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Bard in the Hands

Joyce Cole and Liz Bartlow Breslin dedicate mind and body to a visual translation of Richard II.


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When two actors utter their opening lines during this season's Chicago Shakespeare Theater production of Richard II, two women in black launch into their own silent performance. Joyce Cole and Liz Bartlow Breslin sit at audience level, their chairs facing out from the right corner of the stage. Professional sign language interpreters, they've spent evenings and weekends for the last six weeks preparing for this one night.

Their audience--perhaps two dozen people out of an almost full house--sit in three rows at one corner of the jutting stage, paying rapt attention to Cole and Breslin, who are illuminated by a small spotlight.

American Sign Language, which differs grammatically and syntactically from English, has a distinctive visual eloquence. In ASL the fingers, hands, and arms make the signs, which take on nuance from changes in posture and movements of the eyes, brows, lips, tongue, cheeks, and shoulders. Cole's elastic face reflects the angry despair of the Duchess of Gloucester, pleading eloquently with Breslin as the Duke of Gaunt to avenge her husband's murder. Meanwhile Breslin's arm and hand movements as well as her face attest that Gaunt cannot help her.

This is the easy part. Breslin is dreading a long, complex dialogue in which she must interpret for both Richard and the dying Duke of Gaunt. Though the two women remain seated throughout, this is a three-hour marathon for hands, faces, and upper bodies as the interpreters deliver the lines for each of the play's 30-odd characters. And in contrast to the actors, nearing the end of a triumphant ten-week run, Cole and Breslin have just one chance to give their intricate performances.

In the 14 years since they met, Cole, 47, and Breslin, 36, have collaborated on more than 30 plays. Cole didn't learn ASL until adulthood, but as a child she interpreted for her twin sister so well that it took two and a half years for their parents to realize that her sister was congenitally deaf. "We had our own language," she says. After an unhappy detour into speech pathology, she became certified as an ASL interpreter and now works days at Thresholds, a psychiatric recovery center.

Cole met Breslin when she shadowed Breslin's movements and signed her character's lines in a production of Mother Hicks--Breslin's first professional gig after earning a theater degree from Northwestern University. "I'll never forget the feeling I had when Joyce was onstage with me," Breslin says. "Her signing quadrupled my acting power. She's the reason I became an interpreter."

Breslin entered a program at Harper College to master the art. "Many interpreters share a drama background," she says. "There's probably something about being an interpreter that fulfills that need to be on the stage." She works as a freelance interpreter, so her schedule and client list vary. One day a few years ago included interpreting for both the Department of Children and Family Services and President Clinton.

Six weeks before their Richard II performance, Cole and Breslin meet at Caribou Coffee on Southport. The table holds scripts, pencils, the Cliffs Notes for the play, Shakespeare for Dummies, and a bag of vegetable chips. "Snacks are an important part of this process," Cole says. She's the acknowledged master of signing, but Breslin's theater background puts her at the helm when the two begin their labor: understanding the meaning of each speech. "I try it on my own," Cole says. "Then I say 'help.'"

Before this meeting, Breslin had divided the characters up between them. "I do a character breakdown line by line and scene by scene to figure out which characters play off each other the most and should not be interpreted by the same signer. Obviously, one of us will be Richard and the other will be his rival, Bolingbroke. After I come up with two groups of characters, we toss a coin to see which of us will get which group. Even so, scenes will inevitably come up in which one of us will have to sign for two or even three characters who are speaking to each other."

"The most fun," Cole quips, "is highlighting our characters' parts in the script." It's much harder work, taking at least 25 hours, to come up with plain-English translations, as they're doing tonight. Pencils in hand, Cole and Breslin wade through the speeches in the first part of the play line by line. Early in the evening the translations flow easily. Two hours fly by in what looks like an English majors' cram session: they make notes, confer, erase, rewrite. Later, when they translate the "enforced pilgrimage" of two banished characters in the first act as a "bad trip," they dissolve into giggles. "When we're laughing at every little thing," says Cole, "we know it's time to go home."

After rendering the entire script in plain English, Cole and Breslin spend another 25 hours transforming their translations into American Sign Language. Each puts in approximately 25 hours rehearsing on her own, then they spend about 25 more hours rehearsing together. They also watch the performance twice, scripts in hand, from the theater's light booth.

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater pays Breslin and Cole for their performance but not for their 100 hours of preparation. "We don't get rich moonlighting in the theater," Breslin acknowledges. "But most actors don't do what they do for the money either."

Two days before their performance, the interpreters get together at Cole's Albany Park apartment. Both pencil in last-minute additions before beginning their last rehearsal together, using an audiotape of a preview performance. Breslin, who has listened to it, warns Cole that major cuts have been made in the scripts they've been working from--a problem when they must make simultaneous translations of so many different roles. Last night they'd tried to rehearse with the tape, but Breslin says, "We just weren't ready. To work together, we each have to get our own timing down. But at this point I still need to keep my eyes on my script."

