Theater: How do you sign Sondheim?

12437639857?profile=RESIZE_710xAmerican Sign Language interpreters worked the March 29 production of ‘Merrily We Roll Along‘ at the Delray Beach Playhouse. Jessica Reiling (above) signed the second act and Kate Robertson (below) the first. Robertson says body language is important in conveying the music and mood. Photos by Jerry Lower/The Coastal Star

Delray Playhouse enlists ASL interpreters for first time so deaf girl can enjoy playwright’s Broadway musical

By Ron Hayes

Not once in its 77 years had the Delray Beach Playhouse been asked. Not even once.

And then it decided to put on Merrily We Roll Along, Stephen Sondheim’s 1981 musical.

“Devra Seidel, who plays Mary Flynn in the show, has a niece who’s deaf and wanted to come,” recalled Andre Lancaster, the show’s director. “So she asked me if I knew anyone who could sign the show for her.”

Of course, he thought of Vera Follain-Grisell.

For 25 years, she had taught special education administration at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., the world’s first school for the education of people who are deaf and hard of hearing.

Nowadays Follain-Grisell ushers at the playhouse and volunteers backstage on the lighting and curtains.

“That’s beyond my scope,” she told the director.

You see the challenge.

How do you bring American Sign Language to a Broadway musical? Translating a conversation is one thing, but how do you help a deaf person hear a melody? A mood? A rhyme?

How do you sign Sondheim?

Lancaster began looking up interpreters in Palm Beach County, which led him to Signs of Excellence LLC, which led him to Kate Robertson, which brought her to a rehearsal as opening night neared.

“Tonight, I’m going to watch the rehearsal, get a feel for the style,” she said. “I’ll listen to the score and read the script.”

In addition to her work with Signs of Excellence, Robertson is one of six ASL interpreters at John I. Leonard High School in Greenacres, where she works with 15-20 deaf students each year.

“I interpret Broadway shows all the time,” said Robertson, who’s been signing for 15 years. She’s done Evita and Wicked and The Book of Mormon for high school and regional productions.

“My favorite is Hamilton,” she said, “but all the songs are challenging because there’s no dialogue. I’ve done it four times.”

Now she was going to tackle Sondheim.

“The deaf can’t hear music,” Robertson explained, “but I try to communicate the spirit and context of the music. Melody can’t be interpreted, but if you interpret the words with feeling, you can show the message roughly equivalent to what they’re singing.”

She complements her signing by calling on her body and face.

“Just as we have a tone of voice in English speech, in ASL you have body and facial expression,” she said. “If it’s a sad song, I would show emotion on my face and body. I try to convey the spirit and context.”

12437640057?profile=RESIZE_710xKate Robertson says body language is important in conveying the music and mood.

Also, she noted, interpreters are expected to wear clothing that contrasts with their skin tone, to keep the focus on the sign language, not the flashy, multicolored dress. She is white, so she dresses in black.

“I had one person complain that my maroon sweater was distracting,” she remembered.

Follain-Grisell nodded. “I wore black once to sign at a wedding,” she said, “and someone thought it was disrespectful.”

For the 8 p.m. performance on March 29, Robertson arrived along with a colleague, Jessica Reiling. Robertson would interpret the first act and Reiling the second.

Robertson took her place under a soft light stage right, ready to begin.

But first the director had to do some interpreting of his own, to help the audience understand what it would see.

Merrily We Roll Along tells the story of a Broadway songwriting team, Frank and Charley, from 1957 to 1976. But it tells the story backward in time. The show begins in 1976 and ends in 1957.

Early on, Lancaster figured out that a large part of the audience wasn’t figuring it out.

“People were coming to me confused,” he said later. “I had a number of old men who wondered why he was kissing the girl in the second part of the show when they were getting divorced in the first.”

Now, before the overture, he stepped in front of the curtain to explain this to the audience.

When he also announced that the night’s performance would include sign language interpreters, the sold-out crowd applauded enthusiastically.

The curtain rose, and Robertson went to work.

She used her hands. She used her eyes, her smile, her shoulders. Here and there she conducted the music a little. Sometimes she swayed a bit, almost dancing to the rhythm.

At intermission, audience members stopped to offer congratulations, thanks and praise.

12437640473?profile=RESIZE_710x

Lead actress Devra Seidel, her niece Sarah Clark and Delray Beach Playhouse volunteer Vera Follain-Grisell (l-r) use sign language to discuss the performance afterward.

Devra Seidel’s niece, 13-year-old Sarah Clark from Maryland, attended the performance but declined to be interviewed.

And days later, Lancaster was still thrilled with having hosted the first ASL interpreters in the theater’s 77 years.

“They were amazing,” he said. “Those two ladies handled it like champs. We’d never had a request for this, so I don’t think I would have thought of it if there hadn’t been a need for it.

“We’ll do it again on a show-by-show basis. People can request it, and maybe we could do other specialized shows for people who need lower volumes or more muted scenery.”

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