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Posts Tagged ‘ASL’

gordon-stewart
Photo: Victory Hall Opera.
Miriam Gordon-Stewart (above), artistic director of Victory Hall opera in Charlottesville, Virginia, and music director Brenda Patterson had the original idea for deaf opera.

Right before the pandemic, a cutting-edge company in Virginia put on an opera with deaf performers. The company is still going strong. Undaunted by Covid, it claims it was made for this moment and is offering a roster of outdoor performances for its 2021-2022 season.

An example of the company’s creativity was the deafness project. Thomas Floyd wrote the report for the Washington Post.

“Alek Lev understands that he’s not exactly a member of the deaf family, but he feels comfortable enough calling himself an ‘in-law.’ As a student at Wesleyan University, he took a sign-language class on a whim and subsequently dated a deaf person. Over the past two decades, the writer, director, actor and American Sign Language interpreter has largely worked in the deaf community on films and stage productions.

” ‘As someone who is fluent in sign language and has done this for such a long time, just seeing people sign onstage isn’t particularly thrilling now,’ Lev says. ‘It needs to be thrilling for some other reason.’

“One such reason arose in 2018, when Miriam Gordon-Stewart and Brenda Patterson of the boundary-pushing Victory Hall Opera in Charlottesville pitched Lev on a production of Francis Poulenc’s 1957 opera Dialogues of the Carmelites, but with deaf performers.

“The concept came about after Gordon-Stewart, Victory Hall’s artistic director, and Patterson, the music director, read Andrew Solomon’s 2012 nonfiction book Far From the Tree, about how families accommodate children with disabilities. The book mentioned ASL’s roots in French Sign Language, dating to the deaf community of 18th-century Paris. They then drew parallels to Dialogues of the Carmelites, which follows a convent of Carmelite nuns pressured to renounce their vocation during the French Revolution.

” ‘Within the deaf community, there are a lot of similar issues that come up,’ Gordon-Stewart says. ‘There’s a pressure to assimilate with hearing culture, for example, which is intensely political. These things worked together for us into the idea of a production of Dialogues of the Carmelites that would be set in a deaf convent.’

“Victory Hall Opera [took] a step toward making the production a reality with a workshop Feb. 27 [in 2020, featuring] three sopranos singing alongside three deaf actors. …

” ‘There’s something about the challenge of figuring out how to do this and why to do this each time that is just more exciting to me than putting on yet another version of a play that’s been put on several times. … I like that we have a whole new problem now. We have sign language. We have deaf actors. We have hearing actors who don’t know sign language. I love the puzzle.’

“ ‘I’ve done a lot of workshops and productions that include hearing and Deaf actors, but the fascinating thing about those experiences is that it’s never the same,’ [Sandra Mae Frank, who in 2015 played the lead role of Wendla in Deaf West Theatre’s Tony-nominated revival of Spring Awakening on Broadway] writes in an email. …

“Most of the roles in that Spring Awakening production were doubled by a deaf actor, who used sign language, and a hearing actor, who simultaneously performed the vocals. Although that has become a common template for deaf theater, the [Victory Hall] team wants its performers to complement one another in an artistically innovative way. … The deaf actors act out the plot while the singers serve as spiritual guides, representing women who have endured similar oppression.

” ‘If we’re going to create an art form out of this, then we need to push the concept one step further than it’s been pushed before,’ Gordon-Stewart says. ‘There’s a potential for the result being a marriage between two art forms, rather than just the two art forms being simultaneously performed. You bring a potentially heightened physicality to both ends of that equation, making it a more visually compelling art form for the deaf performance, and making it a more heightened experience for the hearing audience.’ ”

More at the Washington Post, here.

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Photo: Colorado Public Radio.
Cherish Ross is with FLOW, a sign language interpreting agency that specializes exclusively in performing arts.

So many interesting kinds of jobs in the world! And the luckiest people are the ones whose work aligns with what they love doing. Consider those who interpret for the deaf at concerts.

Corinna da Fonseca-Wollheim has a cool story at the New York Times. “On a recent afternoon in a brightly lit studio in Brooklyn, Mervin Primeaux-O’Bryant and Brandon Kazen-Maddox were filming a music video. They were recording a cover version of ‘Midnight Train to Georgia,’ but the voices that filled the room were those of Gladys Knight and the Pips, who made the song a hit in the 1970s. And yet the two men in the studio were also singing — with their hands.

“Primeaux-O’Bryant is a deaf actor and dancer; Kazen-Maddox is a hearing dancer and choreographer who is, thanks to seven deaf family members, a native speaker of American Sign Language. Their version of ‘Midnight Train to Georgia’ is part of a 10-song series of American Sign Language covers of seminal works by Black female artists that Kazen-Maddox is producing for Broadstream, an arts streaming platform.

“Around the world, music knits together communities as it tells foundational stories, teaches emotional intelligence and cements a sense of belonging. … As sign language music videos proliferate on YouTube, where they spark comments from deaf and hearing viewers, the richness of American Sign Language, or A.S.L., has gotten a broader stage.

“ ‘Music is many different things to different people,’ Alexandria Wailes, a deaf actress and dancer told me in a video interview, using an interpreter. Wailes performed ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at the 2018 Super Bowl, and last year drew thousands of views on YouTube with her sign language contribution to ‘Sing Gently,’ a choral work by Eric Whitacre. …

“A good A.S.L. performance prioritizes dynamics, phrasing and flow. The parameters of sign language — hand shape, movement, location, palm orientation and facial expression — can be combined with elements of visual vernacular, a body of codified gestures, allowing a skilled A.S.L. speaker to engage in the kind of sound painting that composers use to enrich a text.

“At the recent video shoot, Gladys Knight’s voice boomed out of a large speaker while a much smaller one was tucked inside Primeaux-O’Bryant’s clothes, so that he could ‘tangibly feel the music,’ he said in an interview, with Kazen-Maddox interpreting. Out of sight of the camera, an interpreter stood ready to translate any instructions from the crew, all hearing, while a laptop displayed the song lyrics.

“In the song, the backup singers — here personified by Kazen-Maddox — encourage Knight as she rallies herself to join her lover, who has returned home to Georgia. In the original recording the Pips repeat the phrase ‘all aboard.’ But as Kazen-Maddox signed it, those words grew into signs evoking the movement of the train and its gears. A playful tug at an invisible whistle corresponded to the woo-woo of the band’s horns. Primeaux-O’Bryant signed the lead vocals with movements that gently extended the words, just as in the song: on the drawn-out ‘oh’ of ‘not so long ago-oh-oh,’ his hands fluttered into his lap. The two men also incorporated signs from Black A.S.L.

‘The hands have their own emotions,’ Primeaux-O’Bryant said. ‘They have their own mind.’

“Deaf singers prepare for their interpretations by experiencing a song through any means available to them. Many people speak about their heightened receptivity to the vibrations of sound, which they experience through their body. As a dancer trained in ballet, Primeaux-O’Bryant said he was particularly attuned to the vibrations of a piano as transmitted through a wooden floor.

“Primeaux-O’Bryant was a student at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf in Washington in the early 1990s when a teacher asked him to sign a Michael Jackson song during Black History Month. His first reaction was to refuse.

“But the teacher ‘pulled it out’ of him, he said, and he was thrust into the limelight in front of a large audience. Then, Primeaux-O’Bryant said, ‘the lights came on and my cue happened and I just exploded and signed the work and it felt good.’ Afterward the audience erupted in applause: ‘I fell in love with performing onstage.’ ”

Find information on things like the role of ballet training in ASL interpretation, the impact of the pandemic, and Egyptian Arabic Sign Language at the Times, here.

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