Opening up the theatre world to the deaf community one sign at a time

Carmelle Cachero, left, and two of her colleagues during a performance of The Hockey Sweater at the National Arts Centre. Photo: Peter Robb

Three or four times a season the National Arts Centre’s English Theatre department presents performances in another language. It’s not French or Spanish or even Russian. The language is American Sign Language and the audience it is aimed at is deaf.

Slowly the idea of making the arts accessible to all is including people who may have traditionally stayed away from a play because they couldn’t hear it.

And there are examples on the stage right now. In the play Prince Hamlet produced by Toronto’s Why Not Theatre company, an actor delivers all of her lines in ASL. The show is running in the NACs Azrieli Studio. The play Silence about Alexander Graham Bell and his deaf wife opened the 2018-19 season with a deaf actor playing Mabel Bell.

In upcoming productions, Angelique (March 31 at 2 p.m.) and The Pigeon King (May 5 at 2 p.m.), there will be signed shows featuring interpreters.

The person who organizes the ASL interpretation of these productions at the NAC is Carmelle Cachero, who is a certified sign language interpreter.

“Normally we do three shows a year,” Cachero said in a recent interview. “But this season we are doing four shows.” The fourth show was The Hockey Sweater which was on the NAC stage during the run up to Christmas. It was done because some members of the deaf community had requested it.

Cachero said, as the impact of signing for theatre is gaining traction, other departments in the NAC are requesting her services. ASL interpreters were part of a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony signing the chorus. And deaf audience members were are invited to sit on special seats that vibrated along with the music played.

French Theatre has had some initiatives with Quebec Sign Language (LSQ) and Cachero said that they have even signed some NAC Presents concerts.

“The realization is spreading because the need is there,” she said.

Cachero, who also works at Carleton University and is a freelance interpreter in the community, has acquired an official title at the NAC.

“My official title now is ASL Interpreter Consultant. It started with a request from the deaf community and it has kind of blossomed.”

The work isn’t just show up and sign what you hear, however. It’s as complex as any theatrical preparation.

Because The Hockey Sweater was a musical, the timing of the signing needed to be more precise, she said. That meant going to rehearsals and making sure the ASL team had updated scripts. There were four interpreters — two hearing interpreters, Cachero and Laura Nimigan, and two deaf interpreters, Elizabeth Morris and Krishna Madaparthi — signing for The Hockey Sweater because of the size of the cast. There was also a deaf consultant and ASL coach named Jo Anne Bryan, who acted as a director for the interpreters, Cachero said.

“I co-ordinate all the interpretations. That means figuring out the logistics around rehearsals. It can be demanding. For The Hockey Sweater, I’d say that we spent some 30 hours outside the show going through the script,” Cachero said. “We have to have what they are going to use on stage.”

And they rehearsed backstage during the run to make sure they could get the timing down pat — all for one matinee on Dec. 22.

“It’s a lot of work,” Cachero said, and demand for the service is growing.

It’s also not like normal interpreting jobs at conferences signing a speech or a meeting. Nor is it like accompanying a deaf person to a medical appointment and signing the conversation between patient and doctor.

At a conference, the interpreters “just go and do it cold. But with this, because it is theatre, we have to make sure the timing is right,” Cachero said.

The interpreters also need to be able to respond to the live-ness of theatre and the improvisations and the errors that happen spontaneously on the stage.

That’s why the interpreters are assigned to a part or a few parts, she said.

“With a play we translate by character. We do this for the sake of clarity.” They also do it because it allows them to be more mentally alert longer.

In speeches an interpreter will generally sign for about 20 minutes when they are spelled by another interpreter because the level of concentration needed is intense. But with a character in a play, there are breaks that occur naturally.

In The Hockey Sweater, for example, one interpreter was assigned to young Roch Carrier, the protagonist of the musical. Another represented the  priest and the coach and a third signed the female characters and the fourth interpreter represented the kids on the hockey team.

The Hockey Sweater isn’t the only complex piece Cachero has tackled. A few years back she signed Twelfth Night by Shakespeare.

ASL is a modern language so this job involved taking Shakespeare’s Tudor era English and turning it into modern ASL.

All of this raises the question: Are the interpreters actors?

“There is a fine line,” she said. “We are not performing the show, we are interpreting hearing theatre to deaf audiences.

“In the interpreting world, we say we are characterizing the speaker. We do that every day in non-theatre spaces. There is a lot that we get as hearing people from the tone of the voice that is conveyed in sign language.”

For example, the interpreter who signed young Roch in the Hockey Sweater showed that she was signing the words of a child.

An actor conveys emotion through words, body language and facial expressions. Actors convey a story and the interpreters have to do that too, Cachero said.

Accessibility to all aspects of society is a growing concern for all audiences including the deaf.

The federal government is moving on this with the Accessible Canada Act which is making its way through Parliament. In the run up to the tabling of the bill, for example, the deaf community had asked that ASL and LSQ to be recognized as official languages. Their request wasn’t taken up, but the community is still pushing, Cachero said.

In the field of interpretation of the performing arts, Cachero said, signed performances are happening more and more.

“We want to have it to the point where it is normalized because that’s the way it should be. Deaf people should be able to come to a performance any time they want.” One show per run is not enough, she believes.

Cachero, who started signing in high school because of an interest in languages, comes by her interest in the performing arts naturally, starting in dance in her youth. Currently she is on the board of the Great Canadian Theatre Company.

“I have been interpreting for more than 18 years. I have a friend who is an actor and an interpreter and on 2001 she asked me to interpret one of her shows. She wanted our deaf friends to see the play.” Cachero was living in Vancouver at the time.

“I did it and the reaction from our deaf friends in the audience and from others and their appreciation of being able to connect with what was going on stage hit me. The accessible theatre bug hit me.

“For me growing up the arts was a big part of my life. I can’t imagine not having that. It has made me who I am today.”

A year later she signed up for an intensive week-long course in signing for the theatre at The Juilliard School in New York.

She started picking up gigs when she came back to Vancouver. About 10 years ago she moved home to Ottawa and the jobs just kept coming. her first gig at the NAC was in Alice Through The Looking Glass in 2014.

“People knew I had done performing arts interpreting and when the ask came from the deaf community in Ottawa, it started from there and has grown.” She now works in Montreal and Toronto because “it is such a specialized thing. We are trying to expand the pool of interpreters able to do the work.” But there is a shortage.

Not all members of the deaf community are coming to the NAC to a signed performance, she said.

“They think it’s not for them. It isn’t for everybody.” But for those who are it is a way to connect communities, Cachero said.

Share Post
Written by

Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.