Saturday, January 19th, 2019

USM puts on Maine’s first shadow play

Shadow interpreters and speaking actors in the cast of as you like it rehearse on USM's Main stage
Katelyn Wiggins
Shadow interpreters and speaking actors in the cast of as you like it rehearse on USM's Main stage

Posted on April 14, 2015 in Arts & Culture
By USM Free Press

Shadow interpreters and speaking actors in the cast of as you like it rehearse on USM's Main stage
Katelyn Wiggins
Shadow interpreters and speaking actors in the cast of as you like it rehearse on USM's Main stage

Starting on the April 17, Shakespeare is making a visit to USM’s main stage in his sharp-witted stage comedy, As You Like It. The show will feature all the hallmarks of The Bard, with it’s traditional costumes, period music and gender confusion. Thanks to director Assunta Kent, this play will be Shakespeare like you’ve never seen him before. Every performance will have American sign language interpreters accompanying the actors, making this the first shadow play to ever be performed in Maine.

Kent has had this idea in her head since 1985, when she did a version of Romeo and Juliet with some interpreters. Now that the ASL program is mature at USM, it is the perfect time to tackle a project like this. Doing a shadow play also engages the large and active deaf community in Portland. The integration of the ASL and theatre department started three years ago, thanks to junior theatre major Zac Stearns, who plays the speaking role of leading man Orlando. Stearns wanted his mother, who is deaf, to be able to attend his first USM play. Now one show out of every play is interpreted in ASL, with more deaf people attending each year.

“Theatres usually think of doing this without request. We have the opportunity to see live theatre, which deaf people don’t get that often,” Stearns said.

This benefits both the interpreters and the theater. This Spring’s As You Like It is the biggest ASL untaking yet.

This Shakespeare comedy still has all of its original appeal. It tells the tale of two warring brothers who fall for two regal cousins, laced with other eccentric and ridiculous love stories. All end happily in one large wedding, after a confusing and clever cross dressing rose, a few wrestling matches, and some lovely live music. However, Shakespeare and his company would have had a run for his money if he witnessed this interpretation of the show.

Each speaking actor also has a shadow, interpreting their lines into ASL, making this already large play have double the normal cast.  Most shows that accommodate the deaf community have an interpreter off to the side of the stage, making it difficult for hearing the impaired people attending to watch to the interpreter and the performance at the same time. Kent would like to change this.

“For deaf audience members, watching theatre with one interpreter in the corner is like going to see a foreign film, but the subtitles are in a completely different place than the screen,” explained Kent.

She also wanted to make sure that interpreters acted while they weren’t signing.  She layered shadows and speakers on different levels throughout the stage to create depth and integrate their different methods of storytelling. Shadows act behind, beside, and around the speaking actors, making for a dynamic performance.

“The positioning of the actors has been fluid and ever changing. You need to find a place where the shadows can be seen and the speakers can be nonintrusive,” said junior marketing major Josh Cohen, who plays one of the male leads, Oliver.

“As our director likes to say, ‘if you aren’t seen as a shadow you aren’t heard as a shadow’.”

Audience members may find themselves watching both pairs of actors to provide a deeper understanding of Shakespeare.

Speakers and their shadows also have to act with each other, making sure not to go too slow or fast with their lines so the other can keep up.

“This has been one of the more challenging pieces I’ve worked on because I have to be conscious of what my shadow is doing without letting my attention focus on him. I have to be aware of how he is acting while I am acting,” said Cohen.

Darleen Hutchin, a resident of South Portland and teacher at a private school, plays the shadow of leading lady Rosalind. She is one of the two deaf interpreters in the cast. She explained that she can’t even describe how she is aware of timing of the speaking Rosalind.

One of the most difficult parts of the show was having to translate Shakespearian language into ASL. The actors met for long hours to break down the meaning of lines in modern English, and then the shadow actors worked to convert that into ASL.

“All the shadows knew the ASL, but translating a translation was pretty rough,” said Alex Schofield, a junior linguistics major with a concentration in speech science. He play leading man Oliver’s shadow interpreter.

Sometimes it’s hard when the meaning behind the sentence and the grammar behind the signs will conflict, so you have to choose or flow them together.”

Hutchin talked about the translation process.

“It’s a very simplistic language. People think its dumbed down, but its not. It’s very rich, we just simplify it as much as we can, to make it more understandable and clear.”

Shadow interpreting is not just some passing fad either.

“A new wave of deaf theatre and interpreting is becoming big,” declared Stearns. “USM is the first theatre in the state to do a signed performance, and now other theatres in maine are doing it. It’s spreading, its a bigger deal.”

So come to USM’s main stage April 17th, and see that “All the world’s a stage” for all the sorts of people in it.

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