The first time I saw sign language onstage, it filled me with anxiety. There was no way in, and I wanted to scream. Those feelings scared me, and I became obsessed with why. When we started reaching out to the theatrical community with the idea to do an American Sign Language (ASL) adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, we were told over and over that Deaf culture was too insular, aggressive, and unforgiving for outsiders with no money to succeed. A year later—after hundreds of ignored messages and personal rejections—the warnings seemed true. We almost quit twice.
During this time of frustration, we did learn some important lessons. First, never refer to deafness as an impairment or disability; that’s not how Deaf individuals perceive themselves. If you host a “Theatre for the Disabled” workshop, don’t expect the Deaf to show up. Second, when referring to Deaf culture, spell Deaf with a capital “D,” and use a lowercase “d” when referring to a person with hearing loss. It is entirely possible for a hearing person to be part of Deaf culture, and deaf person to choose not to be.
In addition to these lessons, we learned about a time, prior to the 1890s, when Martha’s Vineyard was a bilingual deaf and hearing island, which became the setting for our version of Shakespeare’s tragedy, which we renamed R+J: The Vineyard. The show is now at Oracle Theatre in Chicago through Dec. 12.
In our telling, the Montagues identify as Deaf, while the Capulets are newcomers to the island attempting to “fix” Deaf culture and “help” them to be more like the hearing people. This concept led to the involvement of multiple artists, academics, and advocates from the Deaf community, but not everyone was on board. Because the culture has been misunderstood and oppressed for the greater part of its existence, some opposed the idea outright, claiming that someone from outside the community could never adequately portray the experiences of those inside Deaf culture. They equated it to blackface and expressed fears that we would create a mockery of them.
There was also the challenge of translating what some consider to be the greatest poetry in the English language into ASL. Hearing actors have it (comparably) easy. For Deaf actors, sign choices require more specificity of thought and emotion, as a greater percentage of the interpretation occurs onstage. While sign translations are tied to the author’s words, the interpretation must also reflect the character and directorial concept more than words on the page.
ASL has many accents and attitudes that stem from a person’s history. Characters who grew up in Deaf culture will sign differently from those who grew up in a hearing culture, etc. We had a sign coach, sign master, and many interpreters in rehearsals, but ultimately, confronting the text required the personal and physical expression of each actor’s heart and intellect. The journey to choosing the correct vocabulary for a scene often ended with late nights and trial-and-error.
Let’s look at an exchange in Act I, Scene 4, when Romeo and Mercutio have the following debate on the validity of dreams:
I dream’d a dream tonight.
And so did I.
Well, what was yours?
That dreamers often lie.
In bed asleep, while they do dream things true
To translate the exchange above, the actor playing Mercutio will create a sign for “dream” using a hooked-finger shape pulled from the forehead. In order to cement this visual metaphor, he and the rest of the actors will now use that sign when referring to dreams for the rest of the play. The hooked-finger shape is also used in correlation with other signs, much like a rhyming word would have a similar sound. “Friend, should, ask, must, etc” are created by the varieties of movement involving that hand shape through space. They can now all be charged with the same energies as our aforementioned sign for “dream” because of their incorporation of the hooked finger into their use.
ASL is also an excellent language for expressing the Bard’s metaphors and puns. In the above example, the word “lie” in the line “That dreamers often lie “ has a double meaning, representing both telling a falsehood and lying in bed. In our production, the actor playing Mercutio accomplishes these meanings by moving the location of his signs. First, he pulls the dream sign from Romeo’s head rather than his own. Then, he performs the sign for “falsehood” by sweeping his hand under Romeo’s chin, then pushes down Romeo’s head to “lie” upon the “falsehood.” Meaning complete! The visual relationship between two signs can also have a simile effect. On the line “Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon” (Act II, Scene 2), a character performing the hand shape for moon might transform it into the sign for sun with the addition of a few fingers.
Our last challenge was Shakespeare’s use of iambic pentameter. We discovered that the audible heartbeat of Shakespeare’s text can exist in the ebb and flow of an actor’s hands and body. Since ASL’s grammar rules are different than English, there is not a direct equivalent for the meter’s hard and soft syllables and beats per line. Still, the actors tried to imbue their signing with a similar sense of rhythm and energy. We accomplished the idea of a “split line”—or the sharing of a line of verse—between two characters by having them give and take the same sign from each other in space.
Take all myself.
I take thee at thy word.
In the above passage, Juliet offers herself by signing the verb “give.” In ASL, a verb is a movement, and in this instance, “give” is a movement toward the other person. Romeo’s sign for “take” is then his acceptance of that movement, which he then brings back to himself.
The response to this endeavor has been overwhelmingly positive, and Deaf audiences have enjoyed seeing the creativity Shakespeare has inspired. Hearing audiences have been surprised that a signed and spoken production vastly increased their comprehension of Shakespeare’s language. Both audiences have been excited at the emotional impact of physicalizing Shakespeare’s metaphors. When lines were both spoken and signed, our audiences experienced a richness and clarity unavailable when using the voice alone. When we elected to only speak or sign, you could watch different audience members instantly struggling with the distress of feeling left out—as I was in my first encounter.
While the challenges of R+J: The Vineyard are even more difficult than those normally associated with a production of Shakespeare, the rewards have been well worth it for hearing and Deaf audiences alike.
Aaron Sawyer is the founder and artistic director of Chicago’s Red Theater and its four free public access collectives, which perform in Lincoln, Neb., Omaha, Neb., Purchase, N.Y., and Chicago.