The style of signs (big gestures versus small gestures, one-handed signs versus two-handed signs, etc.) also shifts with time. This is particularly important to Visible Language because the sign language used in the 1890s (the era when the play is set) was quite different from the sign language used today.
Visible Language, with book and lyrics by Mary Resing and music by Andy Welchel, runs October 21 to November 16, 2014, at Gallaudet University. For more information, click here.
Mary Resing is a playwright, director, dramaturg and producer, and the founder of Active Cultures Theatre. In 2012, the Maryland State Arts Council recognized her with an Individual Artist Award in Playwriting for her signed/spoken musical Visible Language. She previously collaborated with composer Andy Welchel on the musical Hansel and Gretel Eat Crabs. Her work has been seen around the country at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Hartford Stage, Ann Arbor Rep, Empty Space, New Dramatists, Arena Stage, Woolly Mammoth, and Source Theatre Company. She has served on panels for the Theatre Communications Group, Fulbright/CIES, and The Rockefeller Foundation. A proud alumna of U Michigan-Ann Arbor, NYU, and Spring Hill College, Dr. Resing was a 2005–2006 US Fulbright Scholar to Armenia. In 2005, she also received an Offstage Award from the League of Washington Theatres for her body of dramaturgical work at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. With Tim McKeown, she is co-owner of the successful startup ResingMcKeown Unlimited.