In the many years of enjoying the Paramount Theatre’s Broadway Series shows in Aurora, I have to admit Friday evening’s performance of “Newsies” gave me new appreciation for the sound of silence.
What drew my eyes away from the outstanding song and dance numbers that has made this musical so popular was a man and woman dressed in black and standing house front left, right below the stage.
Sheila Kettering and Al Raci are theater interpreters who used American Sign Language through the entire show, a service the Paramount has been offering to the deaf community for one performance per musical for the last four years.
In the past, this service has been under-utilized, something the Paramount wants to change by getting word out and by offering more price promotions. The “tight-knit deaf community loves the theater,” noted Kevin Berls, director of audience services. “And we want to do all we can get get them to come out to Aurora.”
It seems to be working. While there have typically been around a dozen tickets sold to the deaf community at the past shows offering sign language, 41 tickets were purchased for this performance of “Newsies.” And Berls predicts even higher numbers for the
Kettering of Batavia, and Raci of Downers Grove, both 61, have done over 100 shows together in the Chicago area, including productions at Navy Pier, Steppenwolf, Shakespeare and Goodman theaters, in addition to the downtown Aurora venue. And these two are good … really, really good, according to a group of sign language students from Waubonsee Community College, who attended the show in order to study these masters at work.
“Their signs almost make the script seem clearer,” noted WCC student Emily Rux of Rockford, who rarely took her eyes from Kettering and Raci while also jotting down notes.
According to Berls, the Paramount “went through a lot of interpreters” looking for the right ones, “and these two just stood out.”
I know little about sign language or this form of theater interpretation. But watching Kettering and Raci perform – “and it truly is a performance,” noted Berls – as they brought the high-stepping musical to life for their deaf audience was about as enjoyable as watching those young talented performers on stage. Both signers are quick to note, however, what they are doing, while important, should never take away from what’s going on behind them because “we are not the show,” insisted Raci.
True enough. But I wasn’t the only one intrigued. During intermission, non-deaf members from the audience approached – not unusual, they both admitted – to tell them how much fun it was to watch them work.
And work they did. This show, with over 30 actors, is so fast-paced it would probably have been helpful to add a third signer, they agreed prior to the curtain going up. So you can only imagine how busy the pair was as they stood under the spotlight, signing the entire three-hour show, including dialogue, group songs, duets, solos and even sound effects.
In the few times there were no words coming from the stage, Kettering and Raci lowered their hands, bowed heads and let their audience focus on the performers. During the dance numbers, both sat down. And when one signed a solo, the partner also took a seat.
But for at least 90% of the time, these partners interacted with each other, shifting their bodies to represent different characters, using facial expressions to mimic actors and their emotions – sad child, frustrated man, stubborn woman – as well as hand gestures, drawing out those signs when necessary in much the same way the actors drew out spoken or sung words.
Because American Sign Language is its own language – where “concepts are used to draw a picture,” pointed out Raci – signing is not the same as closed captioning. Donna Szubinski of Darien, who is deaf, become a fan of the theater, thanks in large part to her boyfriend, a former usher at the Paramount. Seated close to the stage, she can read lips, but it’s the signers, she told me, who really “pull it all together” and make her “feel so included.”
Szubinski also explained the importance of “the line of sight” and how the deaf audience must be positioned in such a way they can see the interpreters while also watching the stage.
On this night, Raci assumed the lead role of Jack Kelly and other “individual characters,” while Kettering took on the few female parts and most group conversations. Because the voices on stage often sound so similar, the signers have to know the show inside and out so “we aren’t grabbing each other’s lines,” noted Raci. This sort of timing takes dozens of hours of preparation, they assured me, including studying the video and audio the Paramount provided weeks before the show.
“We are definitely not in this for the money,” he said. “It’s hard work, but so interesting.”
“And we love what we do,” added Kettering, who got involved in American Sign Language after seeing a deaf theater production in college.
Raci, who grew up with deaf parents so “this just comes naturally to me,” used to take his mother to the theater long before there was such thing as artistic signers. And he recalls her poking him throughout the show to ask such questions as, “Is he a good guy or bad guy?”
“When I do these shows,” he said, “I always think of my mom and ask myself, ‘what would I have done for her?’”
Their passion for theatrical interpretation is as obvious as the hard work that goes into these mostly one-and-done performances. Raci joked he would probably have to “put some rock” music on the next morning to help get all those show tunes out of his head. But soon the pair will be getting the video for the “Beauty and the Beast” American Sign Language performance at the Paramount on Dec. 27.
And the process will begin all over again.
“We are so fortunate we get to be part of this theatrical experience,” Raci said. “It will be quite a show.”