Tonight Breslin hears actor Mike Nussbaum on tape, playing the Duke of Gaunt, deliver this angry line to Richard: "Live in thy shame, but die not shame with thee." Breslin's plain-English translation reads, "You will live in a shame that will live on past you." To the right of the line Breslin has made a notation, or gloss, of the ASL signs she'll use in this case: "Warn U [you] Predict UR [your] sin shame continue forever." But Breslin's gloss omits the rage with which she'll interpret these lines during the performance. When she and Cole sign their interpretation Thursday night, their hands, faces, and bodies will have to deliver all the emotion most audience members will hear in the actors' voices.

Each interpreter has her way of rehearsing on her own just before the performance. Cole says, "I don't memorize a set translation. I just try to recall the meaning we arrived at for each speech." Instead of using the tape, she prefers to read and reread her script. Breslin, signing for the eloquent and talkative Richard, likes to memorize her speeches beforehand and practice with the tape. But for several weeks now she and her husband, Patrick, have been sharing their one-bedroom Rogers Park apartment with a friend, who occupies the sunroom Breslin favors for predawn rehearsals. Even so, she'll listen to the tape at least five times before the performance.

Tonight, they meet for four hours, once again fully intending to work with the tape. Instead they iron out last-minute questions about meaning, discussing how to coordinate signs when the dialogue involves wordplay. For example, toward the end of the script Bolingbroke, who has deposed Richard, says, "Go some of you, convey him to the Tower." Richard answers, "Oh good: convey: conveyers are you all / That rise thus nimbly by a true king's fall."

Cole and Breslin discuss how to signal the multiple meanings of "convey" here, eventually rejecting the signs for "recruit" and "steal." They decide instead that Cole as Bolingbroke should use the sign for "arrest" or "take away," in which one hand grasps and pulls the index finger of the other. In response, Breslin as Richard will use the same curled hand shape Cole uses for "arrest" but will smack her opposite palm, a sign that means to "grab" or "take advantage of," creating a visual echo of the first sign.

Now Cole wonders aloud how she should sign Richard's name after the king has been deposed, a question that's more complicated than it seems. They give each character a name sign, which the other characters use when referring to him or her. These are composed of the ASL sign for the name's first letter along with a symbol that comes to stand for the person. For example, Richard's name sign is the letter R, moved from left shoulder to right hip--a movement that signifies "king." But after Richard's downfall, he's no longer king. So his sign will be displayed only at the low point, the hip. In contrast, Bolingbroke's B--demonstrated early in the play by a movement from the right to the left temple, looking like the crown he's destined to seize--will take on the position that had distinguished Richard's name.

The name signs for the rest of the large cast remain the same throughout, but with so many characters it will still be easy for a deaf audience to become confused. Cole comes up with an ingenious way to suggest characters' alliances with the two rivals: the interpreters will display the name signs of Richard's courtiers from the chin down, and the signs of those loyal to Bolingbroke from the chin up.

After more than two hours of discussion, Breslin is poised to turn on the tape. She and Cole are still dependent on their scripts--and even with them are missing lines.

The night of the performance the interpreters steal 10 or 15 minutes before the first act to go over their big speeches. In a way, the difficulty of the text is reassuring. "Our mantra before we go on in any Shakespeare show," says Cole, "is that because we are translating the meaning, our deaf audience will probably understand more of the story than anyone else in the audience."

The number of viewers for the one signed performance in each run has grown slowly but steadily during the two seasons the Chicago Shakespeare Theater has made such performances available. Tonight, director of education and communications Marilyn Halperin has also provided two blind patrons with headphones so they can listen between the lines of dialogue to a description of the play's staging, lighting, costumes, gestures, and movements.

In the deaf audience is first-time viewer Jennifer Hart, 33, an ASL instructor and deaf mentor at Columbia College. Through an interpreter, Hart says that her deaf friends urged her to attend. Ermelinda Ponticelli, 37, an interpreter for the deaf at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, has come to watch the signers, among the best in the area.

Ponticelli explains that fair-skinned interpreters like Cole and Breslin typically dress in black because "clothing that contrasts to the signers' skin color lets viewers clearly see their facial expressions and hand movements." And they go easy on makeup since garish lipstick or nail polish could be distracting. Neither Cole nor Breslin wears large jewelry tonight--Breslin has even left her wedding and engagement rings at home.

Just before the play begins, Cole and Breslin greet deaf friends, and Cole signs a message that might have tickled Shakespeare: turn off your cell phones. As the lights dim, the interpreters look at each other, smile, and prepare to dive in. They'll breathe deeply again in three hours.

The scene Breslin has been dreading arrives early in the first act: signing the parts of both Richard and the Duke of Gaunt as they angrily confront each other. Pages 16 through 18 of her script are almost all highlighted, yellow for Gaunt and green for Richard. Breslin's pencil notes, as tiny and neat as typescript, cover both sides of the script's wide margins, her plain-English translation on the left, her ASL gloss on the right.

In this scene, the dying Gaunt makes a series of witty puns on his name: "Oh how that name befits my composition: Old Gaunt indeed, and gaunt in being old....Gaunt am I for the grave, gaunt as a grave." The two men also spar over which of them is dying, each insisting that the other is sicker.

