In a theater setting, sign-language interpretation is about more than words. It’s also about delivering the same emotional wallop to deaf audiences as to the hearing.
In the musical “Dear Evan Hansen,” where a misfit teenager edges his way into a grieving family’s life through a string of lies, there’s a lot of emotional walloping going on, by turns aching, searing and cathartic. The song “Disappear,” for instance, is Evan’s cry against outsiderhood, and if the audience is going to follow this stumbling, mumbling young man on his chaotic journey, it needs to understand the purity of heart that he conveys in this song, despite his wrongful actions.
On a recent Saturday in a studio at the Kennedy Center, where the touring version of the Tony-winning musical is in the midst of a five-week run, sign-language interpreter Michael Creason and two colleagues are working out their translation. Their task is to convey to deaf patrons not only the words but also the feelings — the soul-searching, theater-filling roar of Evan’s yearning, so desperate that it hardens into a resolve as poignant as it is immoral.
Their job, in fact, is not really about words. It’s about using one art — the swift, fluid American Sign Language, perhaps not properly an art but indisputably beautiful and expressive — to render another, which has double meanings and ambiguities all its own. In many cases, a strict word-for-word decoding would ruin the magic.
“No one deserves to be forgotten/ No one deserves to disappear,” leading actor Ben Levi Ross sings in the matinee performance, which is being live-streamed into the rehearsal studio.
Creason sweeps an arm in front of him, as if he’s gesturing to multitudes in the distance. Continuing the same smooth motion, he raises a bent finger — like one lonely, faltering soul — then lets the hand drop. The sense of crushed hope and insignificance in that sequence, of plunging out of view while the world goes on, is clear.
Yet the word “disappear” is sung over and over — it’s not for nothing that it’s the title of the song. As the song builds, Creason and interpreters Amanda Welly and Christina Whitehouse-Suggs use different signs for the repeats: one hand dropping past the other. Fingers interlocked, then opening. A shape made by one hand is wiped away by the other. Each sign is a sharp flash of brokenness, clear and ringing. The series evokes such sadness you could cry.
This may be why Aaron Kubey, who’s directing the rehearsal, sniffs and his eyes redden as he watches Creason and taps notes into his phone. Kubey is solidly built and broad-shouldered and wears a blue “Dear Evan Hansen” ball cap. His full title is director of artistic sign language, otherwise known as a DASL (pronounced “dazzle”). He was formerly president of the National Theatre of the Deaf, and as a member of the deaf community with theater expertise, he oversees the interpreters’ choices to ensure they’ll make sense to deaf patrons. He had vowed not to cry during the rehearsal — tears being the default response of DEH fans on Broadway and across the land — but he’s not alone. Sniffles are heard around the room.
Well, in a sense, Kubey asked for it. This is the first rehearsal, and he wanted his sign-language cast to pour it all out.
“My style of being a DASL is I tell them, ‘Just imagine you’re Jackson Pollock and I’m a white canvas,’ ” Kubey explains at intermission through an interpreter. “Do what feels right, throw everything at me. I want them to be as creative as they can be.”
His eye for aesthetics is why Kubey insisted on different signs for the “disappear” refrain. “For the deaf, to have one sign repeat over and over would be boring,” he says. “That’s the beauty of ASL — there are so many ways to represent words in the hands and the face.”
Granting this freedom and then artfully shaping it puts Kubey in a rare position. Theaters across the country may offer various accommodations, including captioning devices and sign interpretation. But the Kennedy Center is one of the few to add another layer to its live sign-language interpretations by hiring theater-savvy directors who are deaf — that’s the crucial part — to oversee them. Since the interpreters are by necessity hearing, an interpretation left entirely in their hands might not contain the nuances and idioms of deaf culture. It may smack of paternalism: Here’s what we think you need.
The DASLs are there to create a deaf-centered experience, grounded in the deaf perspective.
“We have an obligation by law not to discriminate against people with disabilities. So at its core, I have to reach the low bar of ‘effective communication,’ ” says Betty Siegel, the Kennedy Center’s director of accessibility. More than 20 years ago at Arena Stage, Siegel began teaming up her sign-language interpreters with deaf “sign masters” — the term of art before DASL — and continued when she moved to the Kennedy Center.
“We believe deeply that theater needs to be in the moment, be real, be engaging, be emotional, have the same impact on the deaf community as on the hearing community,” Siegel says. “And you don’t get that just by being effective but by being artistic. Any qualified sign-language interpreter can get up in front of a group and do well. They would be effective. But you don’t want a performer to just be effective. You want them to be amazing, to change your view of the world. We want that for our deaf audiences as well.”
