[Publisher Update:  The Juilliard Interpreter Training program was discontinued in 2009. The aesthetic blow to the national Deaf community is, and was, devastating. — David W. Boles]

by Mariclare Mullane

Sign language interpreters from all over the country and Canada come to New York for one week in June to take part in “Interpreting for the Theatre.” During this week the interpreters work on improving every aspect of their work. This past June was the fifth annual year for the program, which is sponsored by the Theatre Development Fund, through its Theatre Access Project, and The Juilliard School. Seventeen students from twelve states were accepted into the program through videotaped auditions. The Theatre Access Project, a part of the nonprofit Theatre Development Fund, sponsors the program. The Theatre Access Project arranges for deaf theatergoers to attend shows at least once a month.

The Theatre Development Fund’s Theatre Access Project began in 1979 providing people with physical disabilities access to the performing arts. Not only does the Theatre Access Project provide sign language interpreted performances for the Deaf and hard of hearing, they serve theatergoers who are partially sighted or blind; those who are unable to climb stairs; and people who need aisle seating or use wheelchairs. Discounted orchestra seats are available to those customers with specific seating needs, thanks to the Theatre Development Fund through the Theatre Access Project. Since 1980 the Theatre Access Project has presented over 259 sign language interpreted shows of over 125 Broadway and Off-Broadway shows.

Open Captioning
The Theatre Development Fund’s Director of Theatre Access Project and New York City court reporter, Lisa Carling, invented the process of open captioning.

The first Broadway show was open captioned in 1997.

This opened the theatre up to the population of Deaf and hard of hearing individuals who are not able to use American Sign Language or get only partial help from assistive listening devices.

The Theatre Access Project presented the first open captioned performances in London in March 2000.

“What is so exceptional about this program is that in a few short years we have helped raise the national standard for theatre sign language interpretation,” says Lisa Carling.

“The program not only benefits interpreters who come to study the art of theatre sing interpretation by the master of the craft, but more importantly ensures a more professional quality of interpreting for audience member across the country who are deaf.”

Interpreter Students
“Interpreting for the Theatre,” which began in 1998, offer talented theatre interpreters from across the country and Canada the opportunity to learn advanced techniques for signing plays and musicals. New York’s top theatre interpreters teach the classes, with the help of members of the Deaf community.

The students are coached in translation, performance, and body work (the Alexander Technique.) Also, panel discussions are held which include many Deaf people. The students are required to see the show, which they will interpret, a minimum of five times during the week in order to prepare for their final project.

Their final project is to interpret the show on Friday afternoon in the Juilliard Theater, with a recording serving as the audio portion. The workshop ends with a performance that is interpreted by the Juilliard interpreters. At times there will be up to twelve interpreters doing a Broadway show, when usually there would only be two or three. This is so everyone who came all the way to New York City will have a shot at the “big time.” Those interpreters are then able to go home and apply the skills they learned in their hometown interpreting projects.

The students are broken into groups of three or four and are responsible for a section of the play. The students will usually interpret for two or three characters at a time. When is comes to signing the songs it has a more expressive and rhythmic motion than that of the dialogue. The interpreters will use ordinary, conversational-style signs for the dialogue and use larger signing for the songs. They try to include a rhythmic element for songs to reinforce the vibrations deaf people feel.

Four students were chosen to interpret small sections of the live performance of 42nd Street at the Ford Theatre on Friday evening, after their final project, along with the professional interpreters. One student chosen was from Cincinnati, Bob LoParo. He said that he was so excited to be picked that he was in shock until after he was finished interpreting.

“Then I got the chance to take it all in and realize, that was me up there. That was so wonderful. At intermission, that’s the part where I broke down. They brought me a card that everyone [in the seminar] had signed and wrote wonderful things. I opened it, and there was a photo of the show, and I looked at it and I thought, ‘I never want to see this stupid show again!’ as tears welled in my eyes.” It was a real honor for Bob LoParo to get the opportunity like this, it is an experience he will never forget and will be able to in his future endeavors and also to help other interpreters.

The students had a grueling schedule during that week in June. They were kept busy from nine in the morning to eleven at night, yet they kept up the enthusiasm. The seminar is so powerful because the instructors emphasize an interpreter’s responsibility for making the play accessible to a deaf audience, as well as having an ongoing dialogue with the deaf community. The simple act of emphasizing involvement not only impacts the interpreters, but the deaf community across the country.

On the final day of the program the students receive feedback on their work in private evaluations. Lyssa Cook, and interpreter from St Paul, Minn., commented that the final evaluation “was phenomenal. It showed the progress that we made throughout the whole week. And they gave us things that we could still work on.”

Alan Champion
The co-founders Alan Champion and Candace Broecker-Penn have been working together since 1982 and as of 1998 they had done about forty shows together and this December they will be interpreting The Lion King together. They are not actors and the never said a word or sang a note. Champion, a native of Tulsa, Okla., says, “The actors are on stage.” Both himself and Broecker-Penn were born to deaf parents.

