How and Why Sign Language Interpreters Provide Access to Deaf/Hard-of-Hearing Audiences

Patrick Oliver Jones
Feb 7 · 22 min read

“I think one of our biggest goals as sign language interpreters is opening the world not only to the deaf but to the hearing and allowing people those experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to.” (Heidi Johnson, ASL interpreter)

Photo by Jo Hilton on Unsplash

On a recent episode of the Why I’ll Never Make It podcast, there was an important discussion on the function, necessity, and accessibility of sign language in the theater. Now, podcasts by their very nature are designed and geared toward the hearing world, but for this particular topic I thought it was important to make sure this episode was also available to those who can’t listen to an audio recording for one reason or another.

And so I did something I’ve never done before on the podcast — I compiled a full transcript of the episode. First and foremost, this gives anyone the chance to be a part of our discussion. And secondly, it provides an immediate way to check the references and quotes and web links mentioned throughout the episode. I hope this text version creates another avenue to share this with others and will bring further light to the important subject of theater access for deaf audiences.

EPISODE 93 (Season 4)

Well, hello and welcome to Why I’ll Never Make It, a podcast featuring insightful stories and conversations with fellow artists on the realities of a career in the entertainment industry. I’m your host Patrick Oliver Jones and to find other episodes of Why I’ll Never Make It or to get in touch with me, you can go to the website: winmipodcast.com.

Now, this podcast mainly focuses on the artist, the creative — the actor or composer or director, etc. — but in today’s episode I’m turning the tables and focusing on the audience. Specifically those who are deaf and hard-of-hearing. Their access to what we do on stage is often limited, and often times they can’t make it to the theater because there’s no way provided for them to understand what is happening. That’s where sign language interpreters come in and provide access for this underserved community of theater-goers.

Because you see there are more than 130 recognized sign languages worldwide, and American Sign Language is the fourth most common language in the United States. So that’s why it’s so important that we give sign language of voice in theater.

Mairéad MacSweeney, director of the Deafness, Cognition, and Language Research Center at the University College London explains the similarities and differences between signed and verbal communication. (Source: brainfacts.org)

“The first thing to understand is that signed languages are natural human languages. They evolved naturally wherever a group of deaf people need to communicate. Sign languages are fully capable of the same complexity as spoken languages. Signed and spoken languages are complex linguistic systems that simply differ in how they are expressed and perceived.”

And it is these differences that make sign language for theater so specialized and also so necessary. But the history of ASL-interpreted shows is actually fairly young. It was not until the early 1980s that the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles would offer the first regularly scheduled ASL-interpreted performances of theater in the nation. This was spurred by the Forum’s success with the play Children of a Lesser God in 1979, which went on to be produced on Broadway and won the Tony Award for Best Play in 1980.(Source: howlround.com, by David Kurs)

Phyllis Frelich and John Rubinstein in a play by Mark Medoff about the love of a deaf woman and a hearing man that was inspired by her relationship with her husband. (Photo Credit: Martha Swope)

In fact, Children of a Lesser God had a Broadway revival a couple of years ago, and I was so grateful to have one of the actors from that play, John McGinty, on the podcast. During our conversation, he was very open about being a deaf actor and what that means to him:

“I don’t let my deafness limit me, I think. As a person who happens to be deaf I think my job is not only to self-advocate but to advocate for the younger generation of deaf people who are up and coming. Because I don’t want them to go through the same struggles and frustrations that I’ve had to. Because it’s a waste of time. So, I think it’s our collective job as a community to keep making progress and keep moving things forward.”

We then talked about the themes and messages in Children of a Lesser God and how that applies to the deaf community today but also to sign language interpretation:

“For example, schools for the deaf today, often times hearing teachers who don’t know sign language are still teaching in those institutions, and it’s an impediment to their education and their language acquisition. So I think that’s a theme in Children of a Lesser God. My character was fighting for deaf students to have equal rights to education, have deaf people teaching deaf children. Because it makes a big difference. And it’s still relevant today. Sometimes in situations with interpreters, where interpreters are required for access, even still today we get people who push back and say, ‘Oh, well, we don’t need an interpreter. We don’t have to provide an interpreter because whatever.’ It’s a right! It’s my right!”

As I was putting together this episode, I contacted John again and asked him about the importance of ASL-interpreted shows. He told me, “It is imperative to show that audiences prefer the personal aspect that a great, certified language interpreter can bring to a theater performance. It helps build a family and a sense of belonging in the audience for those who happen to be deaf and hard-of-hearing. Also, once the audience sees that the show is interpreted, they will be able to leave and say, ‘Hey I saw a show that was interpreted.’ This will at least build a foundation and awareness of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in the future.”

