PCS Blog

Sondheim on Our Hands

Posted by KatieO | 28 September 2012

The first interpreted performance of the PCS 25th anniversary season is Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  This musical thriller is considered one of Sondheim's masterpieces. And it is being presented on the Main Stage as a traditional big musical, complete with a big set, big voices, and a large cast.



Interpreting musicals brings another level to the interpreting process. I realize I haven't yet touched much on the general interpreting process; I will get to that later. But I can't talk about "Sweeney Todd" without talking about the challenges of interpreting music and a few specifics to this production.

As a bit of background for those unfamiliar with sign language interpreting, English and American Sign Language (ASL) have different linguistic structures. Many people are surprised to learn that the grammatical structure of ASL is similar Spanish or French, and is not the same as English - meaning, the subjects, objects, and verbs are in a different order. It's also important to know that, as with any two spoken languages, ASL and English do not have a one-to-one correspondence of sign to word.  

More simply put is that we are interpreting the concepts and not the specific English words. 

This process is more complicated when music is included. There are several reasons for this, such as the role of music in the cultural context of hearing culture and Deaf Culture, the creative use of language to convey meaning in songs, and even the rhythm and pitch and pace of the music to convey meaning. Some of those factors, which can give a sense of dread or excitement or carry information for people who hear them, are not as easily translated into a visual language where the relationship to the music or rhymes or play on words is different. 

An interesting note is that, over the years I've been interpreting theater, I've had a chance to talk to a number of people who are Deaf about interpreting music, particularly in the context of theater. One perspective is that, well, it's a musical, so "show me the music." Meaning, some people who are Deaf want to see the rhythm or beat, the elongated words, and so on. But some people who are Deaf don't want those factors because, in ASL, it carries no meaning. There are other ways we can show those same concepts, but by matching the beat of the music or making a sign last a really long time when it normally doesn't, generally does not convey the same intent as, for example, a contralto who can sustain a note for a very long time. So how much of the rhythm to show and how to show it is another artistic and linguistic choice we have to make. There doesn't seem to be one right answer. And just like with any theater, we have to convey the intent of the director and the actors in our interpretation, right down to the reason and intent of the music.

Okay. Back to "Sweeney Todd." Just to give you an idea, the other interpreter and I will have seen the play six times by the time we interpret the show; our Sign Coach will have seen it twice, one of those will be watching us do a sign-through (which is the same idea as when actors do a run-through) which will be followed by feedback and discussion.

So, we have the challenge of interpreting the music - the concepts and the flow and intent of the music.

We also have the challenge of what is sometimes easy to do in terms of the number of characters. There are many scenes with two characters. That's easy: Carin is Sweeney Todd and I interpreting Mrs. Lovett. Or Carin is Joanna and I'm Anthony. Simple. But then there are the crowd scenes, with both Todd and Lovett, and Tobias and Pirelli, then in comes Beadle, and there is a crowd of a dozen or so people. Oh! And still two interpreters. 

Don't worry. We have it all figured out now and we will make it clear who is who, whether there are two people on stage or eighteen people. We are not acting, but we do incorporate a stance or a gesture or a piece of the characterization into our interpretation so that  members of the Deaf and hard of hearing audience can tell who is speaking on stage. 

And, as with all plays but especially with musicals, we do have to get our timing down. There are a few key moments when important action happens on stage, so we have to time our interpretation so the audience can catch those moments on stage. I'm not going to tell you what those are since experiencing it as it happens is part of the fun of theater.


Oh, one more thing on musicals and Sondheim. Songs often do have rhyming parts. Since there is no one sign = one word correlation, it takes some creative use of language to make an equivalent interpretation. American Sign Language does include a similar concept to rhyming, but it is done with finding signs with similar handshapes which convey the message. That may not make much sense if you don't know ASL, but it is similar and it conveys a similar sensibility to rhyming. Carin and I have a couple of strong challenges in the rhyming realm in this play and we're enjoying the process of getting to play with language while maintaining meaning.

And Sondheim not only has songs, but there are songs where two or three characters are singing at the same time, but their words are not the same. Which means that Carin and I will sometimes be signing simultaneously, but not signing the same thing. Yes, that's hard to follow visually; but it's also hard to follow with your ears. It will work. It will be fun. 

See you there! Thursday, October 4th: Deaf Theater Chat at 6:30 pm on the mezzanine and the play starts promptly at 7:30. 

For more information on purchasing tickets for interpreted performances, please click here.


-- Dot Hearn, ASL Coordinator at PCS

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