The interpreters have to go to rehearsals to learn the cues and timing, they do not just walk into the theatre and begin to sign a show. Broecker-Penn mentioned in an interview with New York Daily News that “She looks for something special in the actors’ portrayals ‘If I can pick up on that essence, especially if I’m interpreting two or three characters, the audience will always know which one I am.’” This is very important, one time she did all eight characters in The Miracle Worker by herself, and all five female roles in Our Town.

The interpreters stand in front of the seats reserved for the Deaf, often wearing basic black outfits. “We’re not competing in the costume category,” Champion says. The interpreters try to work closely with the cast to make it clear that they are not competing, they are complementing. Interpreting is more that translating words into signs, it is about telling a story and showing emotion in the hands, body and face to communicate song as well as dialogue. “Musicals pose no special problems”, they say. Most of their audiences have never heard music, so they have the task of trying to capture the musical mood through gestures and body and facial language.

Broecker-Penn saw a performance of the opera Gianni Schicchi by the National Theater of the Deaf at the age of fourteen. It was then that she decided that one day she would join that company. She received a degree in theater from the University of New Orleans, and then she became a member of the National Theater of the Deaf. After touring for more than three years she moved to New York in 1980 to work for the Theatre Development Fund. She was in charge of auditioning interpreters for the deaf, and one of her first candidates was Alan Champion.

Champion attended Oral Roberts University on a music scholarship before he left for St. Louis. There he sang in summer stock and the city opera company as a theatrical interpreter. His first interpreting gig was with a touring company from Iowa, he was drafted last minute. He spent thirty minutes with the director talking about the play and then he interpreted all four speaking roles. He blew everyone away at his New York audition and received the honor of doing the first Broadway interpretation for the Deaf.

Janna Sweenie
Another person involved in the Juilliard program is Janna Sweenie, she works with individual interpreters on certain parts of a scene in which they are having trouble. She also gives panel feedback after the performances. The performers seek the advice and insight of a Deaf individual over a Hearing interpreter. Sweenie also evaluates the interpreters in the program and then helps to choose those who are appropriate for interpreting an actual Broadway performance.

Sweenie made her Broadway debut in June 2002 interpreting 42nd Street for the Theatre Development Fund’s interpreted performance. She moved from performance interpreter for the Theatre Development Fund to performance evaluator for Juilliard for the same show, in the same year! Sweenie was born deaf and she was raised in Iowa, where she went to school at the Iowa School for the Deaf. She then received her Bachelor’s Degree from Lehman College in New York City. Sweenie was one of Lehman’s first Deaf graduates. She is very involved in the Deaf Communities of New York and New Jersey.

Janna Sweenie mentioned in E-mail is “Another REALLY IMPORTANT thing that Juilliard teaches is the idea of CONCEPT. Don’t think ‘word, word, word’ when you interpret a show – think of the overall CONCEPT of what you are trying to say because English does not directly translate to American Sign Language at all and so that in-between place where English grammar and American Sign Language facial expression meet is called CONCEPT.” This is understandable, because even for an actor there are other important things than just words in a script. There has to be an understanding of the work to be able to portray a character.

Training an interpreter to become a qualified theatrical interpreter should include a combination of translations and performance instruction. Acting classes or instruction can greatly benefit the performing arts interpreter, as can specific instruction regarding the process of translating a script. Interpreting for a theatrical performance is nothing like interpreting for a conference or in a classroom. Each setting has a different set of rules that one needs to follow.

For the past five years deaf theatergoers throughout the United States and Canada have been able to enjoy the theatre more and more. Thanks to the talented interpreters and the skills they are able to learn because of the Juilliard School and Theatre Development Fund through the “Interpreting for the Theatre” program. Hopefully this program will be able to continue, so more and more people are able to learn the skills to provide enjoyable theatre to everyone.

Works Cited
. “Interpreting for the Theatre.” Theatre Development Fund and Juilliard School. 09 June 2002. TDF and Juilliard School. 27 Oct. 2002 .

. “TDF’s Theatre Access Project (TAP) Presents First Open Captioned Performances in London.” TDF Programs. . TDF. 01 Nov. 2002 .

Bell, Bill. “Bringing Broadway to the Deaf.” New York Daily News 11 Dec. 1998. 20 Oct. 2002 .

Sweenie, Janna. “Re: Questions about Juilliard Interpreter Training.” 29 Sept. 2002. Personal e-mail.

Sweenie, Janna. Janna Sweenie, M.A.. . 01 Oct. 2002 .

Yelon, Lisa. “Signs of the Times: Interpreters Perfect Their Craft.” The Juilliard Journal Online Sept. 2002. 20 Oct. 2002 .


  1. UPDATE:

    The Juilliard Interpreter Training program was discontinued in 2009 due to a lack of funding. The damage done to the Deaf Community is incalculable.

  2. I wanted to participate in this program so badly until I realized it had been discontinued several years ago. What a shame! This sounds like the most incredible opportunity and educational experience for theatre ASL interpreters. Thanks for writing!

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