For more information about John McGinty and our conversation together you can check the show notes…(or click YouTube video above)

As it turns out John actually got his start in theater at the Deaf West Theater company in Los Angeles. Their artistic director, David Kurs, replied back to an email I sent him:

“Our performances are also attended by people who have never met a deaf person, and it is my belief that placing deaf and hearing people together for two hours in a dark theater creates a unifying effect like no other.”

Bridging Worlds: David Kurs details relationship between sign language and theater

Recently one of our Footloose shows here on Norwegian Cruise Lines was ASL-interpreted by two women who travel to many different events and venues to provide sign language interpretation — Heidi Johnson and Mia Engel. In all my years aboard ships, I’ve never seen ASL done for any cruise show. So it was a real honor to be a part of that night’s presentation, and it was an even bigger pleasure to sit down with these two interpreters and talk about the important work that they do…

— — — — —

Patrick: All right. Ladies, thank you so much for coming onto the podcast. It’s really a thrill to have you both here. And I just want to start off, I think, with a question that all of us actors have, especially when we have sign language interpreters in front of us on stage. What is it you rely most upon: us actors getting the lines right OR are you just looking at the script to do it that way?

Heidi Johnson

Heidi: I believe it’s a bit of both, cause we’ve looked at the script beforehand so we know a little bit about what’s in the script. But during the production I rely a lot on your emotions, what you convey in the words themselves and not just in the words on the page.

Mis Engle

Mia: I think it’s a common misunderstanding that sign language is only word for word what spoken English is. But actually we’re interpreting for meaning, and so to listen to the meaning that’s going on and being said on stage and then to recreate that meaning visually is what we’re doing in real time.

P: So what is it like to portray or take on the character of people on stage, because there’s only two of you but there’s 25 of us. So how does that work exactly?

H: Right? Well, it we came through a really interesting process where we tried to figure out, well how are we going to do this with with all the different characters? Especially since we don’t know the voices of who’s speaking often. And we kind of came up with a mix of [Mia] took Ren and I took Shaw and whenever they spoke we kind of took over that character. But then other than that we kind of did — she did the boys and I did the girls. Especially since we only had one day to get the script, watch the play, go through it a little bit, and then actually produce it. We had to do it really quickly.

M: I would also say that knowing the characters’ emotions and being able to take that on is really important. And then to understand what the ultimate goal of that person is helped us to be able to then turn around and give it out. So sometimes like specifically with Ren, the body language that I would use would be different than if I were to be a different character. And so to be able to portray that while I’m delivering the lines that are being said also helps for a deaf person to be able to visually see that representation in a different way.

P: Because it’s not so much about what your hands are doing, it’s the full facial expression and the body and how you interpret the character as well.

H: It’s everything, it’s everything.

P: Have both of you had acting training? Is that something that’s in your background?

H: I’ve had very little, and I’ve been in only maybe a handful of plays growing up, mostly when I was younger. But as a sign language interpreter, we learn a lot about prosody. So a lot of our facial expressions are related to grammar, but also your body everything has to show the meaning as well. So it is a lot of acting and even more so and when you’re interpreting a play as opposed to a board meeting. But you do have to portray that. Think how would I show all of this and actually feel it inside as you portray it?


Now there was a word Heidi used [in the above quote] that you may not have recognized…prosody. It was actually something I had to look up since I’d never heard the term used before, but prosody is basically defined as:

the rhythmic structure, intonation, and stress in spoken and signed languages.

And it plays an essential role in the production and perception of every utterance that we make. So a lack of prosody makes it difficult to know a speaker’s intent or emotion. And in sign language this is particularly important because even though an audience may understand the words an actor is saying, without prosody they may not understand the actor’s feelings or motivations. And so this is the double task of an ASL interpreter to not only translate the words themselves, but actually take on the emotions and intentions of a character as well.


M: We actually do become the characters and not just for theater interpreting but for all types of interpreting. When we are interpreting the message, it becomes: I said this, I did that. If the person speaking or signing is saying “I did those things.” So we really embody literally the message that’s going on.

P: That was one thing that I noticed whenever I had John McGinty on the podcast, and the interpreter was very much, “Look at John. Ask all your questions directly to him, and don’t look at me as the interpreter. Look at John and carry on that conversation.” So it was very important that he was, as you say, a conduit for John, and not himself an interpreter basically part of the conversation.

H: Yeah, you actually become their voice, so you become them. So that’s where that all comes through.

P: Now, what would you say is the the difference between sign language for theater? You’d mentioned it, you know, about a board meeting, when you’re in a corporate environment, just doing a speaker. As opposed to sign language for the theater, for acting, what would you say is the biggest difference in how you interpret those?

