All Access: American Sign Language (ASL) Services at Ford's Theatre

Ford’s Theatre works with First Chair Interpreted Productions to offer American Sign Language interpreters for performances.

We recently spoke with Amanda Welly, a D.C. interpreter, to talk about the service. Amanda graduated from Gallaudet University in 2016 with a Master's in American Sign Language Interpretation. Since then, she has been interpreting in the DMV area (that's DC, Maryland and Virginia) in a variety of venues and settings, but theatre interpreting has always been her passion. 

What is ASL (American Sign Language) and what value does it provide individuals?

Amanda Welly: American Sign Language (ASL) is a native, visual language used by the deaf community throughout the United States. It has a grammatical structure entirely different than that of spoken English.

In the theatrical context, ASL interpretation provides access to the spoken dialogue on stage when ASL is not the dominant language used in the performance. ASL interpretation incorporates 3-dimensional space in front of a signer to convey time, space, directionality and the message that a character is conveying in that moment.

Did you know American Sign Language originated when Thomas Gallaudet sought methods for teaching deaf children? Learn more here

What interests you personally about providing interpretation for theatre performances?

Welly: I received a minor in Theatre Arts while I was in undergrad, and the world of theatre has always been a love of mine. Being able to interpret for performances at Ford’s has been the way to bridge my love of ASL and theatre. It provides a space to work with Directors of Artistic Sign Language (DASL) and play with the rules of language to find effective ways to convey the layers of meaning of the script in English to the intricacies of ASL. That challenge is something that I look forward to every time I have the opportunity to interpret at Ford’s Theatre. 

What tools do audience members need to use the service at Ford’s?

Welly: Ford’s has pre-selected performances for interpretation services each season.

To utilize interpretation services at Ford’s Theatre on other dates, submit a request for interpreters to the Ford’s Accessibility department (by emailing access@fords.org) at least two weeks before the date they would like to attend. 

What goes into creating an ASL interpretation for a Ford’s Theatre show?

Welly: I read through the script multiple times and try to commit as much as I can to memory for every show I interpret. My team interpreter and I split up the script based on characters, so we are interpreting for at least two characters for every show depending on the cast size. 

We also try to watch the show at least three times before the ASL performance. It always depends on the complexity of the show, how many characters are involved and how comfortable the ASL team is with the script.

Other than dialogue, what else is described during a performance?

Welly: Before the show begins, the interpretation team interprets pre-show announcements to turn off cell phones, etc., and notify the deaf audience members about which of the interpreters are interpreting for which characters. We also provide any other background information that would be beneficial to address before the show. For example, for clarity, we typically use signs to reference specific characters or places. This enables characters to be referenced quicker during the performance, especially if the show is fast paced. 

In your opinion, is there a difference in difficulty between providing ASL for a musical versus a play?

Welly: I wouldn’t say that there is more or less difficulty between providing ASL interpretation for a musical versus a play because each performance provides a different challenge. 

The biggest challenge for me when it comes to interpreting musicals is to incorporate all the poetic devices used in the lyrics to drive the plot along. The biggest challenge for interpreting plays is to make sure that all the dialogue I’m interpreting matches the speed and intensity that the actors bring to the performance to keep the energy up throughout the show. 

How did you get involved with this service? Is there a standard training program for learning ASL?

Welly: People decide to pursue a career in interpreting via a multitude of ways. Some are born into deaf families and begin interpreting for family members at a young age, others meet a deaf friend or members of the community and are taught ASL, and some pursue an interpreter training program provided by a university.

There is no standard way to teach ASL, just as every foreign language taught does not have the same curriculum nationwide. There has been a surge in popularity over the past couple decades with colleges and universities offering ASL classes as a foreign language opportunity. 

I was introduced to ASL and the deaf community around the age of 15 when I became best friends with a deaf student at my high school. We were in many classes and extracurricular activities together and would spend weeks at a time hanging out, so my experience was pretty immersive, considering growing up in a rural area.

I gained more connections and friendships in the deaf community and learned the mechanics behind the interpreting process while attending Kent State University. My degrees were the Bachelor’s in Educational Interpreting and Bachelor’s in American Sign Language (2014). After my graduation, I pursued a Master’s degree in Interpretation degree from Gallaudet University and graduated in 2016.   

For those unfamiliar, how is ASL different from captioning?

Welly: ASL interpretation is completely different from captioning. Captioning shows the script on a screen for theatre patrons to read while interpreting is translating the script from one language and modality to another—written English to signed ASL. Captioning lacks ASL grammar, the mechanics of ASL poetry and aspects of deaf culture.  

Ford’s also provides caption services that can be requested if patrons would prefer to read captions during the show instead of watching an ASL interpreter. Caption service dates are available each season but can be scheduled for an additional date emailing to access@fords.org too.

What else would you like to share about ASL?

Welly: One of the things that needs to be encouraged throughout the theatre world is the incorporation of a Director of Artistic Sign Language (DASL). For DASL work, the role is filled by a deaf person who works as a language director with the interpreter team. They help to ensure that the audience’s experience is optimal and as equivalent as possible for those who use ASL. I have had nothing but wonderful experiences working with DASLs, and I feel more confident that the final interpreting product is the best it can be when they are involved in the process from the moment interpreters are requested. 

Also, for those producers, directors, lighting designers and other theatre practitioners out there— please hire more deaf people! The deaf community has such amazing insight to the visual aesthetics and direction of theatre performances that have been left untapped.

Allison Alonzy is Director of Visitor Operations at Ford’s Theatre.