This means that Kubey is akin to a choreographer as well as a director, deciding not only on specific signs but also on how they’ll be shaped to convey the most feeling and create a harmonious flow. Splayed fingers or curled, a choppy action or a soft one — these are all creative choices.
“It helps everything become interlinked. That helps the deaf audience, and gives the interpretation a powerful energy,” he says. “It’s easier on the eyes if everything flows together. Body language and expression and signs all have to tie together.”
The team has one more rehearsal before their signed performances of “Dear Evan Hansen” on Aug. 20 and 23. The Kennedy Center typically has two sign-interpreted performances for every show, which are listed on its website. It also offers other accommodations, including captioned and audio-described performances and one-on-one tactile interpreting for people who are deaf and blind. Siegel will add more interpreted shows on request. (She had a lot of requests for “Hamilton.”)
For its sign-interpreted shows, the arts center generally sets aside 60 to 75 seats, near the front, close to where the interpreters sit under a spotlight. They try not to steal the show, Kubey says, aiming to keep their work contained, which can enhance the effect.
Hearing audiences often find the interpretation moving and a performance in its own right, the interpreters say. Some audience members occasionally object — at a recent signed performance of “Byhalia, Mississippi,” a woman asked to be moved away from the interpreters’ spotlight, and an usher cheerfully reseated her.
The poetic dimensions of “Dear Evan Hansen” make it especially demanding. “This is the most complex script I’ve ever worked with,” Creason says. “I’ve done Sondheim’s ‘Into the Woods,’ which musically is complex but the text itself is pretty straightforward. Shakespeare is very dense content. But this is probably the most difficult musical I’ve worked with because it’s so metaphorical.”
Take the plaintive song “Waving Through a Window,” in which Evan confesses to feeling locked up inside himself and left out.
‘Cause I’m tap, tap, tapping on the glass/ Waving through a window.
That’s clear, right? But when it comes to signing it, the interpreters have to be sure: Is Evan talking about a true window, as in being walled off from the other side? Or, since he’s in high school and surrounded onstage by a set design featuring blown-up tweets and Facebook feeds on mobile devices, does he mean he’s tapping on his phone? Is he talking about apps?
During rehearsal, there’s a long discussion about this: The song has a lyric about waiting “for an answer to appear,” but then again, Evan’s also “watching people pass.”
Kubey settles it. “It’s a metaphor,” he says. “It’s not a literal window.”
Interpretation: Creason taps and swipes across his palm.
As with so many of the show’s fans, the interpreters feel a personal connection. Both Whitehouse-Suggs and assistant DASL Jill Owens have teenage children; Whitehouse-Suggs, who signs the role of Evan’s mother, has been listening to the soundtrack for years.
“I knew this was going to hit some raw spaces,” she says. Welly, who isn’t far from her own teen years and the anxieties of that age, saw the musical with Whitehouse-Suggs on opening night and knew what would happen: “Ugly crying. Full-on ugly cry,” Welly says. “Luckily, Christina had grabbed enough napkins for both of us.”
Kubey fell for the musical when he saw the world premiere at Arena Stage in 2015.
“This is mine. I will fight for this show,” Kubey recalls thinking. “It has a special meaning for me, growing up deaf. I often felt alone, singled out, distanced from other people. It was hard for me, but being in the deaf community, I came to understand how to connect with others and that I’m not alone in this world.”
These feelings mirror Evan Hansen’s, and nowhere is that more beautifully expressed than in the uplifting anthem that closes the first act, “You Will Be Found.” As the slow, building vocal harmonies fill the room, the rehearsal takes on the rolling momentum of a church choir swept up in the spirit, with Welly and Whitehouse-Suggs using signs that recall the “disappear” expressions but move in the opposite direction — one hand pulling up the other, one finger grasping another, every word soaring gently and deliberately upward. Meanwhile, drinking in the moment, Creason portrays an Evan who is finally content, sitting silently with his hands crossed over his heart.
In that stillness, the directors see the resolution of everything that weighed on Evan — the loneliness, the sense of being a freak, the strains of uncertainty that can flicker in all of us, the whole mess accepted and softened with a quiet composure that surpasses language.
“It’s a moment of awe,” Owens says.
“He finally puts it out there,” Kubey adds. “It’s just . . . it’s everything.”
He pauses, searching for a sign.
“It’s that moment of being seen.”
Dear Evan Hansen Through Sept. 8 at the Kennedy Center. kennedy-center.org.