H: Well, as we were discussing, as we were preparing one of the things Mia brought up, and this is really true, is the emotional integrity trumps everything else. Whereas in a board meeting you are going more for the specific details of what’s being said, of what time things are at, and all of that. But you want to convey more than anything what this goal is, what the feeling is, how this person’s coming across on stage right there in front of the deaf person. Because they were looking up and down at you and at the characters, but if you can portray that more from where they’re looking at when you’re signing, it helps them so much more.

M: Also, if there are multiple characters speaking at the same time, like six people talking at the same time. Of course, there’s only two of us so we can’t capture all of that and convey it. But to convey that there is a cacophony happening on stage, that is something that we’re able to do because we are aiming for that emotional integrity of the characters, to show that they’re outraged. And so we can do that, and then go back into the role. So rather than capturing every single word to portray, what is the intent of the actors?

P: And with regards to music versus dialogue, is there a different process for doing that as well?

M: Music, we also are trying to portray and show the beats and the overall feeling, in addition to showing the main singers tone of voice and the words. And so there’s a lot more that we have to show. And so typically we show that in other ways like tapping on our leg to show the beat, and so really put that all over our body whenever we’re trying to do the music.

H: I find myself dancing when the music’s going. I’m swaying with the beat. Also, in this particular show there was a song “Hero” that was with great sound effects, very very strong and powerful sound effects. And I found myself signing along with that music, so that the emphasis would happen at the right time in the song. And the signs too with “Hero” as a person, and I would end the sign right when the boom happened. And I was like, “Okay, that was really fun!” I’ve never signed with that much power before, so I really enjoyed it.

P: Now how much training or what type of training went into learning sign language for the theater? And is it different as opposed to other interpreting that you would do?

M: I went to Goshen College and my final class there was focusing on the arts in London. And so while I was there I actually focused on comparing how the arts were interpreted in DC compared to how they were interpreted in London, even though I don’t know British sign language, so that was a really interesting experience. And I’ve had some other training with both hearing people and deaf people kind of giving advice. And also just doing it, and so the more practice you get it really helps.

P: So with regards to sign language for theater in particular, what would you say is some of the most challenging parts of interpreting that, versus some of the other events or other types of sign language that you do?

H: I think one thing is the sound. Usually when you’re on a board meeting, you’re sitting around a table. When you’re in the theater, it’s behind you. And sometimes it’s harder for you to hear especially in music, and music is it tends to be more artistic as well. So that adds another element. Having the audience there in front of you, watching you, adds a whole other element. Because, like you said, you become part of the production, and you don’t want to get up there and be you know stone-face and making it like here you go, here’s just the words. You actually have to get into it. So it’s…there’s a lot of different challenges that it adds.

M: I would say that for myself to be in front of a large audience in a theater space or at a concert can really be challenging. I have never wanted to have that many eyes on me. But to be in that role you really have to take on the person who is doing the talking, and so to put yourself aside and say, “I’m not me for now. I am the person who’s on the stage.” It can be a really scary moment. But also it’s what needs to be done to give equal access to everyone.

P: And what would you say is the most exciting or enjoyable part of doing the sign language for theater?

M: To see deaf people experiencing the exact same theater production that the hearing audience members are experiencing. To see the deaf people laughing at the same time and understanding the jokes and to be able to provide that is really incredible.

H: I think there’s an added element that it puts to any production, and I have felt both from the deaf and from the hearing audience that there’s a deep emotional connection. And you can tell when that person is, when the people are feeling that, based on maybe something you signed. Because a lot of people are watching you and they tell you that afterwards, “I was watching the whole time.” I’m like really you should have been looking at the stage. But you do, you can feel this emotional connection when people, when something you signed touch them. And it’s more than just the whole production. It just adds that little bit more of emotion. We actually were talking to the choreographers after the performance and they were like, “It was so fun to see all that emotion going on!” Well, yeah, there was tons on stage I’m sure. It was all flowing down from there through us. (Hahaha) It was coming from up there first! (Hahaha) But it’s that emotional connection that you get, definitely.

P: And you kind of touched on it earlier, but why do you think it’s so important to you to have sign language for the theater available?

M: The theater has always, I mean it’s been around as long as humans have been around, right? Storytelling is just part of who we are as people, and so that is the same no matter if you’re deaf or hearing. And deaf people ought to have the choice if they would like to experience theater and like to experience what’s going on onstage. They should have the opportunity to do that.

