Listening without ears

Deborah Pritchard

Sign language interpreters share musical production with deaf audience

Signing the words “sodomy,” “fellatio” and “cunnilingus” is not something seen everyday. Professional theater sign language interpreters translate these words for the deaf in the song “Sodomy” in the musical “Hair.”

“The movements are just hysterical,” said Merry Beth Pietila, one of the original founders of the HeArd. “There are parts where the deaf people will be laughing and the rest of the people won’t know what’s going on.”

Student Accessibility Services contacted American Sign Language interpreters from the HeArd, an organization of professional theater sign language interpreters, to perform “Hair.” The sign-interpreted performance will be at 8 p.m. Feb. 24 in the E. Turner Stump Theatre in the Music and Speech Center.

Pietila said the “A” is capitalized in “HeArd” and represents the ear of a cow.

“We are a ‘herd’ of cows who can hear, so we added an ‘A’ for the ear that we hear with,” she said. “We all have cow names. I am Mooey . I am definitely the mama cow of the group!” she said.

The four interpreters who will be performing “Hair” are Mark Howdieshell, Doug Braun, Betty Bridgewater and Pietila.

Pietila said members of the HeArd, who have been interpreting productions for 14 years, perform at individual’s homes, various Starbucks locations and in theaters. She said she has a rehearsal room in her home with a giant-sized mirror to look at to make sure they are doing the same movements when necessary, such as for a group song.

“Many folks call my house the corral because we rehearse there so much,” she said. “We rehearse hours on end together and alone. Group songs always require a significant amount of time.”

Originally, all the interpreters in the HeArd were formally involved with Fairmount Theatre of the Deaf, which is now called Cleveland Signstage Theatre. Since then, some interpreters have left the HeArd and some were added, Pietila said.

Pietila, who has been involved in singing and interpreting shows in Ohio for the past 17 years, began learning sign language in 1976 while working as an intern pastor at St. John’s Lutheran Church in Millville, Pa. Two deaf people were members of the congregation.

“My first sign was ‘corn,'” she said. “We were holding a corn soup festival.”

She said the interpreters spend several hours dividing up the script.

“For ‘Hair,’ there are four of us and many more people on stage,” she said. “Just figuring out who is who takes a lot of time.”

Howdieshell said they have to translate the meaning of words into sign language. Theatrical signing provides more flexibility than dialogue signing.

He said one of the times they have to translate the meaning is when singing “Aquarius/ Let the Sun Shine In.”

“We have to adapt it to show the sunshine is coming in to ourselves and going out to others,” he said, “We need to give the feeling that we are sharing love.”

Pietila said knowing sign language is not enough to be able to interpret theater shows. She said people need a background with experience in things such as theater, dance, mime or baton twirling. It needs to be “something physical that allows them to take language through the air and make it artistic,” she said.

The HeArd accepts practicum students into their rehearsals from the interpreter training program at Cuyahoga Community College, she said. The students work with the HeArd throughout the rehearsal process of a show and into production.

“They learn the nuances of working with a theater, the jargon used by theater people and they see how we play with signed language,” she said. “The way we use language in the air is not taught in an interpreter training program. It is an artistic approach which often breaks the rules of signed language.”

Pietila said the HeArd has also worked with a few students from Kent State’s interpreter training program.

“‘Hair’ is a fabulous show for us baby boomers to interpret,” Pietila said. “Takes us back to ‘the good old days.’ Here at Kent, you will see young actors on stage portraying the lives that many of us really lived.”

Pietila said that many deaf patrons don’t realize that if they want to see a show, they can buy tickets for the production and request that the theater provide interpreters.

There is a reserved section of 30 seats for the interpreters. When students call the box office at (330) 672-2497 to reserve their tickets, they should mention that they would like to be seated in the area with the interpreters. Contact Anna Ramach at [email protected] for a group discount.

For more information on the HeArd, go to the Web site

Contact student life reporter Deborah Pritchard at [email protected].