For those who primarily communicate through sign language, a trip to the theater is not exactly the same as it is for a hearing audience. The fact that the traditional setup keeps interpreters off to one side of the stage means that audience members who are hard of hearing have to choose whether to watch the action on the stage or the professional interpreter on the side.
For this reason, an alternative approach to sign language in the theater is shadow interpreting, in which interpreters stay on the stage rather than off to the side. By incorporating interpreters into the performance itself, theaters aim to provide a more seamless experience for the entire audience.
Options for Sign Language in the Theater
One of the most common ways to accommodate deaf viewers is to provide a sign language interpreter in the theater, meaning that at least one person stands next to the stage interpreting the words spoken by the actors. The main issue here is that deaf audience members have to look back and forth between the interpreter and the stage, often forcing a choice between seeing the ongoing action and watching the interpreter. Additionally, after considering the small amount of the audience that uses sign language, theater management often decides to offer interpreters only for a limited number of performances, if any.
Another option that is occasionally used is supertitles: captions placed on a screen above the stage. Not every theater has the funds or the equipment to use this technology, though, so it is not as popular as using sign language interpreters in the theater. And depending on the placement, it may very well have the same action-or-dialogue dilemma that comes with employing an interpreter beside the stage.
The final option for offering sign language in the theater is shadow interpreting, in which interpreters “shadow” the actors, following them onstage while interpreting. Since interpreters are next to the actors, not standing offstage, a hard-of-hearing audience can easily pay attention to both the sign language and the actors in the theater. Plus, the average viewer who can hear tends to easily get used to shadow interpreters since they are integrated into the show. Such interpreters may have their own roles, or they might act as extensions of the other actors, so they often blend seamlessly into the play.
Shadow Interpreting May Not Work for Every Production
Shadow interpreting has become an increasingly popular way to incorporate sign language into theater. However, it has not caught on in many plays, simply because it is not always the best choice.
One detail to consider is that traditional sign language interpreters in the theater don’t require costumes and makeup when interpreting and are not usually involved in the rehearsals from the start. By contrast, shadow interpreters offering sign language in theater productions are usually expected to wear costumes and makeup appropriate to the performance, and they need to stay in character since they are as much a part of the play as the other actors. For this reason, they are often incorporated from the start — a significant investment of time for all involved.
This is why not every performance offering sign language interpreting in the theater can hire shadow interpreters. Some might incorporate interpreting services at the last minute, and usually only for a few shows, in which case a traditional sign language interpreter might be best. Those in charge of this decision are encouraged to consider the pros and cons of hiring each type of sign language interpreter for the theater, so that they can choose the best method to appeal to deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members.