H: I think one of our biggest goals as sign language interpreters is opening the world not only to the deaf but to the hearing. And allowing people those experiences that they otherwise wouldn’t have had access to. It’s a part of humanity. It just brings us all together in those moments of we all feel the same, we all we are getting the same stories, and we bring what was from our backgrounds to those experiences. But if we didn’t have access to the meaning of those things, we would be lost. We need that connection of humanity.

P: And what are some personal experiences that either of you have had with regards to audience interaction from hearing or non-hearing audiences?

H: Every once in awhile, and usually I’m not watching the audience when I’m signing at all. It’s very distracting to me. There was one woman in the audience we both noticed that teared up at a certain point and seeing that, seeing people react means a lot.

M: I’ve interpreted a production that there were some small children attending, and I think it was their first time to see a theater performance going on. For them to experience that, and for me to see what was sparked in their eyes and as they were retelling the stories to each other as they walked out, that was a really awesome moment for me.

P: Now a little bit more personal about both of you, what drew you to sign language? And what was it about it that made you say, “You know what, this is what I want to do for a living”?

H: It is a really long story but to make it really short…there was a little boy when I was a young girl who knocked on the door one day. He was selling, peddling items, and I had answered the door and went to my mom. My mom came and after she talked to him a little bit and closed the door, I asked you know his voice was different. Why was his voice different? And she said, “Well, he can’t hear like you and I can.” And at that moment I had this, I really did, had this feeling that someday I’m going to be working with these people.

And I then went to school, was taking a woods class, and I could lose my fingers. And like, I’m out of here…found out my friends were in a sign language class, transferred over to that. But I just kept going at it through college as well, took it instead of math. (Hahaha) And then as time went on I just found myself falling into that. I was actually going to be a vocal performance major. Every time auditions came around I couldn’t sing, I was so sick. I was like this isn’t meant to be. But it just flowed into it, and it’s actually become a real passion for me in, like I said, in opening worlds for people, meeting people, working with people in a way that otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to.

M: When I was 12 years old, I met a six-year-old little deaf boy. He was a deaf Amish little boy and I was like, “Oh this is fascinating.” There was an interpreter present and for about two weeks every day I would be like, “Hey, Mr. Interpreter, tell him this, tell him that.” And finally after two weeks I was like, hold up, wait, I want to know how to do this. So the interpreter started to teach me and eventually the deaf Amish boy’s family, they were half deaf, half hearing, and so there was tons of language being used in the home. And eventually they welcomed me to come visit their home, which was a really big deal as an English person. That was the start of it.

So by the time I was 14, I was like, ‘Wait, I can get paid to chat with deaf people all day long. This is it. I’m signing, like sign me up right now!” Of course, it’s not just chatting with deaf people all day long, but at the time I was sold. So eventually I went to college for it. And I think the element that keeps me intrigued is not only the human aspect of it but also I love cultures and languages, and everyday I get to play with how do I convey this meaning in a way that honors the spirit and the intent of what the person was saying?

P: I’m curious about how much, whenever you interpret, how much individuality comes out? Like does your individuality come out, or as you said you just take upon whatever emotion, whatever that person is going through and yourself, you as the interpreter, kind of gets lost in that?

H: We often do get lost. There is a huge amount of individuality too, I would say, in the way we sign certain things, the way we can use — it’s a very creative language — the way we can use what they’re saying and just put it into this beautiful picture of sign language, whether it’s more visual or a certain little tweak with our eyes to play with it. Like if someone would say, “Oh, that was creepy.” The look we give the deaf person. This. Is. Creepy. (Hahaha) But you know just, we can play with it a lot. And I have had deaf people look at the person behind me and then look at me like, “You look just like he’s talking!” And I know you can’t hear him, but you can see him, you can see me, and we’re matching affect, and that’s a really positive moment. So it is, it’s a lot of acting but it’s a lot personal creation in what we’re doing too, which I enjoy.

M: I would say it’s similar to what an actor does. We all might have the same script that we’re working from, but how we deliver what that line is is going to be different. And we all have our own accent, we all have our own way of signing, but overall the intent is that the message is still the same no matter who gives it.

P: At this point, now that you’ve been, basically this has been your life, your career. What do you enjoy most about it?

H: Well, I’d say it’s almost like being a fly on the wall, but you’re not because you’re right in the situation. And so it’s a very special place in the world where you’re able to walk into people’s lives and be, just for a small moment, be a part of their lives, their interaction, and then you leave. And so the little things that you get to see along the way: the emotions, the feelings, the moments where you just get this view of humanity that you otherwise you just wouldn’t see. Like people people crying at the eye doctor because they have to get a procedure done, or people in the hospital, people at school doing their schoolwork, and their interactions with other students, and their struggles. You see it all, you see everything. So it’s a neat perspective of the world.

