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In Good Company

Date: Jun 11, 2007


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Acting is a form of interpretation, but interpretation is not acting.

Such is one of the key lessons offered by the Interpreting for the Theatre institute, an annual summer intensive held by the Theatre Development Fund at Juilliard School, at which up to 20 interpreters for the deaf and hard-of-hearing from all over the United States and Canada gather to learn the state of their art. The institute recently culminated its 17th year by sign-interpreting a matinee of the Broadway musical Company--a challenging, many-layered, multi-character show that tested their newly honed skills.

But to hear instructor Candace Broecker Penn--who leads the institute with fellow instructor Alan Champion--talk about the craft of sign-language interpreting, it doesn't sound all that removed from acting.

"Interpreting is alive--it's always in the moment, so that you allow yourself to respond to a better idea if you have one while you're working," says Penn. "You almost have to find the essence of each character, and differentiate between characters. It could be their posture, could be a certain way they emphasize a word."

But, Penn stresses, while the essential expressiveness of sign language "may look like acting" to hearing audiences, the job of interpreters is not to draw focus away from the stage but to serve what's onstage--to fill in the auditory blanks for non-hearing viewers, but not to give a separate performance.

"Our job is to connect the deaf audience to moments onstage," says Penn, who explains that while TDF's interpreters try to see the shows they're interpreting as many times as possible and to study the scripts, they don't memorize them. "The danger with memorizing is that it can become rote, and slide into a performance."

Andrea Vandeneut, an interpreter from Calgary in Alberta, Canada, trained as an actress and has a degree in theatre. For her, the TDF institute's emphasis proved helpful and clarifying.

"I really like their philosophy, which is to approach this work like all the other work we do as interpreters," says Vandeneut, who works as a full-time manager of interpretive services in her home region, as well as freelancing as an interpreter for the theatre. "In our everyday work, we strive for meaning. If as interpreters we do our job well, we're not quite invisible, but don't pull focus from the stage. We always try to get the meaning across.

"Since I'm trained in theatre, that was a bit of a struggle for me--there's a fine line between interpreting all the emotion onstage and acting. I got a lot of good direction on how to know when I'm crossing that line."

Bill Ainsley, an interpreter from Des Moines, Iowa, says he'd developed as far as he could interpreting for shows and concerts in his local area, and that coming to New York was the next logical step. It was an eye opener, he says.

"I've been interpreting for 20 years, so what I wanted to get out of the program was the gold nugget that would take me to the next level," Ainsley says. "I got it on the very first day! We went over my audition tape with deaf and hearing participants, and the feedback I got from them was worth the trip."

His goal in coming to the training institute, he says, was to "raise the quality of interpreting here in Des Moines. If you asked them, many deaf people across the country might tell you that they don't go to the theatre because it's boring for them. But in New York, deaf people love going to shows because the interpreting is so good. I wanted to learn from the best, and I did; people here in Des Moines have already seen the difference."

Indeed, one of the linchpins of TDF's institute is the participation of several deaf advisors--seasoned and opinionated theatregoers from all walks of life, from teens to senior citizens, who give crucial feedback on the interpreters' work.

"We bring in as many as 25 deaf people a year to work with the participants in a lot of different capacities," says Penn. "We want to reinforce the idea that there is not just one kind of deaf person; the deaf community is made up of different individuals. All these different ages and experiences give participants a kind of all-encompassing experience, which can allow them to grow in their own decision-making process, and not look for the one answer that will work for all deaf people. In any aesthetic endeavor, there's not one right answer."

The participation of deaf audience members fit beautifully with the institute's reigning philosophy of interpreting business-as-usual, says Vandeneut.

"As interpreters, we're so closely tied to the deaf community--we work in collaboration with them," says Vandeneut, who appreciated that participants in the TDF institute would socialize with deaf audiences before and after the shows they interpreted. "Having them there with us makes theatre interpreting feel no different than our other work. It also takes some of the pressure off, and makes it feel better."

For Penn, the institute is just part of TDF's ongoing outreach to the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

"What we're providing is a service that enables the shows to reach out to different audiences," says Penn. "It allows deaf audience to come see vibrancy of NY theatre, and TDF has been instrumental in building that bridge for last 27 years. We're helping allow producers and deaf people find each other."

Producers have been extremely supportive of the program, allowing TDF interpreters to attend several performances, providing scripts and, for musicals, CD recordings (though, Penn notes, Actors Equity still won't allow interpreters to take home start-to-finish video recordings of shows). Through its annual Interpreting for Theatre insitute, TDF's outreach extends nationwide and beyond.

TDF will begin accepting applications for next year's institute in September. For more information or to contact TDF about its Interpreting of Theatre institute, go here.