the Assimilation Conversation
Members of the artistic team chatted with two of the artists bringing Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally to life—James Caverly, the Director of Artistic Sign Language, and Treshelle Edmond, who plays Sally.
Here’s what they had to share!
Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally features a Deaf character whose father doesn’t want her to learn ASL. Can you help us understand some of the nuances in the Deaf community around conversations about assimilation? How might hearing audiences and Deaf audiences receive this part of the play differently?
JAMES: For a long time, society has viewed Deafness as something that needs to be fixed, as if we were broken. What people don’t realize is that it’s not that we just can’t hear… we don’t hear. We never know what we’re missing if we’ve never been born hearing but because of the inability to speak or hear properly, it’s no secret that we’re treated differently or ignored. Because of this “otherness” we experience from hearing people, Deaf people are trained to speak and hear in order to assimilate into society because of their refusal to accommodate us. I believe a large number of our audiences can empathize with Sally and that “otherness” feeling, but there’s probably more empathy coming from our Deaf audiences because her story rings true for many of us.
TRESHELLE: Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally tells the other side of the secret story that every hearing parent can relate to. They do not know how to handle their Deaf child, nor are educated on what is best for their child and their potential hearing loss. They would much rather follow the medical doctor who knows the best ways to push our ability to speak and hear—abilities deemed necessary to function in the hearing world. For example: getting jobs and interacting how society expects people to socialize. What they don’t realize is that it’s difficult to carry double standards in the hearing society. There are a range of experiences: “Capital D” Deafness and the deaf, the Hard-of-hearing with hearing aids, and some who don’t wear hearing aids and cochlear implant. It is really hard for both sides to get to the same page on the level of communication.
LEARNING DEAF CULTURE: The brand new play Richard & Jane & Dick & Sally features Sally, a deaf character played by Treshelle Edmond, who begins learning to sign against the wishes of her hearing father. James Caverly, the Director of Artistic Sign Language, breaks down some of the basics of Deaf culture.
What can you tell us about the differences (social, physical, or otherwise) between using ASL and using voice to communicate?
TRESHELLE: Using voice to communicate is huge for some D/HH (Deaf and Hard-of-Hearing) people. They may have experienced training such as speech therapy or have been taught by their family or gone to Oral school. There are a range of us that may be experts at reading lips and some of us who are worse at it (like myself). The time it takes to learn speech or use ASL depends on a person’s upbringing and their IEP (individualized education program). To make an IEP, teachers and parents come together to discuss a child’s individualized educational path—their education goals, options for speech therapy, and their potential college or trade school careers.
JAMES: A majority of the Deaf community use two different ways to communicate: sign language and spoken language. Sign language is used through handshapes and motions, facial expressions, and body placements while spoken language is used through voice, speech, and diction. For a lot of people born without hearing or the use of their voice, communicating through spoken language is a challenging ordeal. Sign language, on the other hand, is a more natural choice for Deaf people; it is worth mentioning that American Sign Language is its own language as it has its own grammar rules, structure, and syntax just like any other language, not a form of mimicry.
What’s something you wish hearing people understood about Deaf culture?
JAMES: Lip-reading is not a skill. It’s a survival mechanism. Deaf people lip-read because you do not know sign language. In a general conversation, only 30% of what you say is understood through lip-reading. A Deaf person will catch key words then fill in the blanks, so it’s not that we’re good at lip-reading, we’re good at guessing.
TRESHELLE: Please don’t come into the room like you think the deaf person may hear you walk in. We don’t; please warn us ahead or make a great vibration noise so that way we become aware of our surroundings. Deaf culture is such a sacred culture of how we are beings in our daily lives. When a deaf person bumps into a stranger on the street, a hearing person may talk to the deaf person and ask for directions on their whereabouts. The Deaf person tells the hearing person that that they are deaf and the hearing person says, “oh.” and still keeps talking. There are other ways of communicating with a Deaf person: use a phone to type, or Google Voice to translate, or write down on paper. Most often a hearing person will walk away without trying to communicate on their easy comfort level.
What can you share with our audiences about the role of the Director of Artistic Sign Language (DASL) and why it’s an important part of the process?
JAMES: The DASL works closely with the Deaf actor to translate the text and ensure that the delivery is clear, concise, and appropriate for the setting. Other responsibilities include: research for regional or historical signs (signs vary from region to region or period in history), serve as a dramaturg of Deaf Culture, and work with actors in ensuring the signs are ‘artistic’ in a theatrical environment. The DASL will work closely with the director and other members of the creative team to make certain that the show does justice for the Deaf community and actor. Other responsibilities can include, but not required: serve as a liaison between the theatre and Deaf community, work with a team of interpreters for scheduled interpreted shows, or educate the cast and creative team on how to collaborate with members of the Deaf community. It is common practice for theatre companies to hire DASLs to work with Deaf actors—it does benefit both parties.
TRESHELLE: The role of DASL (Director of Artistic Sign Language) is the most important, not just for deaf actors but for hearing actors, director, crew, and many more. They are able to educate everyone on sensitivity level, on how to keep in mind and be mindful when it comes to someone who can do something completely different than what other people can do (i.e. hear/not hear). I love that their role can be an eye-opening and changing moment for everyone and translate into beautiful visuals depending on what the theme plays off in the play or musical. They also have a wonderful skill of capturing the role essences into accents in our hand language to express what the character is really about. If a hearing actor were to be part of dialogue, this is where the DASL would step in to help and translate what the whole conversation will be about and how it is portrayed when it comes to audience to understand.