PCS Blog

One…Two…Three…How Many Interpreters Does it Take?

Posted by KatieO | 13 March 2013

The most common number of interpreters for any play is two. Here at Portland Center Stage we most often use a team of two interpreters plus a sign language coach. This year we've been fortunate to have several opportunities to play with the number of interpreters, based on the number of characters on stage.
A few years ago we started using one interpreter for one-actor shows. There are several reasons for doing this, and it is not a hard and fast rule. But when there is only one character telling the story, there usually is a specific reason the playwright chose to tell the story in that way. One example was the play I Am My Own Wife. That was a one-actor show, although there were about 33 characters. All of the "characters" were presented by that one person as though he remembered them and remembered their interactions. To have two interpreters would alter the storytelling of the play, the meaning, and the experience of the audience members. If would be similar to changing the hearing actor halfway through the play. 
This season there are three one-actor plays, and all three are being interpreted by one interpreter. For these plays we also have an understudy, who prepares to interpret by attending the show, preparing a translation and being available in case there is an emergency and the solo interpreter is unable to interpret. 
Two interpreters are the more standard number of interpreters, no matter how many characters, whether two or 20 or 40. The interpreters divide up the characters, often with the same interpreters signing for the main characters throughout the play. But some of the secondary characters may change hands several times as the story progresses. The challenge in this is for the interpreters to pick some visual aspect of the character on stage, which helps identify for whom they are signing. This might be a physical gesture, a tilt of the head, a way of speaking (which is translated to a way of signing) and so on. In most places around the country, you will most often see two interpreters for theater. 
For the play currently running at  PCS we will present another configuration. The Whipping Man has three characters, all equally strong and equally present on the stage. Sometimes we use two interpreters even when there are three characters, because often one of them has a lesser role, fewer lines, and may be subservient to the other two. But this is not the case in The Whipping Man. It is important that the strength of each man is equally represented in the interpretation. There will be no doubt about which character is speaking nor their development as the play progresses, as all the secrets and allegiances are revealed.
So, how many interpreters does it take to interpret a play? It depends. That's an inside joke for all of the interpreting and ASL students who are told "it depends" when they ask "How do you sign...?" Join us for Deaf Theatre Chat beginning at 6:30 p.m. before our sign interpreted performances and we can talk about the "depends." And certainly join us at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, March 14 for the interpreted performance of The Whipping Man.
                                                                                                                                        - Dot Hear, ASL Coordinator and Sign Language Interpreter
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