Process Talk: What is a Director of Artistic Sign Language?

By Kim Golding, New Works Lab Fellow

Craig Lucas’s I Was Most Alive with You builds a bridge between Deaf and hearing communities, with an ambitious yet simple premise: the play is to be performed simultaneously in English and American Sign Language. In the Playwrights Horizons production, a shadow cast of Deaf actors will accompany the principal cast and perform each character’s voiced text in ASL. To learn more about this unique collaboration and the dramaturgical choices informing their process, I reached out to Director of Artistic Sign Language Sabrina Dennison and her assistant, Lewis Merkin.

KIM GOLDING: How would you describe the role of Director of Artistic Sign Language (DASL) in the rehearsal process? And what are some of the distinct challenges or joys working in this position on I Was Most Alive with You? How is this process different from or similar to prior experiences?

LEWIS MERKIN: I have found that the job description and responsibilities have expanded over the years. Initially, they were called Sign Masters and focused solely on making sure the actors’ translations were accurate and the signing clear to audience members as well as the actors themselves. Occasionally, some dramaturgy was involved in researching background information to help in understanding the context of the play.

Because I Was Most Alive with You is a work in progress and because we are still discovering the arc of the story, Sabrina and I are also involved in making sure the Deaf aspects adhere to the truth of this world being created. We are also involved in consulting on the physical production, ensuring that sightlines, sets, costumes, and lighting all support the signing aspects of this show without detracting from the story. This production is unique in that all of the characters will also have shadow actors [performers who will sign each character’s lines in American Sign Language], plus there will be surtitles projected throughout. We are there to guide the Deaf actors in their signing choices, and to work with the hearing actors who are learning the signs as they develop their characters.

SABRINA DENNISON: Additionally, the Director of Artistic Sign Language is responsible for researching and borrowing other countries’ signs, creating homemade signs, and ensuring that the language, however it is being used, blends in well with the settings. 

KG: I’m curious about the relationship between the cast and shadow cast in this production. How are you creating a shared physical vocabulary between the two casts? And what aspects of that process are you most excited to explore? 

LM: This will inevitably be one of the strongest challenges we will be facing in rehearsal. The shadow actors will all be signing fully in American Sign Language, while the characters in the play will sign as their characters would (some fluently, some haltingly, some signing and speaking in English order). The set will be bi-level so that both are happening simultaneously. Our challenge — really, [director] Tyne [Rafaeli]’s — is to blend them seamlessly so that both Deaf and hearing audiences will be able to follow the action, taking advantage of the access being provided without being overwhelmed by it all. I’m excited to see this vision come to fruition.

SD: This is my favorite part of the process because I love being able to use critical thinking to develop the characters’ backgrounds relating to signs. Furthermore, no one actor’s signing skills and style are alike. At the end of the day, I’m excited to see what mode of communication the actors use. 

KG: It’s very rare for a hearing theater and a Deaf theater to collaborate in this way. Why is that, do you think? What creates, or has been creating, that barrier?

LM: Many factors are involved. Firstly, there is a lack of material to draw from involving Deaf characters. Then we come to the American conundrum: time and money. If one is working in two languages simultaneously, it is preferable to have a longer rehearsal period. This is very rare indeed. You also need to secure sign language interpreters for the entire process, which adds to the overall budget. I am hopeful that because of this production, and examples set by other theater companies, such as Deaf West, more companies will be willing to explore this type of collaboration for its artistic value.

SD: Communication access is a significant and common barrier in the theater world. There are not as many opportunities for Deaf actors to be part of “hearing” productions. There are many Deaf actors out there, but accommodations are limited.

Hopefully, after this production, the theater world will better recognize the importance of automatically and naturally incorporating an ASL interpreting team into the overall budget. 

KG: What do you think audiences will find innovative about this production?

LM: I won’t really know until we are in the thick of it. I do believe theatergoers will marvel at a shared experience in which both Deaf and hearing audiences will have full access to this powerful story.

SD: I’m very eager to see the audience’s reactions! Hopefully, Deaf and hearing audiences will be able to enjoy the show equally.