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Despite an Illness, a Special Theater Role

Date: Oct 30, 2010


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As the Christmas party number, “Turkey Lurkey Time,” got cooking at a recent performance of Broadway’s “Promises, Promises,” the evening’s sign-language interpreter, Alan Champion, rose from his front-row seat and faced his deaf and hard-of-hearing audience from the right of the stage. Fifteen feet behind him were three dancers vamping onstage as ’60s-era secretaries, twirling as they sang about a “mistletoey Christmas.”

Less-experienced interpreters sometimes get caught up in infectious song-and-dance numbers like “Turkey Lurkey Time,” since signing a performance draws on split-second instincts. But Mr. Champion stood ramrod straight and began interpreting the meaning of the lyrics (not word for word, which is discouraged) to the audience. Occasionally he widened his eyes or raised his forehead to express merriment. But in conveying the song’s silly lyrics, that was as close as he came to mimicking a turkey.

“Rule No. 1: You never want to upstage the performers or clutter the storytelling with your own acting,” said Mr. Champion, who has been interpreting 15 to 20 performances a season on and off Broadway for three decades. “In ‘Tarzan,’ if someone swings out of a tree, you don’t need to sign that. But controlling your impulses only comes with experience.”

One aspect of Mr. Champion’s work that night wasn’t textbook: While women often interpret male roles, because there tend to be more of them or they have more dialogue, men rarely bring to life female characters. Mr. Champion normally would have interpreted for the lead character Chuck Baxter (Sean Hayes), but he has been easing back his workload — he was signing for some of the supporting characters, while two others signed for the main characters — as he confronts personal hardship. He is battling appendix cancer, and a prognosis that he has months to live, undergoing a second round of chemotherapy this fall while continuing to interpret.

Among deaf theatergoers who regularly attend Broadway shows, a tight-knit group of hundreds, word has begun to spread about his health, most evident by his distended belly that he often rubs gently like a mother might her unborn child. Mr. Champion, who turned 55 in July, usually meets expressions of concern with hugs and gallows humor.

Still, the news has anguished some hard-of-hearing audience members, who have considered Mr. Champion to be their regular theater companion since they began going to Broadway. Others said he and his fellow interpreters — about a dozen who are assigned to shows through the nonprofit Theater Development Fund — opened Broadway altogether for the deaf, who either didn’t go to theater before the advent of interpreting in the 1980s or else relied on seatmates to sign dialogue in near-darkness while they stole glances at the big numbers unfolding onstage.

“What makes Alan a good interpreter for the theater is he has a feel for getting emotions and ideas across in his signing,” said Robin Resnick, a retired teacher who lives in White Plains. (She spoke through signing during the “Promises” intermission, with another interpreter beside her.) “His signing is very three-dimensional. He doesn’t get caught up in every word; he, and we, would fall behind that way. Rather, if it’s a love song, he uses signs that convey caring or passion or romance and some specific words, and then lets us watch it play out onstage.”

Growing up with deaf parents in Tulsa, Okla., Mr. Champion said that his two older brothers, who are not deaf, initially interpreted between him and his parents until the family had taught him rudimentary signing by school age. He quickly outgrew childhood self-consciousness about signing in public and would sometimes act as an interpreter in school or at church. (He said he didn’t always enjoy interpreting religious material because he felt the content was too personal to convey.) He interpreted at a community college for a couple of years before moving to New York in 1980 to pursue a career in singing and acting.

A month after arriving he had an audition with Theater Development Fund to interpret, and soon he gave the first signed performance under the organization’s auspices. No one could remember a prior one that was formally coordinated with the producers, actors and lighting team, who shine a spotlight on interpreters when they work.

The first show was “The Elephant Man,” at that point starring David Bowie — a tough first outing given the pained drama of a man in Victorian London coping with the extreme deformity of his body.

“It was the first time I had to stifle my emotional reactions while signing,” Mr. Champion recalled during a recent interview near the Broadway theater district. “It’s a challenge because the more you fight showing an emotional response, the harder it gets. In rehearsals it was overwhelming. But I was able to tell myself, ‘It’s O.K. to be emotional, but now it’s time to work.’ I had to think of myself as working, rather than having a signed conversation.”

But Mr. Champion did despair at “A Chorus Line,” interpreting the long monologue of Paul, a dancer who describes coming to terms with being gay as a young man, and his parents’ heart-breaking reaction to his sexuality.

“I couldn’t help but get a little teary,” said Mr. Champion, who is openly gay. “But I’ve found that some audience members appreciate seeing that the words have meaning and impact for me, too.”

Dramas like “ ’night Mother” (with a mother and daughter discussing suicide) and musicals like “Les Misérables” (in which many characters die) were also challenges as Mr. Champion and his colleagues, who worked with the text to think through the best signs to use — not too melodramatic, not too literal. Farce is the toughest to interpret, he said, “because there’s a lot of visual shtick, and you want the audience to watch it, but you also need to convey when something important is said.”

The use of open captioning on screens and wireless captioning devices have not lessened the interpreters’ workload, since some deaf patrons like Ms. Resnick regard the technology as flat and free of feeling. Theater Development Fund usually arranges for one performance with interpreters and one with open captioning; the fund works with producers to buy a bloc of orchestra seats at discounted prices. This can lead to delays. Deaf patrons will have their signed performance of the hit “Billy Elliot” in February, more than two years after opening, because the show did not have clusters of orchestra seats to make available at a discount.

Mr. Champion is agnostic on signing vs. captioning, though clearly his career depends on the former. He is relieved that medical treatments have not entirely waylaid him; he easily becomes tired, though, and there are rare moments when he lies down between scenes. But if he feels discomfort, he tries not to show it, even when it comes in the form of a compliment.

“Alan,” said Ms. Resnick at the “Promises” intermission, “is our very own Broadway star.”

He smiled but shook his head. “No, no the stars are up there,” he said, pointing to the stage. “I’m just lucky to get to work in the theater.”