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Awakening Interpretation: Broadway Sets the Stage for Linguistic Equality

Awakening Interpretation - Broadway Sets the Stage for Linguistic Equality

Stephanie Jo Kent explores how Deaf West Theatre’s ground-breaking production of Spring Awakening cast a spotlight on the challenges and possibilities of sign language interpretation.


StreetLeverage Note: Deaf West Theatre’s Spring Awakening was invited to perform on the Tony Awards. Due to the close of the show’s limited run, significant expenses were required to make this happen. After a successful Kickstarter campaign,  the cast of  Spring Awakening is scheduled to appear on the Live telecast on June 12. To read more about the Kickstarter campaign, click here.

[Click to view post in ASL]

The natural integration of sign language interpreters in the Broadway revival of Spring Awakening was established powerfully as soon as the show began. A classic classroom scene was distinguished by dialogue in American Sign Language, setting the focal point on communication and establishing the narrative tension for the entire story.

The performance by Deaf West Theatre included an excellent representation of sign language interpreting–not a surprise to Deaf theatre fans but a revelation to hearing audiences. More so, it was the best representation of simultaneous interpreting that I have seen to date. By “representation” I mean a carefully-crafted demonstration of ‘the real thing.’ The actors were not spontaneously interpreting (as we do in real life) but performed premeditated translations in tandem with the spoken utterances of the script. The result is a shift in perception that put ASL on an equal footing with spoken English: a field of linguistic equality.

Plurilingual Social Interactions

Because it was a performance and everyone’s lines were so painstakingly designed, memorized and rehearsed, nothing unexpected interrupts the seamlessly delivery. This practiced perfection was not, however, the most significant aspect of the interpretation. What mattered was how both languages and the interpreters were thoroughly integrated into the fabric of the social interaction. No one resisted the interpretations or seemed weirded out at the odd mode of communication. Instead, everyone cooperated with the necessity of cross-language mediation. This is plurilingual interaction: more than one language in use for purposes of communication. Whether the interpreter was on the opposite side of the stage or right there in the midst of the interaction was irrelevant to the effectiveness of the communication shown on stage because the actors trusted the process.

Meanwhile, everyone in the audience was put in a position of dependence upon the interpreters. Even bilingual members of the audience were captured and had to attend to the processes of communication. The first scene was a classroom where the students are reciting Latin. Interspersed with ASL and English are Latin utterances with neither English nor ASL interpretation. The spoken Latin was paired with written Latin projected on the classroom wall. Few in the audience know what the Latin means, but it turns out that the words are not what’s meaningful in this scene. What is meaningful is the persecution of one of the Deaf students and the inability of his hearing pal to protect him from the wrath of the headmaster.

Historical Dynamics

The historical dynamics of audism and oralism were deftly established concurrent with the audience’s exposure to how the communication would work: signing actors were voiced by someone (somewhere, either nearby or farther away); bilingual actors spoke and signed at the same time; and non­-signing actors’ lines were signed by a ‘voice’/shadow interpreter or projected as English captions without any ASL interpretation. The result was a constant chase…Deaf eyes seeking out the next signer, hearing ears absorbing speech while their eyes scan for the source, and all eyes on alert for the shift to written text. Every audience member had to be constantly ­­ready to shift modes depending upon the language profile of the actor. This need to keep giving attention to how the communication was happening is what generates the linguistic equality of the space. No one language holds dominance: the usual hierarchy of (spoken) English overwhelming (signed) ASL is defeated. Brilliantly, the cast occasionally falls into complete and total silence. Eyes are left to quietly absorb the visual scene with no accompanying commentary. Reliance on vision overtakes hearing people’s dependence on sound.

