A visual dramaturg acts as the eyes of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing audience. A visual dramaturg well versed in ASL and Deaf culture can be an invaluable consultant to a director, who may not know ASL and Deaf culture or may be just too busy to attend to this aspect of the production. My job on Visual Language production has been to ensure that the overall stage presentation of sign language, open captioning, visual production elements, and Deaf culture-related matters are all on point with the script and clear to an audience.
There may be some overlap in the duties of the Director of Artistic Sign Language (DASL), depending on the depth and range of assigned responsibilities during a production. The DASL on Visible Language is Aaron Kubey, who has been heavily involved in the translation of the English dialogue and lyrics into ASL for the signing actors. He has also taught the ASL lines to actors who do not know signs.
Here are some of the production elements or visual concerns that I am always on the lookout for as a visual dramaturg:
- Are my eyes looking at the right places in the play? A hearing audience’s attention is drawn mostly by the direction of sounds or voices. A Deaf audience’s attention is guided by movement. A motion as simple as an actor unintentionally wiping his nose can draw the focus of the entire Deaf audience away from something important happening on stage. Extraneous or intentional actor movement that inadvertently draws focus may need to be cut, re-choreographed, or timed differently. Sometimes this matter is resolved simply by getting the actor(s) to find ways to visually draw focus while the others nearby give focus where needed.
- Are signing sightlines clear for the Deaf audience? Spoken words can go through or around the body and reach the audience but not signed words. Sometimes the signing of an actor may get blocked by the positioning of certain actors (or props) on stage. Audience members sitting in the first couple of rows may not be able to see the hands of signers if there’s an actor or two standing in the way.
- Are the captions well positioned and visible to the audience? All of Visible Language will be captioned in plain view on a screen above the stage. I once dealt with a situation at a theatre that used projected captions. The very tip of the text was blocked by a set piece in front of the projector and none of the tech team noticed it until I mentioned it.
- Will the Deaf audience understand name signs and locations that may seem out of context? It is important to seek creative ways to introduce character names and places. Plays often have names of characters and locales. To the hearing ear, the English word lends itself to easy identification without any need for explanation. In Deaf culture, name signs are invented to represent a particular person. Take for example the name Gallaudet. It is created by forming the fingerspelled letter “G” and swinging it over one eye. This name sign came from the eyeglasses worn by Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet. It is also the name sign of the university where this play takes place. If the name Gallaudet comes up in dialogue, there has to be clear reference to what or who this name sign is in reference to: Thomas Gallaudet, his son Edward Miner Gallaudet, or the university itself. Inadvertent visual confusion must be avoided. For instance the name sign for Edward Miner Gallaudet almost resembles the sign for breasts—so some kind of visual context needs to be created for the Deaf audience to know that the dialogue topic at hand is not about breasts. Bottom line: Careful thought must go into ways to introduce character name signs and signs for locations to help the Deaf audience with understanding exposition.
- Is the presentation of ASL legible on stage? During the early part of the rehearsal process for Visible Language, the actor playing Helen Keller was exploring tactile reading of Annie Sullivan’s signing: With historical accuracy, Helen was putting her hands over Annie’s hands to “read” fingerspelled and signed words. But from an audience’s point of view it was hard to understand what Annie was signing. The solution was to have Helen “cheat” a little by not covering so much of Annie’s hands, and one way we found to do this was for the actor playing Helen to put her hands on the wrist of the actor playing Annie.
When you attend Visual Language, you may never notice everything that I as visual dramaturg must always be aware of and watch out for. But that’s as it should be. If I’ve done my job right, you can just sit back enjoy the show!
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.
I am an actor, director, playwright, and translator, and have been a theatre arts professor for twenty years, seven as a department chairperson. My work as a visual dramaturg stems from watching the rehearsals of my fellow faculty directors, where we often ask each other for feedback on our respective productions. One of my early works in this capacity was at CenterStage in Baltimore during the production of The Hostage. I was the associate director under Irene Lewis. In essence my role was really that of a visual dramaturg, since I was responsible for the direction and look of a signed song that was performed by the ensemble during the show. I have also worked a number of years as a DASL for various theatres such as Arena Stage, the Kennedy Center, Studio Theatre, and Everyman Theatre. It is my wish that more professional theatres involve the work of DASLs and visual dramaturgs when sign language is involved in future productions.