Published in KPBS On Air Magazine October 1999

Shortly after I moved to San Diego in 1979, I was writing my doctoral dissertation on the acquisition of American Sign Language, and I decided to start a theater of the deaf, which seemed the perfect combination of my various interests. Sorely in need of a crash-course in sign language, I was referred to Jean Kelly.

As assistant pastor at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church, she had an active deaf ministry, and she taught sign language.   With me, as in all her endeavors, she was energetic, endlessly patient, quick to laugh and earnest in her insistence on clarity and meaning above all.

Now Kelly has a much larger audience, but her emphasis on clarity hasn’t changed. After years as a court interpreter, freelancer and interpreting mentor, she’s now interpreting theatrical performances for the deaf.   Her next assignment is “The Phantom of the Opera,” the massive megamusical (based on the 1910 Gaston Leroux melodrama) about a lovesick loner, the hideous masked ‘ghost’ of the Paris Opera House, and his relationship with a lovely young chorine. There are scads of characters and songs… and that falling chandelier to watch out for.

Kelly is undaunted.   For the past two years, she’s worked in tandem with fellow certified interpreter Liz Mendoza. Together, they’ve interpreted the national touring productions of “Peter Pan” and “Miss Saigon,” and local productions of “My Fair Lady,” two Shakespeare comedies and the American premiere of the musical “Jane Eyre.”

Their typical tack is for one to assume the role of the main character while the other handles all the secondary roles; this, they feel, keeps the focus where it should be. In “Jane Eyre,” Kelly played everyone except Jane. In “The Wizard of Oz,” she was Dorothy, and Mendoza was everyone else. Now Kelly (sans mask) assumes the role of the Phantom.

The duo’s preparation process is arduous and intensive. “We ask for a script and a tape of the music,” Kelly explains. “We read and listen over and over, combining that with our own extensive research. Then we divvy up the characters. We practice over my kitchen counter, watching each other to see if there’s something we need to re-work or discuss. At some point, we get to watch the show. Sometimes we spend a lot of time on a particular word and how it reflects the theme of the play.

“For instance, in ‘Jane Eyre,’ there’s a lot of talk early on about Rochester being ‘blind’ to this or that.   Normally, we wouldn’t use the sign BLIND; we’d translate it as ‘overlooked’ or ‘didn’t see.’   Originally, we interpreted ‘blind’ metaphorically, but it was meant as a foreshadowing of his later blindness, so we had to be more literal from the outset.”

When interpreting songs, Kelly makes her sign more poetic. “We might be concerned with a particular shape of the hand, and try to use signs with that same shape (an open or closed hand, for example) throughout the song.” It’s like visual alliteration.

A lot of ASL is on the face – not just emotional reactions, but also grammatical information. According to Steph Sforza, a deaf theatergoer, not every interpreter is sufficiently expressive. “I’ve seen interpreters who are like monotone, with no expression,” says the 30 year-old employee at Deaf Community Services.

“It’s a big challenge watching an interpreted performance,” says Sforza. “You have to look back and forth, and try not to miss anything. The best interpreters, like Jean and Liz, are giving a performance; they have the tone, the music, the theatrical background. They make the deaf people feel the beat, the rhythm, the music. Most interpreters don’t do that.”

From the interpreters’ standpoint, every show has its problems and peculiarities. During “Peter Pan,” when Kelly interpreted Captain Hook, she kept one hand in a hook position, and only used one hand to sign. In “Jane Eyre,” as in “The Phantom,” there are soliloquy-duets.   “In those cases,” says Kelly, “we’re back-to-back, to show that the characters are not attending to each other during the song.”

There are other concerns in the interpreting process: where to stand (“we’re usually stage left, slightly elevated, so the deaf audience can see us and look over our heads at the action”), how to sign (trying to mirror the posture or body language of a character) and what to wear. “I’m opposed to black,” says Kelly, flouting interpreter practice of wearing dark colors to offset and highlight their hands. “Only stagehands wear black. We try to match our clothes to the feel or color of a particular character’s costume.   We haven’t gotten into full costumes yet, but that’s my goal.”

Her other goal is training interpreters in just these kinds of technical details, and other aspects of the business of interpreting. She’s about to complete her Masters in Organizational Leadership, and she’s spent the past four years giving workshops across the country. “Personality is important. And business. And professionalism.   But the biggest challenge is to get the story across.

“When we did ‘Miss Saigon,’ the deaf sister of the man who played the Engineer came to the show. She’d seen it three or four times before.   But after our performance, she came up to us with tears in her eyes. She said it was the first time she fully understood everything in the show. As I always say, meaning is everything.”

[The Phantom of the Opera haunts the Civic Theatre October 30-November 21. The interpreted performance is November 20.]

©1999 Patté Productions Inc.