Wednesday, June 4, 2014

In a Word... Elizabeth Morris on A Spirit's Face

The Dance and Language of Silence
by Gaëtan L. Charlebois

Elizabeth Morris is a Deaf Community Consultant and ASL (American Sign Language) coach for theatres/films. She was born deaf, in England, and has lived in four countries. She is fluent in ASL and was an ASL coach for the Toronto Young People's Theatre production, “Love you Forever and more...”, based on Robert Munsch's books which won a Dora Mavor Moore award. She’s currently working as an ASL coach for the Stratford Festival’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” She was the ASL coach for an episode in 2012 of the TV show called, “Flashpoint” featuring a deaf child. She graduated with a BA in Educational Drama and Elementary Education from Gallaudet University for the Deaf in Washington, D.C. She is also a certified teacher and a professional actor. She has been a member of two Deaf Theatre tour companies in the USA (National Theatre of the Deaf and Quest for Arts), and used ASL in all of their shows.

CHARPO: I’d like to talk about your background. I see you studied at Gallaudet which is well known for being both a centre of discussion on cochlear implants but also ground zero of Deaf Culture activism. Tell us about the atmosphere there and what the training brought to your subsequent work.

MORRIS: I first visited Gallaudet University when I was 15 years old. I attended a summer drama camp for high school students called the “Young Scholars Program”. I was the only student from Canada at the camp and it was my first experience performing in ASL for a Deaf theatre. After that summer, I travelled and performed with Gallaudet’s theatre of the deaf called “Road Signs.” We performed in Romania, South Africa, Japan, Australia, and Mexico.  The show was fully in American Sign Language (with interpreters, voicing over for us). Deaf and Hearing actors were in this group.  

When I became an undergraduate student at Gallaudet University, I found that most of the students communicated in ASL. There were a few students who were verbal, but most used sign. All professors either signed or had an interpreter in the classroom, as ASL was required in all classrooms.  

On campus there were a lot of political issues involving Deaf Culture. With the issue of cochlear implants, I found that many of the Deaf students felt that a cochlear implant on a baby was taking their identity as “Deaf” away from them and it was better to let a child make that decision themselves when they were old enough to understand the issues involved. We did not consider being Deaf as having a disability and were proud to be part of the Deaf community with its culture, history, and language.    

My degree was in Elementary Education and Educational Drama. I wanted to include Drama in my studies because it was, and still is, a big part of my life.

My years at Gallaudet made me proud to be a member of the Deaf community and I became very aware of the beauty of sign language and many ways in which it can be used in artistic expression. There is a depth to expressing something in ASL that is both beautiful and powerful. I am very aware of the importance of facial expression and body language when communicating in sign language. I am always aware of this when I work as an actor myself and equally when I am coaching other actors to use ASL. I want the actors to use their entire bodies as a visual expression of what they are trying to express and I make sure that their ASL is accurate.

In my work, I also observe and give feedback to ASL interpreters (they are fluent in ASL, but they cannot see themselves interpreting).  

CHARPO:  Now the present piece you are working on is both interesting for being a work for the hearing and for integrating you and American Sign Language (ASL) into the performance. How does this differ from the work you did with the National Theatre of the Deaf?

MORRIS: For the show “A Spirit's Face”, it will have two ASL interpreters and two hearing actors.  I will not be in the show, I am their ASL coach/consultant (a role that is a part of my position as the Deaf Community Consultant). It will be the interpreters signing, not the actors. The interpreters will be very close to the actors on the stage. The Deaf people in the audience will see the actor's face and body language while also seeing the interpreter, rather than looking away from the actors to see the interpreter off stage.

When I was part of the National Theatre of the Deaf in Hartford, CT., there were three Deaf actors and one hearing actor. We all signed our lines in ASL. But, the hearing actor had the most difficult task of us all, she had to voice all of our lines while we signed them. Plus, she had to voice and sign for herself (two languages at the same time)! At times, she was not even on the stage to see us signing our lines because she was behind the curtain changing her costume. I did not envy her job! We were on the tour across the East coast of USA.  It was a tour company to entertain children.   

CHARPO: Many believe that ASL is simply a matter of learning the right signs - but it is also a form of individual expression, isn’t it? The signs may be the same, but the use of the signs - dialects if you will - are apparently different from person to person. What do you bring to a work that is different?

MORRIS: ASL is a language with its own grammar and structure. Face and body languages are very important to be added with the signs as well. Each person will sign like their own region's dialect. It all depends on where he/she learned ASL, where they grew up. I moved around a lot growing up.  My dialect is from Gallaudet University's region, even though I am no longer living in Washington, D.C.  Sometimes, I forget where some of my signs come from! USA and Canada use American Sign Language, but there are differences in the signs used in the two countries. My job as an ASL coach is to make sure that the actors and/or ASL interpreters use the correct sign that belong in the Toronto region. I want to make sure that the Deaf people in the Toronto audience, understand the signs. Also, I need to make sure that the signs make sense with the right meaning.  

CHARPO:  I see also, that you have been ASL coach for other performances - how do you feel about non-Deaf performers taking roles and then having to be coached?

MORRIS: It is very sticky for me in the ASL coach's position. I am a Deaf actor, myself. There are not many opportunities for Deaf actors, so it is hard for me to see a hearing actor get a Deaf character's role. Personally, I feel that a Deaf actor would be a better choice for a Deaf role because he/she knows what it is like to be Deaf and knows the ASL very well. The Deaf people in the audience can tell if the actor is hearing or Deaf based on watching how they sign the lines in ASL. So far, all of my roles have been a Deaf person. I have never been given a role as a hearing person. So, it worries me when a hearing actor gets a Deaf role.  

I know actors learn and practice being someone they are not in real life. However, it is important to know if they are familiar with the role's culture and language when they audition for the role.  Many Casting directors and Directors cannot tell if the hearing actor is signing the correct ASL or is acting like a Deaf person.  That worries me a lot.  It would be better for them to hire an ASL consultant/coach on the set, to help out with the auditions.  

Now, as an ASL coach, I have learned to be open minded and give the hearing actor a chance. They need to understand the Deaf experience with its culture and language. After working with me, they might understand how important it is for Deaf actors to have the chance to audition for the Deaf role. Hopefully they will realize that Deaf actors, like me, don’t have the opportunities like they do.  

CHARPO: Now tell us about the process of creating A Spirit’s Face which brought you into integrating completely into the piece.

MORRIS: The process began with several months of planning, by email, with the writer/producer, Jeff d'Hondt. He began the process by telling me the story and then explained his vision for integrating two ASL interpreters into the show. He wanted the interpreters to be on the stage near the actors instead of away on the side of the stage. The male interpreter is to represent the male actor and the female interpreter will represent the female actor.

By the time I travelled to Toronto, for a rehearsal, I had already done a lot of planning. I also requested that the interpreters give me information on their background and any experience they may have had interpreting in the theatre.   

I had to think over how ASL interpreters would position themselves near the actors. I decided to let each interpreter find their own way of shadowing their character and develop their own interpretation of the lines based on their own ways of doing things and their personality. At rehearsal in Toronto, I was then able to see what they had developed and gave them my feedback on  whether or not I felt their decisions had worked or not. I also suggested that the interpreters talk with their actors so that they could get a feel for their character.

Another aspect of my work with the play has been to imagine myself as a Deaf person trying to get information about the play and buy tickets. I have assessed how much the web site is “Deaf friendly” and how it could possibly be improved. 

June 3 - 14

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