For sign language interpreters, 'Miracle Worker' is not just any show

rcopley@herald-leader.comMarch 12, 2014 


    'The Miracle Worker'

    What: Performance of William Gibson's play by Montana Rep presented by Broadway Live at the Opera House.

    When: 8 p.m. March 14, 2 and 8 p.m. March 15, 1 and 6 p.m. March 16. Sign-language interpretation is presented at the March 14 performance.

    Where: Lexington Opera House, 401 W. Short St.

    Tickets: $37.15-$92.15. Available at (859) 233-3535, or Ticketmaster, 1-800-745-3000 or

With a popcorn bowl on the coffee table and the TV and DVD player turned on, it looks like a movie afternoon at Donna Snyder's home in Nicholasville. But Snyder and her three colleagues are at work, preparing the sign-language interpretation for this weekend's presentation of The Miracle Worker at the Lexington Opera House.

Snyder, whose day job is interpreter for Fayette County Public Schools, is joined by Kimmie Curtis, a staff interpreter at the Kentucky School for the Deaf in Danville; Tara Stevens, visiting assistant professor in the American sign language and interpreter education department at Eastern Kentucky University; and Jena White, a language consultant who is deaf.

As the 1962 movie about Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan progresses, the interpreters constantly turn to White with questions about what people in the audience who are deaf would need interpreted.

"Most of what's happening between Annie and Helen, deaf people can watch it themselves, and there's no need for it to be interpreted," White told the interpreters in sign language, interpreted by Stevens so a visiting reporter could understand. "We know how it feels, that kind of back and forth, so I think you can watch Annie and Helen. As a deaf person, I don't need you to interpret that for me."

The Miracle Worker is the story of Keller, the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree who went on to become an author, speaker and political activist. William Gibson's play, which was also the basis for the award-winning 1962 Arthur Penn movie that the women were watching, tells the story of young Helen, who lost her sight and hearing to scarlet fever as an infant in the late 19th century, and her teacher, Sullivan, who taught Helen to communicate.

For the deaf community, this is not just another show.

"It's very important, because Helen Keller was deaf and blind," White said, interpreted by Stevens. "I'm just deaf; that's it.

"She didn't accept the fact that her family thought she couldn't do anything. She used that as energy to move forward. She was a very successful woman because she knew that she could do it, and she had those things that she needed to move forward. Deaf people in the community need to see that, to know that I can do that as well. I can do anything. It doesn't matter if you're deaf or hearing."

'The most gorgeous performances'

For Snyder and her crew, interpreting performances is far from simply showing up and repeating whatever is said from the stage through sign language.

"When I first started interpreting, I felt like I was called to interpret music," Snyder says. "I would watch deaf people interpret music, and it was beautiful. Some of the most gorgeous performances I have seen were by deaf people using their language."

This will be Snyder's first time interpreting for a Broadway Live production at the Opera House, but she has been in Rupp Arena for numerous concerts, even signing the Backstreet Boys' 1999 concerts at Rupp Arena, which White attended as a starstruck teenager.

Rock concerts are legendary for being hard places to understand what a performer is saying, but Snyder and other interpreters usually enter the arena knowing pretty much every lyric that's likely to be sung. She will get the set list to the show and then build a playlist on her iPhone specific to that concert. She acknowledges that by the time concert night rolls around, she is often sick of the artists because she's been listening to them so much.

'Act like you are in the play'

But music isn't just about words, she emphasizes.

"There's more to a performance than just what comes out of the microphone," Snyder says.

White, interpreted by Curtis, said, "If it's a rock band, you've got to get into it. You can't just sign with a blank façade. Deaf people can't hear the mood of it, the emotion of it, or the sound of it, so the interpreter has to express those things."

That goes for any kind of performance, be it country concerts or Shakespearean plays.

"You have to act like you are in the play," White continues. "You can't just throw it out there. It doesn't work that way."

Curtis and Stevens have done quite a bit of theater, particularly for Berea College, and they say that they usually start with the script, and maybe attend some rehearsals, to figure out how to best relay the script to audience members who are deaf.

"We'll work together on the script, figuring out how to appropriately convey that message into American sign language," Stevens says.

"I like to see the show," Curtis says. "But this time, we can't because it's a traveling show, so we're watching the movie."

She said they were trying to determine which scenes will necessitate heavy interpretation, and how roles should be divided between them for the clearest interpretation, and when they should just step back and allow the audience to watch the action.

Because The Miracle Worker focuses on the relationship between Keller and Sullivan, there are more moments that don't require interpreting than in most plays. In fact, Snyder says she initially told her collaborators, "I want to play Helen," and they were thinking, well, 'OK, be a diva,' until they realized Helen only has one line."

We won't give away any more than that.

"Hearing people and deaf people can all see the same thing," Snyder says.

But White adds there is a heightened sense of sight that helps her and others who are deaf simultaneously watch sign-language interpreters and the action on the stage.

"I can use other senses to see what's going on," White says, interpreted by Snyder. "So I can see more than a typical hearing person because I use my senses in different ways. I feel like I see more than other people tend to see."

Still, interpreters try to make sure they do not draw too much attention.

"I've heard people say, 'Interpreters upstage the performer,' and we don't set out to do that," Snyder says. "No interpreter wants to do that. But you try to set out to make something interesting for deaf people, and you can't help if you get wrapped up in the performance. We are driven by the emotions."

People who need an interpreter may simply call the box office and request seating to be able to see a sign-language interpreter, said Sheila Kenny, spokeswoman for Lexington Center Corp., which manages the Opera House and Rupp Arena.

She says the costs of the interpreter are absorbed by the event promoter, and they generally need at least two weeks' notice so interpreters can be hired and have time to prepare.

'A really sensitive subject'

The biggest news about sign language interpretation recently centered on a man who posed as an interpreter at the funeral of South African icon Nelson Mandela and essentially signed gibberish as world leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama spoke.

Snyder, who was visiting her son in South Africa right before those events, was stunned that could happen, citing extensive certification for sign language interpreters in the United States and even further background checks necessary to work with high-level officials. (She knows the latter well, having once interpreted for then-Vice President Al Gore.)

"We have rules and certifications, and you can't just go up there and flap your wings," Snyder said. "It made a mockery of the most important person who lived in South Africa."

White, interpreted by Snyder, said, "It's a really sensitive subject because deaf people need access, particularly if it's a big event like that. You ought to have somebody up there who's an expert and not just making up stuff as they go along."

And she and other people who are deaf also want and need access to events such as plays at the Opera House.

"I can't hear that frustration, I can't hear that joy, I can't hear those different emotions," White says. "So I am here to help them understand from my perspective that you need to show those emotions and express those emotions, and I can be involved in the show in that manner, and deaf people can have that understanding of the story."

Rich Copley: (859) 231-3217. Twitter: @copiousnotes. Blog:

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