UWM Sign Language Students Tackle A New Challenge: Interpreting Live Theater

Dec 6, 2019

This week, a new collaboration between two UW-Milwaukee programs is taking the stage. Students in UWM's unique American Sign Language program are providing live interpretation at a UWM student theater production — a first for the school.

The ASL students are training for careers as interpreters for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. By the time they enter UWM's interpreter training pathway, the students are juniors who have completed at least six ASL courses. Program Coordinator Pam Conine says she tries to challenge the students in new ways to get them "comfortable with being uncomfortable."

"Theater is a wonderful avenue to push them outside their comfort zones," Conine said.

In previous years, the big project for students in Conine's program was translating Christmas songs at a holiday concert. Translating an entire play is a little more intimidating.

"My first reaction might have been a curse word," said student Mary Calhoun with a laugh. 

But Conine says she knows from experience that theater interpretation will help prepare her students. Conine has interpreted many plays at Milwaukee's Marcus Center, including the hit musical Hamilton.

(From left, standing) Students Ty Galloway, Mary Calhoun and Shannon Fraaza practice their ASL interpretation during a rehearsal of 'A Piece of My Heart.'
Credit Emily Files

"[Interpreting plays] has enhanced my abilities on so many levels, from my analysis of the English language, cultural references, nuances, understanding history, understanding politics," Conine said. "Theater touches on all those themes, right?"

At the beginning of the semester, Conine got in touch with UWM's theater department about the idea. She was connected with Jim Tasse's BFA acting class, which would be performing a play called A Piece of My Heart. It's based on true stories of American women who served in the Vietnam War.

The 16 ASL students are assigned certain characters and sections of the play. They translate in groups of two or three, off to the side of the stage. Every few minutes, the groups switch to give the interpreters breaks.  

"When you're talking with a visual language ... we express those things with our eyebrows, with our facial expression, with our body language." - Catherine Giuntoli-DuBois

The show is fast-moving and emotional — not the easiest piece of theater to translate into sign language. But Catherine Giuntoli-DuBois says practicing emotional expression is crucial for the aspiring interpreters. Giuntoli-DuBois is a deaf language coach at UWM.

"For people who can hear, they depend on their auditory abilities to pick up on nuances like mood and emotion within vocal inflections," Giuntoli-DuBois told WUWM through an interpreter. "When you're talking with a visual language, all of those things are also available, but we express those things with our eyebrows, with our facial expression, with our body language."

Editor's note: The below video includes language that may be offensive.

Giuntoli-DuBois says one of the biggest challenges for non-native ASL users is getting comfortable with the facial expressions and body language.

Student Mary Calhoun says that isn't the only challenge. Turning an English script to ASL is not a simple word-to-word translation.

"We're moving from English, which is a very implicit language, to ASL, which is a very explicit language," Calhoun said. "In one of my parts, [the character] says that Saigon is a very cosmopolitan city. Well, you can finger-spell 'cosmopolitan,' but what does that actually mean? It's a diverse city that has money and culture. So you have to expand on that, you don't just finger-spell 'cosmopolitan.' "

UWM student actors Lydia Skarivoda, Mallory Giesen and Saleaqua Winston in dress rehearsal for 'A Piece of My Heart.'
Credit Emily Files

Theater major Lacey Tatro says it's interesting to watch the story told through a different medium.

"It's my favorite when I don't have to speak and can just sit down on stage and watch them," Tatro said. "It's captivating, because they're putting in just as much work as we are."

Giuntoli-DuBois, the ASL language coach, says this project could help raise awareness. She says some hearing people may have never thought about the barriers deaf people encounter when trying to access experiences like live theater.

"It's not easy to find theaters that offer interpreters and then in addition to that, to those interpreters that are qualified and specially trained and seasoned in theatrical interpreting," Giuntoli-DuBois said through an interpreter. "Not often do we get that kind of experience with that quality of interpreters."

There may be more accessible theater opportunities in the future if the collaboration between UWM's ASL and theater programs continues.

A Piece of My Heart is showing at the Peck School of the Arts theater through Sunday. The ASL students will be interpreting Sunday's performance.