Monday, February 24, 2014

Working With Sign Language Interpreters


I always enjoy working with sign language interpreters.  There are times when they use signs that I find fit so well in the story I’m telling, that I adopt them as part of my presentation.  Over the years, I’ve encountered interpreters who are old hats at working with storytellers, and others who have never done anything like it, and are nervous.

My earliest experiences with ASL interpreters happened at the Illinois Storytelling Festival.  JimMay was the first person to put me on a main stage anywhere in this country while I was at the tender and difficult age of twenty. (Thank you, Jim).  Donna Reiter Brandwein was the first interpreter I had the pleasure of working beside, and that woman knows how to do it! 

I have had some fun with interpreters over the years.  I do a series of tongue twisters in some of my sets.  The first time through, and during the audience participation part, I go slow enough to follow.  The last time through, my tongue is in peril of being sliced in half by my teeth.  Interpreters seem to enjoy working to get Peter Piper or Betty Boughta out of their hands.  When I start going really fast, they usually just laugh and point to my lips.  I have had times when I'm doing a rapid fire segment and the interpreter has gone with me down to the last word.  At which point, I stop the show and we all applaud for the artistry of it.  

Many of the interpreters I've worked with also enjoy doing ghost stories.  I always wish I could just stop the story and watch them during those tales.  I really, really want to just see what they are doing.  I always look forward to working with interpreters.  In a few years, I'm considering putting a DVD together, and I think I will see if I can have an interpreter on screen with me during the taping.  

When you are working with an ASL interpreter, you are doing a form of tandem telling.  With that in mind, there are things you can do to make sure that both of you have a successful set.

These are the rules of thumb I follow.

Before the set:

1)  If I am working with a school, and I am told ahead of time that there will be an interpreter, I send along a brief summary of all of the stories I might tell, emphasizing words that might be tricky, or repetitive phrases.

2)  If I find out the day I arrive that I will have an interpreter, I try to pull them aside before the set, and give them a verbal summary, emphasizing difficult worlds and repetitive phrases.  I also show them some of the gestures I will be using as well as some of the facial expressions.

During the Set:

1)   I acknowledge the interpreters by name to the audience before we begin.
2)   I keep an eye out for the interpreter to make sure she/he is with me.

I moderate the pace of the story so that if the interpreter wants to get into the telling and make it dramatic, they can.  Interpreters tell not only with their hands, but also their entire bodies and faces.  Storytelling, with its vibrant images and intricate language, lends itself to ASL.  I find that even interpreters who were sort of nervous going into the show had a good time with it once it got started. 

At the end of the set I once again acknowledge the interpreters and thank them for their work.

Working with an interpreter is interesting, and can help you grow as a performer.  Dive in, and have some fun!

Happy Telling!


  1. I have some deaf friends and they have taught me some sign language. I know enough to communicate and to tell my friends to sign slowly to me so I can understand what they are saying. Anyway, I would also encourage people not to (even in jest) make up your own signs, especially not on stage. Things that you think are quite innocent and perhaps a "logical sign word" are really not appropriate and can "get you into trouble". Just sayin'.

    1. Donna,
      When we run into each other I'll tell you a couple of stories of situations. You'll get a kick out of them.

    2. Lona, I only do a few of them on stage, and for the most part I don't tell the audience I am doing them. There are only a few like 'tree' that come up in the course of a couple of my stories. I only have a few tales where I actually incorporate sign language, and it is very, very basic. I can't wait until I get a chance to look you in the eye and you can tell me about some of the things that have happened to you! If you'll be at the conference in Mesa this fall, I'll see you there.