Turn-taking and the pace of interaction was relentless: that rhythm mirrors real life interpreting! Too often interpreting in a group setting results in a senseless kind of cacophony. Overlapping talk, weak listening, and little accommodation to each other’s communication styles. In this play, we witness a gallant artistry and professionalism from all members of the troupe as they engaged seamlessly and fluidly with each other and with the interpreters. The beauty is how the interpreters were included and engage themselves with the events, relationships and troubles which arise. These interpreters were not flat caricatures speaking for others held an arms-­length away, neither were they ever the stars of the show. But they were irrevocably present and interactive. Wendla’s “voice” (her “interpreter”) encourages Wendla to enter the relationship with Melchior Gabor, and Moritz’ rockstar interpreter­-shadow supplies him with a gun. The “voice” of a gay boy spins in glee on the piano stool, not out of role but embodying and animating the pleasure of a first kiss: as ‘in role space’ as one could possibly be. While some may debate these as boundary violations, I suggest that they are achievements of voice. Not only do the expressions (the words, the signs) get ‘interpreted’ but the meanings are made crystal clear.

A Hierarchy of Simultaneous Interpretations?

Symbolically, more can be mined from the display of simultaneous interpretation in this play. The acting “voices” (interpreters) all contribute to the aural landscape by playing musical instruments as well as singing and speaking the lines of their assigned Deaf actors. Are the role space constructions lopsided in favor of the Deaf more than the Hearing? Does this feed, subtly, a logic of hierarchy; that the interpreter “exists” for the language minority user more than for the majority language user? Or is it just practical accommodation for the signing-impaired? Musical accompaniment and singing was necessary to satisfy hearing people’s addiction to sound, so that they would not be distracted by its absence and therefore lose focus on the substance of the play. ASL drives the action in this play; the challenges of communicating information about sexuality is an allegory for the harms done to Deaf people when ASL is not respected.

Collaborative Communication

Importantly, the benefits and limits of interpreting were clearly shown in Deaf West’s masterful performances. Communication access in­ and of­ itself will not end oppression or even diminish the consequences of audist or oralist prejudice and discrimination. Still, the Deaf West production of Spring Awakening presents an exhilarating example of what simultaneous interpreting makes possible: collaborative communication among people speaking different languages leads to better, even safer, relationships.

Questions for Consideration:

    1. Can you draw out more of the symbolism of the play? For instance, does the rote drilling of Latin phrases with no interpretation suggest anything about the habits of interaction people often perform in real life?
    2. Does the concept of plurilingualism help us better explain the values of interpreting?
    3. When have you experienced a “field of linguistic equality”? What did it feel like? How did you know that equality was achieved?
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Sign Language Interpreting’s Long Adolescence

Sign Language Interpreting's Long Adolescence

The field of sign language interpreting has the opportunity to leave organizational adolescence behind. By connecting their emotions to the challenging tasks ahead, interpreters can foster growth and move the field to the next level.

Historical Context

Last summer I was unable to attend RID’s Convention in New Orleans, or even watch the livestreaming. Instead I followed developments through Facebook friends’ posts and comments and tweets at the conference hashtag, #RIDNOLA15. Through the lens of social media, there were two conferences: one full of camaraderie, fellowship and happy reunions, the other full of angst. Meanwhile, the bold move by the Board to suspend certification testing was not completely without warning. I remember last year (2014), at the RID Region 1 Conference in Boston, President Dawn Whitcher did mention that the Board was exploring the possibility of alternative structures. The open question now is whether RID can grow up enough to pass through this coming-of-age opportunity.

[Click to view post in ASL]

Since I joined the profession in the late 1980s/early 1990s, I have been astonished and fascinated by the organizational and cultural dynamics. The general behavior patterns today compared with then—twenty-five years ago—are essentially the same. On the one hand, this is discouraging. On the other hand, Deaf presence and authority has increased, so there is obvious change! But new people entering the field continue to exhibit problematic behaviors and react to feedback in the same ways as most did back then, and Deaf people are still complaining about the same kinds of problems (especially inadequate fluency and lack of intercultural skills). In light of this, we do still have a professional organization dedicated to sign language interpreting! It is an incredible testament to our Past Presidents, Board Members and Staff that RID has never imploded from the pressure cooker of oppression versus social justice.

Making Sense of Where We Are, Here and Now

A tool that helps me make sense of the oppression-social justice pressure cooker is a descriptive model of group development called “the life cycle of groups” (Weber, 1982). Weber’s model draws on Bruce Tuckman’s (1965) famous four stages of group development (forming, storming, norming, performing) and refines it. Weber’s additional details on the interpersonal, leadership and task issues that a group has to resolve at each stage provide insight into some of the long-standing issues RID members must face.

