It’s a weekday matinee of Childsplay’s musical “Bunnicula” in Tempe, and actors Jon Gentry and Debra Stevens are romping around the living room set in vibrant dog and cat costumes.
Half-illuminated, standing stage right, Judy Robbins and Sam (just Sam) follow along with their fingers, their arms, their mouths noiselessly echoing lines of dialogue.
Their audience — largely students from the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf, where Robbins teaches — is filled with children bouncing attention between the stage actors and the interpreters, eyes darting as if watching a tennis match.
With a ballet of gestures varyingly subtle as crocheting and broadly expressive as conducting an orchestra, the two American Sign Language interpreters re-create a theatrical world of sound for an audience of the deaf and hard of hearing.
It’s a beautiful thing to witness, an art unto itself: More than simple interpretation, the silent dialogue between two signers takes on its own dramatic weight.
“We get a lot of people saying, ‘You were great! We watched you more than the actors onstage,’ ” says Robbins, who signs for several Valley theater companies.
She chuckles: “We’re always like, ‘Ew. That’s not supposed to happen.’ We don’t want to upstage the actors.”
But the risk of stealing attention from stage performers happens to be one of the lighter concerns for sign interpreters and the theater companies that hire them.
For starters, like many gigs, it’s a lot of work for very little pay. Sign interpreters have to do a large amount of homework before showtime. They analyze scripts, assign characters and, often, attend a performance beforehand to help make the signing as fluid as possible. “It’s a timeconsuming project,” Robbins says, and the monetary rewards are slight: Even signing for the state’s largest nonprofit theater, Arizona Theatre Company, would net just $250 per show.
Rates, Robbins adds, haven’t changed in the 14 years she’s been in the Valley, which could be one reason there are just a handful — so to speak — of sign interpreters who accept performance jobs. (Theater isn’t the only signable art: Robbins has interpreted live concerts by rock acts U2 and Melissa Etheridge.) And the Valley’s small pool of theatrical sign interpreters isn’t very well-organized.
Robbins is quick with a wish list for local sign interpreters. She wants to see designated a so-called “sign master,” someone skilled in both ASL and theater to advise interpreters on using the right signs. She’d like local theater companies to take a cue from Broadway houses and use a trio of sign interpreters for each production. (It’s a move that helps tame shows — like Shakespeare productions — with large casts.) Ideally, Robbins says, she’d like more theaters to offer what’s called shadow-casting: Having sign interpreters standing beside actors onstage rather than signing to the side of the footlights.
“That’s the best thing for the deaf audience,” Robbins says of shadow-casting. “That way, they’re not playing pingpong.”
But it’s hard to persuade struggling theater groups to do more than what’s already done to make theater accessible to all. (Larger theater groups also provide amplified earphones for hard-of-hearing patrons and audio descriptions for visually impaired audiences.) Hiring interpreters can be costly considering how few deaf people may be in the audience.
And therein lies the biggest secret: No one really knows how many deaf patrons are in attendance. Many of them, according to Valley deaf and hard-of-hearing support agencies, don’t want to “selfacknowledge” — they would prefer to blend in with the crowd. (Here’s what we do know: According to the Arizona Commission for the Deaf and the Hard of Hearing’s 1996 data, 8.6 percent of the population of Maricopa County is deaf or hard of hearing.)
Representatives of Arizona State University Public Events, which brings touring Broadway shows to Gammage Auditorium, know of only one deaf season subscriber.
“A lot of people take advantage of this that we don’t know about,” says Bonnie Tauss, director of patron services at ASU Public Events.
But that’s a more optimistic view of the ambiguousness. Interpreters report it’s rare to perform for more than a couple of deaf audience members per show.
Says Robbins: “We’re never really sure if we’re interpreting for anyone.”
The solution, Robbins says, is to increase awareness and boost arts education for deaf people. Robbins teaches theater arts at the Phoenix Day School for the Deaf (a rarity for deaf schools) and exchanges her services to bring students to Childsplay’s productions.
“Deaf kids,” she says, “tend to never go to performing arts events enough to really get exposed — to have that girl at 5 who goes to the ballet for the first time and dreams about being a ballerina there up onstage. They’re not seeing something accessible enough to say, ‘I want to do that!’ ”
LOST IN TRANSLATION
Back at “Bunnicula,” Robbins and Sam are channeling a lively dog and cat attempting to thwart the house’s latest addition, a Transylvanian bunny that comes alive at night and, with eyes glowing bright red, sucks the color out of vegetables.
The signers register the characters’ emotions — curiosity, fear, surprise — on their faces as their hands spin out dialogue.
It’s a comedy. But one joke, at least, has been lost in translation: The dog and cat, hoping to defeat the vampire rabbit, attempt to drive a big, juicy steak through its heart.
It’s a malapropism that, apparently, doesn’t work when signed.
“The actual English in American Sign Language,” Robbins says with a laugh, “doesn’t always have the same flavor.”