A musical that incorporates American Sign Language poses some challenges, but when done correctly, makes for a wondrous and memorable production. That’s sure to be the case when the WSC Avant Bard Theatre presents Visible Language, a world premiere musical about the 1890s culture war that changed the life of every deaf person in America.
Visible Language stars Harv Lester, Tom Baldbridge, Sarah Anne Sillers, and Miranda Medugno as iconic and complex characters from the rich history of the deaf community, among them Helen Keller, but perhaps the real star of the production is Aaron Kubey, the show’s director of artistic sign language, a position on the creative team unique to shows in sign, that few hearing theatergoers comprehend.
“My role is to teach the cast how to sign in the ASL style of the late 1890’s, which is different from modern day ASL. I am also responsible for making sure the translations by the actors are accurate and understandable for the audience,” Kubey says. “I work closely with the director, Tom Prewitt, in making sure that the integrity of deaf culture is respected throughout the show and within the cast.”
Preparing for any musical is a challenge. Adding ASL to the mix presents a different set of challenges.
“When translating the lyrics, we try to figure out their subtext, and then try to figure out how to best portray that subtext in ASL,” Kubey says. “We also have to make sure that the ASL translation matches the tempo and rhythm of the music. It’s almost like a mathematical formula—a + b + c = d. It takes a lot of time for everyone to get used to finding that timing and rhythm to match the ASL translation seamlessly with the music and lyrics.”
In Visible Language, there are no interpreters standing on the sidelines, which the non-deaf community might see as unusual for a “sign-interpreted” production, but in fact, is rather common in a production like this. Kubey is key to making it work.
“This show incorporates deaf and hearing characters, and not just your average deaf characters, but historical characters that carry great weight in deaf culture,” Kubey says. “It’s not unusual in the sense of deaf theatre, but it may be unusual for the average theatregoer who may have never seen or experienced deaf theatre before. The challenges in this situation lies within making sure that the voice actors do not speak ahead of the deaf actors and vice versa, but trying to find that perfect lag time so the focus is thrown on the appropriate character.”
This method has been used in countless ways and in many different formats in deaf theatre. Kubey says it works best when the entire cast buys into the philosophy that both the deaf and voice actor work together in tandem as one voice. When that happens, the audience gets to truly enjoy the show in its sincerity and how the director of the show intended for it to be enjoyed.
Kubey first became involved in the theatre as a young child, and started professionally in 1994 while attending the Model Secondary School for the Deaf at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. In 2006, he earned his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theatre Studies from the Theatre School, DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois.
“The life of the theatre always fascinated me because where else could I play so many characters, travel to many worlds, and touch people’s lives all at the same time in one place?” he reasons. “I love teaching, and I love it when I see actors learn, develop, hone, and improve their skills. I really can’t put into words that special feeling I get when I see them work hard and put out such a beautiful product that shows they get it, and they enjoy their jobs even more.”
October 21 – November 16, 2014
800 Florida Avenue, NE
Thursdays thru Sundays
Kubey was the first deaf and youngest executive director of the National Theatre of the Deaf. Over the years he’s worked on numerous television, film, and theatrical productions, and recently interpreted HandSpeak at the Kennedy Center, as well as the GWU production of Merchant of Venice.
“One show that I loved doing and hope to produce/direct someday is Equus. That has always stuck with me since I was 18 and really impacted me in a profound way,” he says. “I look forward to continuing working as a DASL [Director of Artistic Sign Language], theatre interpreter, teaching about theatre interpreting, directing shows, and possibly getting back on the stage again myself someday. I would love to work as a teacher somewhere if that opportunity ever arose.”
For now, Kubey is concentrating his efforts on Visible Language and believes it’s a musical that everyone should experience.
“I think it tries to tell the various ways of how people communicate and how simple, yet frustrating, communication (or the lack thereof) can be,” he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re deaf or hearing. We all share the common desire to communicate with one another on many different levels and share the common challenges of figuring out the best method of communication. It’s a human trait that is so easily attainable, yet perplexing at the same time.”
Visible Language will run Oct. 21 to Nov. 16 at Gallaudet University Eastman Studio Theatre.