If she were still living, early 20th century Irish playwright Teresa Deevy might have been pleasantly surprised that her one-act play The King of Spain’s Daughter had twice the original cast for its recent performance at Oregon State.
This December, a cast of Oregon State community volunteers performed Deevy’s play using the rigorous technique of shadow interpretation, wherein all speaking parts were accompanied by another actor playing the same role, but using American Sign Language. Directed by professor of theatre arts Charlotte Headrick and Jo Alexander, program manager of Oregon State’s Deaf and Hard of Hearing Access Services, The King of Spain’s Daughter was the first play performed on Oregon State’s campus to use this technique.
“It’s a bilingual production,” says Headrick, “only in this case we’re not using Irish and English, we’re using American Sign Language (ASL) and English to tell the story. It widens the world of accessibility of the play, particularly for the deaf and hard of hearing.”
Sign language is no stranger to Withycombe Hall. For decades, Alexander and Headrick have made sure the relationship between the theatre and ASL is strong.
“All of our Main Stage productions are signed,” Headrick says. “Two interpreters sit in the corners and interpret the productions. The first show we ever interpreted was Hair in 1988, but we’ve never done a shadow production.”
Within the wider Oregon State community, American Sign Language courses have recently grown—now, they are being both on campus and online, and students can use them to fulfill the language requirement for a Bachelor of Arts degree.
While side interpreters make theatre accessible to the deaf and hard of hearing, the technique also makes it difficult for them to follow a performance’s physical action.
“How plays are typically interpreted is the audience that relies on sign language is watching the interpreter, and they miss the real action on the stage. They have to look back and forth to see who’s doing what; it’s just not the same thing,” says Alexander.
Shadow interpretations split the stage equally between two identical casts. Headrick says, “Occasionally [in rehearsal] one of the interpreters will say, ‘I’m so used to being second fiddle,’ and I say, ‘No, I want to feature you, I want to share the stage.’”
“It definitely enhances the experience for the people in the audience who use sign language,” says Alexander. “When you have shadow interpreters, they are melded into the play itself, so people who rely on interpreting for access get that full theatre experience.”
Not only does shadow interpreting increase access and double the number of actors performing, but the physicality of the language adds aspects to the play that spoken words cannot.
“For hearing audiences,” Headrick says, “I think it takes on an aspect of dance.”
“American Sign Language,” Alexander says, “is known for being just a wonderful language for storytelling.”
For the actors, a coalition of OSU students and Corvallis community members, the double portrayal of every character strengthened the performance’s depth and the spirit of collaboration. Richard Wallace, who played the speaking role of patriarch Peter Kinsella, says, “No two actors see a character exactly the same way and each has his or her own understanding of the character’s motivations, intentions, movement, posture, etc. It has been interesting and helpful to hear another actor’s questions and opinions on my—our—character.”
New Possibilities for Performances
Teresa Deevy herself became deaf from Ménière’s disease during her studies at University College Dublin. Instead of allowing this to hinder her, she developed a serious passion for theatre while learning to lip-read in London, and supported herself by writing for Irish and British radio stations.
According to Headrick, In Deevy’s day, organization required for this kind of performance did not exist.
“She’d be stunned that we were doing this with her play,” Headrick says.
Alexander adds that “she probably wouldn’t have been able to conceive of it.”
The play was produced by a large collaboration of Oregon State members: it was underwritten by the office of the Vice-Provost for Student Affairs, and the University Theatre donated the recently renovated Lab Theatre to the company.
“All of our interpreters have volunteered their services,” says Headrick. “I’m donating my time; Jo’s donating her time; all the actors are donating their time.”
“Up until the early 1950’s the University Theatre was at the Majestic,” Headrick says, “so we’re going to take this play down there as a celebration for their 100 years. It’s nice that a University Theatre piece is going back, since that was our home for a long time.”