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Senses of Humor

Date: Mar 09, 2009


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How do you convey a sarcastic tone in sign language?

And how do you describe in words a silly visual gag to someone with little or no vision?

These were just a few of the unique challenges faced by interpreters working as part of Theatre Development Fund’s Accessibility Programs at two recent matinees of the satiric musical comedy Shrek.

“It’s concept for concept, it’s not word for word,” explains Keith Wann, a veteran American Sign Language interpreter who signed the role of Shrek and others alongside colleagues Alan Champion and Candace Broecker-Penn at a recent Talking Hands performance (Talking Hands is a program that offers simultaneous sign-language and open-caption interpretation). “Sometimes that’s a challenge with comedy. For instance, when Lord Farquuad makes a joke about Stepford Wives, Alan [Champion] kind of acts like a zombie—he gets the concept across,” Wann relates.

In interpreting the role of the cranky ogre Shrek, Wann is careful to point that he doesn’t act; still, when he wants to convey the green anti-hero’s often sarcastic or peeved line delivery, Wann does rely on facial expressions as he signs. Champion and Broecker-Penn similarly convey attitudes of haughtiness or wonder, respectively, as Farquaad and Fiona.

“I do get very expressive on my face,” Wann says. “The tone of voice is something we can’t sign, but we can display it on our face. When Lord Farquaad sings, ‘Hey nonny nonny no,’ Alan just does this little sneer and crinkles his eyes.”

Perhaps more striking, though, are moments when the interpreters step back and direct deaf and hearing-impaired audience members’ attention to the stage.

“That’s what I love about the Broadway model, which is what I learned from Alan and Candy,” Wann says. “There are a lot of physical cues onstage, and though some of us may be actors, we’re not going act it out for you. We’re going to give you enough information to understand what’s going on, then let you watch.”

He gives one of the musical’s many examples: “When the Dragon is going to eat the Donkey, it’s funnier to watch him. You know what they’re saying. Or when Fiona gets a surprise when Shrek takes his helmet off, you want the audience to be watching Fiona react to Shrek, not Candy reacting to Keith.”

Then, of course, there’s the infamous “fart” scene, in which Fiona and Shrek bond over their various, er, effusions. In this case, both the open-captioners and the sign interpreters had merely to introduce the concept—the caption for the first outburst was something like “faaaarrrrtttt”—and the rest was easy to read.

“When that scene came up, all we had to do was do the ‘fart’ verb, then direct their eyes to the stage,” Wann says.

This is also not a scene that required much work from Andrea Day, who did an audio description for blind and vision-loss theatregoers at another recent matinee. In fact, she says, a lot of her work is done by the witty script.

“So much of the comedy is in the language of the piece,” Day explains. Indeed, “tone of voice,” which the sign-language interpreters had to work to convey, is not a problem for vision-loss audiences. “Verbal sarcasm they can get without seeing it,” Day explains. “Some of the scenes with the Donkey, Fiona and Shrek where they’re just talking to each other, you could hear on the radio and they’d be just as funny, so I didn’t have a lot to do there.”

Shrek is not all verbal, though. For one thing, the title character’s superficially ugly appearance is a key to the show’s theme. Even more difficult to convey is one of the show’s biggest sources of comedy: The full-sized Christopher Siebert plays the half-pint Farquaad in an ingenious costume that allows him to essentially walk around the set on his knees, with tiny doll legs on his thighs and a cape disguising his lower legs.

Add to that an opening number that rifles through a dizzying array of fairy tale characters, who fire off gags so quickly that Day literally doesn’t have time to say, “Big Bad Wolf” or “Pinocchio” between their lines. Day clearly has her work cut out for her. She says she tries to handle most of these detailed descriptive duties with a 15-minute preshow talk, and more importantly, with workshop visits to schools, like St. Joseph’s School for the Blind, to help familiarize students with the piece.

To help them understand the visual gag behind Farquaad’s costume, she actually had students “walk” around on their knees, as Siebert does; she also had them try on the Donkey’s costume head.

One advantage all these TAP interpreters had was that they didn’t have to familiarize audiences—least of all young audiences—with the story.

“They all know Shrek—they know every line,” Day says. “The challenge is actually to convey to them that they’re actually not watching the movie.”