Theater in sign language -- the drama is still there

One of the most moving moments in Broadway's long-running "Children of a Lesser God" occurs when the husband of the play's deaf heroine tries to explain to her in sign language what music means to him. The drama of this intense effort to communicate is heightened for hearing spectators because it vividly illustrates some of the deprivations of living in a silent world.

Not surprisingly, Mark Medoff's prize- winning drama has itself helped stimulate efforts to expand opportunities for the theatergoing among the physically impaired.

Performances specially interpreted for the deaf are part of the program conducted by the Theater Access Project (TAP) of the non- profit Theater Development Fund (TDF). According to project coordinator Linda Lowy, initial efforts to interest producers in this novel kind of audience building began the fall of 1979. Early response was receptive but somewhat tentative. However, on the morning after "Children of a Lesser God" won 1980 Tony Awards for playwright Medoff, actor John Rubinstien, and actress Phyllis Frelich, his deaf costar. Miss Lowy was on the phone making a new pitch for TAP's boldest endeavor.

In good theatrical tradition, the project began with auditions. Of the 20 professional sign language interpreters who tried out, five were chosen. On Dec. 2, 1980. "The Elephant Man" became the first Broadway production to be interpreted in sign language for the deaf segment of the audience. Since then, there have been similarly interpreted performances of "Morning's at Seven," "A Chorus Line," and "Deathtrap" (to be repeated Aug. 26).

At Theater Development Fund headquarters, recently, Miss Lowy and interpreters Philip Giambaresi and Margaret Ransom explained how a translation technique used to aid the deaf in courtrooms, at meetings, in classrooms, on TV, and in other situations can be adapted to a stage performance.

Once arrangements have been made with the producer of a chosen show, Miss Lowy assigns a team of two interpreters plus an understudy. In the case of "Deathtrap," for instance, Mr. Giambaresi and Miss Ransom began an intense period of study and rehearsal. They read and reread the Ira Levin script, attended performances and one stage rehearsal with the actors, and generally worked to ensure that their sign interpreting would help deaf spectators enjoy all of the play's comedy and suspense.

At a performance, interpreters, subtly lighted, are seated on stools at the front right of the orchestra -- visible to the seating section reserved for the deaf but so as not to distract other spectators. A Playbill insert acquaints the audience with the nature of the occasion, introduces the interpreters, pictures the sign names of the characters, and tells something about TAP. Audiences and casts have responded with enthusiastic interest to these special performing situations. Players have found them particularly stimulating.

With the program well established, Miss Lowy and her colleagues are considering possible shows for future interpreted performances. Among them: "Annei," "42nd Street," "Barnum," and even "The Pirates of Penzance." The interpretive possibilities of one of Major-General Stanley's patter songs are positively dizzying.

Although the Theater Access Project service for the deaf has tapped only a small minority of its potential audience in the New York City area, Miss Lowy sees in present results the potential for future growth. As Mr. Giambaresi observed, "we count on word-of- hand."

Meanwhile, TAP continues its overall efforts to expand the availability of New York's great theater treasury among the handicapped. For those with sight problems, the project publishes large-type offers and summaries, produces cassette tapes describing scenes and costumes, and operates a telephone hot line. TAP facilitates theater attendance for the physically handicapped, including persons in wheelchairs. (Ticket rates and other information are available through the project at Room 2110, 1501 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10036 .)

Asked about the extent to which sign-interpreted performances are being give elsewhere in the United States, Miss Lowy mentioned the folowing cities: Boston, Washington, Los Angelos, St. Paul, Minneapolis, and Atlanta, where the service is performed by an organization calling itself "Stagehands."

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