Weber renames the stages Infancy, Adolescence, Adulthood and Transforming. As you can guess, Adolescence corresponds with Tuckman’s Storming phase. The behavior patterns of a group’s Adolescence include emotional responses (e.g., anger, frustration, confusion) to the demands of being an organization (such as developing and following rules), attacks on leadership, and a need for order (which may or may not be a conscious realization of every member). What are the interpersonal, leadership and task issues of a group that bring out such emotionally-inspired behavior?

For a group to move through Adolescence to Adulthood, members have to deal with matters of power and influence while maintaining individuality and questioning differences. This is a tall order for anyone, in every group! The acid test involves the decision-making process: coming to agreement on how the organization says it will make decisions, and then how well the organization conforms to how it says it will make decisions.

In short, individuals a) need confidence in the group’s processes and b) to work through their personal needs for control in order for the group, overall, to grow.


I happened to see the Pixar movie about emotions soon after the conference ended. Inside/Out is a dramatization of the inner life of a young girl whose life gets upended when her parents move from a town in Minnesota to San Francisco. We witness the play of the five basic emotions—joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust—in her mind, and also see the results of how she’s feeling in her behavior. Two comments from friends who also saw the movie stuck with me. One friend was glad that the film “showed the reality that you cannot have joy without sadness.” The other friend noticed “how hard joy has to work in order to have any effect.”

Applying Pixar to RID, I realized that what I first thought of as two different conferences (as it appeared via social media) was instead a demonstration of how different people (or the same person at different times) at #RIDNOLA15 were expressing only three of the basic emotions: anger, disgust and joy. Missing were fear and sadness. While watching Inside/Out, I noticed something about the relationships among all five emotions. I actually went back to watch it a second time in order to confirm my observation. In the daughter’s mind, Joy is the leader. She corrals and herds Sadness, Fear, Disgust and Anger, and they look to her to do this.

The mom’s mind is different.

A Counter-Intuitive Way Forward?

The mom’s emotions are guided by Sadness.

This has left me wondering if the members of RID are locked into something called “Basic Assumption Groups.” The idea comes from a psychoanalytic approach to reading the unconscious of a group based on the behaviors of its members. Are we locked into sides: anger and disgust battling joy?  Meanwhile, fear is largely unexpressed (except disguised as anger or disgust), and sadness rarely enters the conversation (even though it is ever-present).

If we consider Weber’s “life cycle of groups” seriously, it offers insight into why groups get stuck in adolescence. There’s foundational work that needs to be done in “infancy,” the stage before the storm. If this is left un-done (or not done well, or needs to be re-done), group members do not share enough common expectations about what the organization can and should do.

The major intra-personal and interpersonal task of the infancy/forming stage of a group involves membership criteria. Individual members have to work through their own inclusion issues: if they do or do not want to belong. It seems that President Whitcher and the Board have given us a chance to rebirth the organization and re-define RID from the ground up.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Do you agree with the author that the patterns of behavior in the organization are about the same as they were twenty-five years ago? Why or why not?
  2. Does the framework of the “life cycle of groups” seem like a good tool for analyzing what’s going on with the organization and its members? Why or why not?
  3. Do you have different or additional ideas about the emotions expressed during/about the 2015 RID Convention?
  4. How do you managed your personal need for control?

Related Posts:

Interpreter Education: History is a Relentless Master with Dennis Cokely and Anna Witter-Merithew

Does the Past Hold the Answer to the Future of Sign Language Interpreting? by Carolyn Ball

Modern Questor: Connecting the Past to the Future of the Field by Lynnette Taylor


Tuckman, Bruce. (1965). “Developmental Sequence in Small Groups.” Psychological Bulletin63(6): 384-399.

Weber, Richard C. (1982). The Group: A Cycle from Birth to Death, in Reading Book for Human Relations Training, 7th Edition. L. Porter and B. Mohr, Eds. Alexandria, VA: NTL Institute.