Signs in the Spotlight
by Taylor Moe | published Oct. 22nd, 2022
Signing takes center stage as RIT Performing Arts departments endorse the production of American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken word theater.
Several well known productions are being brought into a new light at RIT with the addition of sign language on stage. One of these productions is a version of "In the Heights," written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which follows the story of a Hispanic community in the neighborhood of Manhattan’s Washington Heights.
This production of "In the Heights" is being performed by the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) Performing Arts department, which is bringing both sign language and spoken word to the stage. This combination of languages is rarely seen in the world of theater, making this production unique to RIT NTID.
Luane Haggerty, an NTID Performing Arts principal lecturer and the director of "In the Heights," provides her thoughts on this form of theater.
“To have a production that is in both sign language and spoken language is rare,” Haggerty said. “It is difficult to direct two realities at the same time.”
"To have a production that is in both sign language and spoken language is rare."
Sign language is used continuously throughout NTID’s production of "In the Heights." There are lines being spoken and signed at the same time, but in a way that connects these actors rather than separating them.
Another production that utilizes a similar strategy is "Men on Boats," which is a play produced by the school's department of performing arts. Signs are used throughout the play to signify important actions or events, but there are also entire scenes that play out in sign language, which are translated into spoken word by an interpreter who is off to the side.
Enter Stage Right
Putting together a show – especially one that consists of a variety of languages – involves a number of moving parts. "In the Heights," for example, performs four different languages: English, ASL, Spanish and dance.
For Haggerty’s version of "In the Heights," every deaf or hard of hearing actor is paired with a hearing actor, but they each have their own character in the musical. Even though they are expressing the same lines and actions, they are seen as two different characters.
“They are a unit, they are both part of that role and they both have a relationship with each other, not just one following the other or being in the background,” Haggerty explained.
During the performance, deaf or hard of hearing actors are able to stay on pace using visual cues from their co-actors.
“Through watching each other from the corner of your eye, you watch your neighbor so you can make the timing work,” Haggerty said. “What they’re reading is not necessarily just your hands, they’re reading your body language, facial expressions, gestures; they are getting visual cues from blocking.”
Music is considered by many people as hearing-culture, but NTID Performing Arts has developed a way to integrate musical performance in their work. Deaf and hard of hearing actors are able to dance to the beat of the music by counting their steps and feeling the vibrations of the music through the floor.
“The dance numbers are done by counts more than music,” Haggerty said. “We have a sprung wood floor so that you could feel the vibration of the music and the boombox, and we have speakers strategically placed.”
One challenge faced by deaf or hard of hearing actors is that they have to present their signing in a way that is visible to their audience. This often means that they need to remain somewhat stationary while signing to make it easier for the audience to follow them.
“Although a deaf person can walk and sign at the same time, for the audience member to be able to read it and see what they’re saying, it’s much easier if you can sign stationary and then move,” Haggerty explained.
Ana Rojas, a second year NTID graphic design major, recently regained her interest in acting and decided that she would audition for "In the Heights," and ultimately obtained the role of Nina. The character, Nina, is a young woman who has a passion for college but is not able to keep her grades up while working two jobs. The story follows Nina as she tries to hide the fact that she flunked out of school from her parents.
Rojas compares her own story to that of her character’s.
"It benefits all of us when we try to open the doors to people who have often had them closed."
“Her story is almost like my story,” Rojas explained. “I love school, but I didn’t drop out because I never give up and I’m going to keep going.”
Throughout the rehearsal process of "In the Heights," Rojas has found nothing challenging about communicating with hearing actors. There are enough cast members who know sign language and are willing to adjust their communication in any way that is useful, making it a welcoming environment.
“It’s not challenging because I can still communicate with hearing students because they know sign language,” Rojas said.
RIT’s "In the Heights" and "Men on Boats" have brought together very diverse casts based on language, ethnicity and gender identity, adding an additional layer of meaning to these productions.
“A chance to show female leadership in a play, to be able to represent an underrepresented group of students and community members as well. I thought was a really unique and exciting opportunity for NTID,” Haggerty said.
For Haggerty, "In the Heights" is a way for her to put the audience in her shoes. Growing up, Haggerty was immersed in deaf culture and was able to experience life in both deaf and hearing communities, which is what she aims to project on the stage.
“For a person who is embedded in the deaf community, but is also hearing, you get pulled in a couple different directions and I like to show that on stage,” Haggerty said.
With NTID Performing Arts, Haggerty is working to make every production just as diverse and unique as the next, while pushing the boundaries and stereotypes of theater.
“It benefits all of us when we try to open the doors to people who have often had them closed.”