Such puns, alliteration, and wordplay typically depend on sound. But aural nuances can be made visible by repeating a sign in different ways. For example, Gaunt's name sign is a G--thumb and forefinger about an inch apart--that moves from cheek to chin. When she signs "thin," Breslin uses the G hand shape, moving it in front of her body as if to describe in the air a thin person. She uses the hand shape again when she makes the sign for "grave." So her signs give a visual poetry to Gaunt's assertion that he's gaunt Gaunt, nearing the grave.

Breslin looks old and thin and sad when she signs Gaunt's speeches in this scene, almost shrinking into her chair. A slight movement of her shoulders signals that she's delivering Richard's angry responses: she sits up straighter and looks regally defiant when she portrays the imperious king.

After the show Ponticelli admires the signers' deft shifts. "Role shifting offers a way to show dialogue between two people when there's only one interpreter," she says. "It could be very confusing for a deaf viewer if the interpreters didn't show their facial expression or body position changing." Hart acknowledges that "telling which character was speaking was a bit confusing at first. But after I watched the interpreters and got a sense of each character, I could tell." Ponticelli remarks that Cole and Breslin must have known the play inside out: "They didn't need to wait to get the concept before beginning to sign each speech. So their performance really flowed."

At the end of this scene, Scott Parkinson's furious Richard shoves Gaunt, who's in a wheelchair, down a stair and declares, "All be as it is." Breslin signs her angry translation--"That's that"--wiping one hand against the other. Nineteen pages down, Breslin thinks, only 50 to go.

At intermission, Cole and Breslin disappear into a small room to study their scripts again. Breslin says, "I want to burn [Richard's] long speeches into my brain." Failures of timing especially could cause them problems. Indeed, Cole admits it's a challenge to finish her lines on time. "I often think of another important phrase that's just going to seal the meaning. So I tend to go over my time."

Normally an interpreter listens to a speaker, waits to understand the concept, then makes the signs while listening for the next concept. But the dense dialogue of a Shakespeare play doesn't allow much time to listen: she who hesitates is lost. A signer also needs to give her partner time to respond. Cole and Breslin have agreed to skip some of the repetitions in long speeches and to sign more slowly when no new information is being offered.

The intensive preparation appears to pay off in the second act: one finishes and the other begins just as one character stops speaking and another starts. To stay so perfectly attuned, Cole and Breslin must not only watch each other at all times but also remain aware of the actors--even with their backs to them. One of their fears is that an understudy will substitute for a major performer. Fortunately, all the regular actors are here tonight, but it seems to Breslin that Parkinson is performing faster than he did on the tape and the two nights she saw the show. During one of Richard's lengthy monologues, when she pauses briefly to listen, she thinks, "Oh no, he's there already" and has to speed to keep up with the landmarks in the script.

As always, the interpreters work hard to give each other cues. But sometimes they get tired and forget. Late in the second act, Breslin is signing one of Richard's most poignant speeches, the one comparing the prison in which he's confined to the world. At one point, he stops talking and music plays in the background. At their Tuesday-night rehearsal, Cole had agreed to sign the sound of music just before Richard's line "Music do I hear?" When Cole realizes she's forgotten to give Breslin the cue, she rolls her eyes and thinks, "Oh, boy." But Breslin forges ahead.

Toward the end of the play, Breslin accidentally signs for one of Cole's minor characters--the kind of mistake that happens at least once every performance, giving rise to their biggest challenge: not laughing out loud. Several characters are throwing down their gloves to accuse one another of conspiracy, and as Breslin later recalls, "My prison scene is over, Richard is dead, and I'm on a roll. My hands haven't been moving lately, and I find myself signing a line when I suddenly realize I've never signed this line before. I mouth 'sorry' to Joyce, but I know she doesn't resent this mistake one bit. Of course, I'm determined not to continue interpreting this character, but the next time he speaks, she mouths 'yours' to me and I end up picking up the guy's next line."

Throughout the long performance Breslin and Cole maintain eye contact with their audience except during prolonged silent periods or when the action reveals more than the dialogue. Then they turn to the stage to direct their viewers' gaze to the actors. As the play concludes, they look over their shoulders to highlight this production's final bold visual stroke: blood drips onto the white suit of the new king, who is caught in a bright beam of light. The audience erupts into sustained applause. After the cast give their bows, they point to Cole and Breslin, who receive their own ovation.

"That was better than it had a right to be," says Breslin, who always wishes for just one more rehearsal. "Even when we have lots of time," Cole reminds her, "and no matter how early we start, I guess we just need to cram."

Breslin will work with a different signer on Chicago Shakespeare Theater's As You Like It March 5. Then she's determined to reunite with Cole for a performance of The Tempest May 23. But it's a hard sell: Cole still feels exhausted after Richard. "Doing Richard was exhilarating but really hard," she says. "I sweat through many moments."

Breslin remains eager, however. "Signing Shakespeare," she says, "brings something else, something beautiful, to the experience." And she reminds Cole that they did The Tempest a couple of years ago. "We already have annotated scripts," she pleads--a detail that clinches the deal.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lloyd DeGrane.

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