What does a signmaster do?

When talking about my involvement with Aditi Brennan Kapil’s new show Love Person, which features “two couples, three cultures, and […]

When talking about my involvement with Aditi Brennan Kapil’s new show Love Person, which features “two couples, three cultures, and four languages,” people inevitably ask me what I do as an ASL signmaster. Simply put, my job is to look at each performer’s American Sign Language (ASL) translation of the English text and make sure that the translation fits the character’s signing and educational background. Sometimes I will examine the meaning of a certain line and provide a clearer translation. Or I may correct a performer’s choice of sign for a certain word; for instance, in ASL, there are at least three signs for the word “apply.” We must not look to the English word itself but to the ultimate meaning of the word for the correct sign.

There have been a great many misunderstandings about ASL itself. First off, it is not “English on the hands,” but a truly bona fide language unto itself, with its own syntax, grammar, vocabulary, idioms, and so on. While many hearing people see ASL as a particularly expressive language, which it is so in the hands of those particularly gifted in the nuances of fluency, it is a far more complex language than what most people realize. Once hearing people get beyond the novelty of fingerspelling, they often find themselves lost while learning signs and syntax because it is so not simply “English on the hands.” Furthermore, ASL has many dialects and “accents.” Someone well-versed in ASL can detect the regional influences in a Deaf acquaintance’s signing, in the same way that a hearing person might hear a Boston accent or a Texan twang in a person’s voice. Because the story of Love Person takes place in Minneapolis, I had to clarify some of the Minnesotan signs for Alexandria Wailes, a Deaf actress from New York, who plays the Deaf character Free.

Yet ASL translation is not the only thing I do as a signmaster. I must think about how hearing and Deaf characters might typically interact “in real life.” Because Risa Brainin, the director of Love Person, and Aditi Brennan Kapil, the writer of the show, are both hearing, they wanted the show to be Deaf-accurate in terms of how other hearing characters onstage would behave towards Free. People who use ASL as a primary means of communication also have what’s called “Deaf culture.” A few examples of Deaf culture would include flipping the light switch in a room or stamping a foot on the floor to get a Deaf person’s attention as opposed to yelling the person’s name. Hearing characters onstage must look at the Deaf character in the face rather than walking and turning away while talking. Sometimes when a hearing character looks away while Free is signing, Free may repeat her line so that the hearing character truly knows what she said. This is a subtle thing, but it happens a lot among Deaf people.

However subtle, all of these things seem so obvious to us Deaf people that we often take them for granted. But for any production that integrates both ASL and English, and hearing non-signing characters, we must think about how to make interactions between Deaf and hearing people onstage realistic. Language alone does not a play make; believable human interaction does. And that’s what an ASL signmaster does.