Sign of the times

Actor Shawn Duggan returns to school to learn how to interpret theatre for the deaf.

Sure sign Shelley Wallace teaches the body language of sign language. photo RIley Smith.

Shawn Duggan is a student of body language. The local actor, who's appeared in more than a dozen plays (mostly with local company Angels & Heroes), short films and TV, learned by getting on stage and in front of cameras.

Next week he returns to Nova Scotia Community College's waterfront campus in Dartmouth as a student in the school's American Sign Language/English Interpretation Program (AEIP).

"It's a very expressive language. There's a lot of physicality," Duggan says.

The language requires more than just using---signing with---one's hands. Interpretation involves "facial grammar," body position, confidence and eye contact. "You have to be in the moment---know what you're saying and why you're saying it at that time," Duggan says.

Shelley Wallace, a longtime member of Jest in Time Theatre, teaches Theatre Arts. The Theatre Arts class is for all students in the signing program, not just those who are interested in interpreting for theatre, like Duggan. "It's all about being connected head to toe," says Wallace. She helps students work on posture, facial expression and other body cues, such as the individual's "neutral stance."

Though she doesn't sign herself, Wallace's career in physical theatre, going back to her native Rochester, New York, meant she performed with interpreters. "There was always a really strong connection between physical theatre and the deaf community."

Today, no Halifax theatre company regularly, or even frequently, offers signing services. There have been occasions, though, such as Neptune's production of The Retreat from Moscow---a single afternoon show during the play's run this past March. "I think that was a step forward," Duggan says.

But he's quick to add that it'll take time to educate and encourage theatre companies to provide interpretation. To have an interpreter in rehearsals and performances would be difficult, he says, especially for smaller and cash-strapped independent companies---not to mention the extra logistical consideration for what type of interpretation (platform, zone or shadowing) would be best used.

In the long run, Duggan believes there's a theatre-going audience within the deaf community in this city and beyond. Strong and creative visuals are key components to getting deaf and hearing people out to theatre, dance and film. Visually stunning Pan's Labyrinth became a big hit among deaf people, and Duggan's friend Andy Smith recently led a ghost walk for the deaf with the aid of two interpreters---so they could trade off during the physically taxing work---andit sold out, leading to a second booking.

"We would like to see more signing in theatre, especially with interpreting, but it does not often happen," writes Jim McDermott, who is deaf, in an email. He's president of the Nova Scotia Cultural Society of the Deaf and the lead faculty in the Deaf Studies program at NSCC, a one-year certificate program he helped create. It piloted last year and now acts as a prerequisite to the more advanced AEIP.

The Deaf Studies program guides students from basic to intermediate signing skills and provides students with a chance to "study Deaf Culture as well as exploring the cross-cultural issues for non-Deaf people." Students absorb and analyze multiple forms of creative expression, including comedy, short film, art, literature and VLOGS (blogs using video).

McDermott says Canada, unlike the US, has no legislation "where interpreting must be provided" at performances and events. South of the border, that provision is part of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Without political will to make it happen, any hope of change rests with generations of students like Duggan, once they graduate and begin the next stage of their career. Is he ready to become an advocate as well as an actor? "Absolutely," Duggan says.

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