It was fascinating performing my one-man show last night (I'm finishing up a month-long run of my monologue Ben Franklin: Unplugged at the Rubicon Theatre in Ventura, Calif.): The left side of the theater was filled with deaf people, who were able to follow the text through the work of two sign-language interpreters. These two signers, working as a tag team (I talk so much, and so fast, that apparently it would be very difficult for just one signer to make it through a two-hour show), sat on the left side of the stage. The interpreters were extremely diligent: they had attended two previous performances so they could practice signing my piece.
Years ago I had read an absorbing account of the American deaf community by Oliver Sacks, and my memories of what he wrote went through my mind as I performed. For example, Sacks pointed out that deaf people are -- by definition, but also in a profound and non-obvious way -- intensely visual. So I found myself to be especially aware of the "stage picture" I was making with my body and gestures. As I mentioned, I do a lot of rapid-fire talking in my pieces -- but thanks to the work of my directors, such as my current collaborator, David Dower, I have learned to make use of pauses, as well as of variations in tempo; in fact, I sometimes feel that the words of my pieces are essentially the container, and that the silences are the content. Last night I tried feeling the pauses even more than usual, relaxing into them; also, I tried to be especially clear with my gestures and facial expressions. It was very gratifying to hear from one of the signers during intermission that when I stopped and really felt something, deaf people in the audience would sign back at him, "Cool!"
Sacks also wrote about the historic uprising, several years ago, at Gallaudet University, where deaf students demanded that their rights and culture be properly respected. So at the times when my piece turned to the subject of revolution, I also wondered whether the deaf audience members might be responding to this topic on an extra level.
And it was interesting to note that -- at least in the theater -- sign language isn't actually silent: Throughout the show, I could hear the signers' hands slap together, sometimes bang on their laps or the stage for emphasis (of course, as I was performing myself, I couldn't actually focus on what they were doing). Also, I would occasionally hear what sounded like a signer vocalizing with his breath -- perhaps to emphasize a particular emotion with an extreme facial expression.
A great moment: There's a purely visual gag I do in the second act -- and as I held that pose, I heard a loud, hoarse laugh from a deaf member of the audience. The rest of the crowd heard it too, and laughed warmly. For that instant, I felt like a performer in silent films; it was wonderful.
My lasting image is of certain moments when I was performing to the left side of the theater. There were times where I'd see my own semi-articulate hands gesticulating, and beyond them I'd see the expert maneuverings of the signer's hands, and beyond all the dancing hands I'd see the faces of the deaf audience members, their eyes alive, taking everything in.
March 4th, 2006