M: We truly are there for the best and the worst of times in someone’s life. And that’s a huge privilege. I love the human interaction that I get to experience. It might not be my interaction. I’m just the person conveying that interaction, but it is really beautiful to be able to make those connections. And like I said to be able to play with the language and to do cultural mediation, it’s amazing!

P: And last question, so when it comes to theater is their particular show that you would love to interpret or a show that you would love to be a part of?

H: Well, because I love the show, I would say Wicked. (Hahaha) But Footloose actually was amazing. Like I said, that “Hero” song I’m never going to forget that moment of Hero…boom! (Hahaha) So, but yeah Wicked or there’s so many things. I don’t know. There’s there’s so many options out there that would be fun and fascinating for all different reasons.

M: I really don’t…it’s like trying to pick your favorite child or like pick your favorite book. How does one do that? Every time I get to do something it’s really a special moment. Yeah.

P: And so do you prefer musicals over plays?

M: I probably prefer to interpret concerts or musicals, but theater in itself is so amazing. And so anytime I get to do an incredible performance it feels good at the end of the day.

P: Again, thank you so much for shedding light on something that us as actors we kind of see from afar, off in the distance, if you’re on stage, but thank you for kind of opening our eyes to what this process is like.

M: Thanks.

H: Thank you so much.

— — — — —

As we continue to push for more diversity and inclusivity in the arts, we need to focus not only on those onstage and on-screen but also on the audiences that come to see us, and making sure that they have all the access they need to enjoy and appreciate the world of theater and storytelling. John McGinty mentioned in our e-mails back and forth that we need to make sure every show is at least interpreted. Have that conversation with your artistic director or producer, promote the use of ASL, and reach out to the deaf and hard-of-hearing communities, so you can share the event with them. The theater community is large and it is strong. So let’s make sure everyone has a voice in it, whether spoken or signed.

Special thanks goes to BrainFacts.org, HowlRound.com, John McGinty, David Kurs, and Mairéad MacSweeney (and especially Heidi and Mia) for their contributions to this episode. For more information on the people and topics discussed today check out the show notes for weblinks and further details.

If there’s anyone, you know, who could benefit and learn from today’s episode, please share it with them using the link: listen.winmipodcast.com

Join me next week when I’ll be talking to Jackie Vanderbeck, founder and producing artistic director of Sing for Your Seniors. It’s a two-part look at this very special organization and its founder. I can’t wait to talk to you again on Why I’ll Never Make It!

— — — — —

Heidi: I do have one funny story to share that I thought of…so public events we can talk about. There was a Smithsonian Folklife Festival that happens in DC every year. And one year, it was a Pete Seeger concert, and one of the songs happen to be “Abiyoyo.” I don’t know if you’re familiar with it. It’s from Reading Rainbow. It’s the story of a monster who goes into a community and eats all these sheep.

Okay, this was my childhood nightmare! I dreamt of this monster so many times, and it always ended the same way of me hiding under my bed.

So I turned to the other interpreter and I said, “I am so sorry. I cannot interpret this song at all!” And she got up there, she did a wonderful job. But I just knew I couldn’t let that song go through me. (Hahaha) And I had to back off. And we have to do that sometimes as interpreters, because like we said it is personal, you take it on yourself, and there is vicarious trauma that happens with interpreting and was like, that is one moment I am totally backing off. So sorry!

P: Yeah, that’s very interesting. Yeah. I mean like you said, you’re still a person and you’re going to react to certain things, and maybe you can’t interpret that because it would, it would wreck you or scare you.

H: It would wreck me! Even years later, I was like, I’m so sorry that’s — nope, can’t do it.


Transcription services through Kyrie.fm, with corrections and formatting by me. At Kyrie, you can follow this podcast and take part in discussions on each episode, including this one.

Thank you for your support of Why I’ll Never Make It and your interest in this important discussion on American Sign Language interpretation in theater.

Why I’ll Never Make It

Art is an imitation of life…or is it the other way around? In this symbiotic relationship, one is dependent on and affects the other. The podcast and this blog focus on the realities of a career in the arts, with conversations and stories from the creatives who live it.

Patrick Oliver Jones

Written by

ACTOR onstage and onscreen. HOST of Why I’ll Never Make It, a lighthearted podcast of conversations with fellow creatives. POET sharing thoughts along the way.

Why I’ll Never Make It

Art is an imitation of life…or is it the other way around? In this symbiotic relationship, one is dependent on and affects the other. The podcast and this blog focus on the realities of a career in the arts, with conversations and stories from the creatives who live it.

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