Monday, March 10, 2014

The Question... Jack Volpe on Deaf Snow White

by Estelle Rosen

My name is Jack Volpe.  I am Deaf.  I am the director of a play called, Deaf Snow White, produced by an organization called Seeing Voices Montreal (SVM).  The group was founded at the end of 2012,  and a lot of people have joined and heard about us since then. Our goal is to spread Deaf awareness because some people might not quite understand what comes with being Deaf and why awareness on the subject is important. We are here to spread our message and to tell them that indeed, we are and/or work with the Deaf, and we use theatre to achieve our goal in spreading Deaf awareness.

(ASL version of Jack Volpe's comments)

As director of SVM's first production Deaf Snow White, what are the challenges for a director adapting a well known popular story combining Deaf and hearing cast and crew?

Honestly, this is my first time directing a play. However, I have already directed movies in the past, and have studied and graduated from the Film Production program at Concordia University five years ago. I was in that program for about three years. So I have experience with directing in that sense. I love working with the cast and crew, getting together and discussing ideas, and just working with the whole team.

In this play, there are 25 actors, 19 of which are hearing, six that are Deaf. It is a really big and challenging production because on one end, you have those who are hearing and speak, and on the other, there are those who are Deaf and only sign American Sign Language (ASL). Back when I was young, I went to an oral school where they taught me how to speak, although I used to, and still do, identify myself as a Deaf person. ASL is my first language, and I stand firmly by that. Sure, my second language is spoken English, and I do speak some French, but it is not the best French. I speak Italian but again, it is not the best Italian. However, I am fluent in ASL, and signing is how I express myself best. How we manage to have the Deaf and hearing working together is a question we often get asked about. In order for communication to take place, we encourage our members to use gestures in order to convey their message. So if a hearing person does not understand what the Deaf person is signing, the Deaf person will visually convey what they are trying to say through gestures. 

At first, the hearing person might not be comfortable with being as overtly expressive and gestural as the Deaf person they are communicating with. Deaf people are very friendly and love to sign expressively. After just a few encounters, the hearing person will realize that it is simply part of Deaf culture to converse this way, and will become more familiar with this way of communicating. If one party does not understand what the other person is signing, the former will sign/act it out again. This is what we encourage the most: to have people be patient with one another and have open communication. For me, as the director of a Deaf and hearing cast, I speak and sign at the same time. This manner of communicating is called Simultaneous Communication (SimCom), and I really do not encourage it. However, I want to establish this sense of equality within the group, and to make them feel that they are both being regarded at the same time.

Another challenge is the conflicting schedules of the whole cast. Everyone has their own thing going on outside of Seeing Voices Montreal—as do I. I have many jobs that keep me busy: I work as a Nurse's Aide at the MAB Mackay Rehabilitation Centre; every Friday, I work as a Child Care Worker; I teach basic level ASL classes; I volunteer my time for Seeing Voices Montreal! The people in our group are very active and  like to keep busy. Seeing their hard work and motivation is very encouraging and rubs off on me too. Since everyone has either school, homework, and/or work, scheduling meetings and rehearsals can be difficult. The only days during the week that we found were convenient for everyone was on Friday nights and Saturday nights. I am at rehearsals every Friday and every Saturday night until showtime. It is very intense and a lot of work for me, because sometimes if an actor cannot make it to a rehearsal, I have to meet with them one-on-one to explain changes within the scenes they are in, or to give them tips on what to work on for their next rehearsal. 

A challenge that I am sometimes faced with is actors who do not try hard enough to communicate patiently. Personally, I find it to be very important to be patient with others, and to make sure that both parties understand each other. With such a large and diverse cast, it can be difficult sometimes to know whether everyone understood or if they misinterpreted what I was trying to say. Nevertheless, patience is key in situations like those. I make sure that what I am trying to communicate to an actor is clear, and that they can accordingly apply my suggestions to their characters. The development of my actors and their roles in the play are crucial, and once an actor finds his/her place in the play through their character, I feel a huge sense of accomplishment. 

Another challenge that I, at first, had a hard time with, was how to incorporate interpreters into the play. The kinds of plays we usually tend to see are ones with hearing actors, who are on stage, and speaking their lines. Since our audience consists of Deaf and hearing people, I tried to figure out a way to make sure everyone was able to understand what was happening on stage. In Deaf Snow White, we have four kinds of actors: Deaf who sign, hearing who speak, voice actors and ASL actors (interpreter-like actors). The voice actors are there, simultaneously voicing for the actors who are signing. ASL actors are basically interpreting for the Deaf audience members whenever a hearing character on-stage is speaking. I decided to call them ASL actors rather than Interpreters, since being an interpreter is a real profession, and I did not want to take away the skillfulness that comes with being an actual interpreter.

The ASL actors are dressed up as props, such as a tree, or statue, in the background. This is how we have managed to make sure everyone in the audience is aware of what is going on, and to have a perfect mixture of ASL and spoken English happening throughout the play. In other theatre groups that incorporate ASL and spoken English, we tend to see a lot of them using SimCom. Deaf people who are strictly signers have a hard time understanding what a person who is SimCom-ing is trying to communicate. It can be very distracting for them to read the lips of the person communicating, as well as catching the signs they are signing. ASL is a language that uses the mouth to either mouth the precise word that the sign they are using means, since some signs have more than one meaning, or to accentuate the sign, such as, a needle that is very thin. They will sign the sign for “needle”, and do a small “o” shape with their lips and inhale through their mouth to show that it is a very thin needle. Therefore, to have someone signing to them and speaking to them at the same time, and to have that happening throughout the length of a play, will become very aggravating to the Deaf person and they will not understand anything that is being communicated to them.

Those were the challenges I had to face as a first-time director of a Deaf theatre play, but I am always up for a challenge. That feeling I get after something is figured out and no longer an obstacle is one that pushes me even more, and prepares me for the challenges to come. I really enjoy working with my Deaf and hearing actors-- we do not let our differences become a barrier between us, and we all work hand-in-hand to make the show successful. This type of partnership reminds me of the book by Alexandre Dumas, “The Three Musketeers”, when the fourth musketeer joins the group. There is quote from that moment in the book that has always stayed with me: “All for one, and one for all!”. That is our goal at Seeing Voices Montreal: to have the Deaf and hearing all coming together for one purpose: to spread Deaf awareness. 

Mar. 13 - 15 

(ASL version of Jack Volpe's comments)

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