My Experience Using ASL in “Three Sisters”

Written by Sophie Mercer
L-R: Hannah Wayne (Masha), Alex Montagnese (Irina), Sophie Mercer (Olga). Set Design by Rebecca Klein and Shawn Kerwin, Lighting Design by James McQuay, Costume Design by Robyn Barnes.

L-R: Hannah Wayne (Masha), Alex Montagnese (Irina), Sophie Mercer (Olga). Set Design by Rebecca Klein and Shawn Kerwin, Lighting Design by James McQuay, Costume Design by Robyn Barnes.


Are you looking for an engaging piece of theatre that will challenge the way you perceive performance and the world around you? As an actor in the show, may I suggest Theatre@York’s production of Three Sisters, running January 26th to 28th. Written by Anton Chekhov, presented in a translation by Canadian actor and writer Susan Coyne, and directed by Tanja Jacobs, the play will be performed bilingually in American Sign Language (ASL) and English.

The production differs from a fully spoken show with traditional ASL interpretation in that here a number of the actors also use sign language. Why? Because in York’s show the character of Irina, the youngest of the three sisters, is deaf. To communicate with her, other characters must use sign language, just as Irina must use sign language to express herself to them. While Irina communicates only in ASL, some characters speak only in English, and others use both English and ASL.

As Olga, Irina’s sister in the show, my character is among those who both sign and speak. For example, I use sign language to communicate directly with Irina, and when others speak English, someone in the cast must interpret what they are saying for her. As an actor, it is a fascinating process with its own set of challenges (more on that in a minute). But the communication patterns should be equally intriguing for audience members. For those Deaf and hard-of-hearing, for instance, the entire show will be fully signed by Deaf artist and educator Sage Willow, a member of Theatre@York’s advisory panel this season. Meanwhile, hearing members of the audience will be challenged to listen and watch in new ways.

Photo by Jeremy Mimnagh, featuring L-R: Alex Glendinning (Kulygin), Paul Lampert (Chekhov), Johnathan Arnott (Tuzenbach), Hannah Wayne (Masha), Blake Murrary (Vershinin). Set Design by Rebecca Klein and Shawn Kerwin, Lighting Design by James McQuay, Costume Design by Robyn Barnes.

L-R: Alex Glendinning (Kulygin), Paul Lampert (Chekhov), Jonathan Arnott (Tuzenbach), Hannah Wayne (Masha), Blake Murrary (Vershinin). Set Design by Rebecca Klein and Shawn Kerwin, Lighting Design by James McQuay, Costume Design by Robyn Barnes.


Absorbing Deaf culture
My starting point with the show was different than it was for most of the actors. I began learning ASL nearly two years ago, and have since absorbed a great deal about the language and Deaf culture. When we received the casting for the show, two of us had experience with the language: me and Paul Lampert, a faculty member acting in our production. One of my main concerns going into this project was that ASL and Deaf culture be portrayed accurately, a concern shared by Sage, who has been instrumental in this project. Sage has translated all of our lines, sat in on rehearsals, and worked with us to ensure that our signs and facial expressions are correct.

If you have no knowledge of ASL or Deaf culture, you might be wondering why things need to be signed for Irina, the show’s Deaf character. Can’t we just ‘act out’ what we’re trying to say? Move our lips more so she can read them? ASL, though expressive, is not the acting out of English language; it is the language of the Deaf community. As for reading lips, if you take an ASL class and learn about Deaf culture, you’ll discover that the percentage of Deaf and hard-of-hearing people who read lips quickly and accurately is quite small.

Our production touches on these stereotypical behaviours early on when a hearing character with no knowledge of ASL tries to communicate with Irina. Several hints at the exclusion deaf people can face also pop up throughout the play: not being included in conversation because no one knows how to accommodate a deaf person’s communication needs; and not receiving important information because they can’t hear it. At points, hearing members of the audience will have an opportunity to experience such exclusion themselves. Late in the rehearsal process a decision was made to remove English titles that were once projected above the stage. The decision prompted one company member to note that, “hearing people will start to feel how deaf people feel.” Of course, also inherent in the show are questions of representation in the theatre. Should a hearing actor play a Deaf character, for instance? Such important issues have long been debated in our industry.

The company of "Three Sisters." Set Design by Rebecca Klein and Shawn Kerwin, Lighting Design by James McQuay, Costume Design by Robyn Barnes.

The company of “Three Sisters.” Set Design by Rebecca Klein and Shawn Kerwin, Lighting Design by James McQuay, Costume Design by Robyn Barnes.


Differing sensory cues
Something interesting to consider about the two languages used in our show is that they have different sensory cues. English, when spoken to us within the context of a play, is something that we, as actors, hear. ASL is a language that we see. This has been one of the biggest adjustments in our work, because there are so many more considerations that need to be taken into account. As actors, we need to be on high alert because we can’t solely rely on listening. We need to be watching too, which requires an extra level of engagement between scene partners onstage. Sight lines are important. ASL is a visual language, so the audience always needs to be able to see who is signing. If we have Deaf or hard-of-hearing audience members, not giving them visual access to this language excludes them. Onstage, we actors need to be aware of language communication sight lines as well. Oftentimes, one character is speaking and another is signing for Irina, so we constantly have to adjust our positions to make sure that these signers can see each other.

Alex Montagnese (Irina) and Michelle Kuzzemczak (Anfisa). Set Design by Rebecca Klein and Shawn Kerwin, Lighting Design by James McQuay, Costume Design by Robyn Barnes.

Alex Montagnese (Irina) and Michelle Kuzemczak (Anfisa). Set Design by Rebecca Klein and Shawn Kerwin, Lighting Design by James McQuay, Costume Design by Robyn Barnes.


Forward and reverse
For me, a big challenge has been switching back and forth between speaking and signing, because the sentence structures of each can vary so greatly. As an actor who loves language and working with text, I thought my speaking lines would be easier than my ASL lines, but I’ve found the opposite to be the case. ASL is so expressive that I can sign my lines and the emotion and intention of them are right there in my hands and face. This has at times made the spoken text feel dull and unexciting by comparison, something that seems incongruous when working with words as beautiful as Chekhov’s.

ASL, though using English words, does not translate directly from English. Like any spoken language, ASL has its own set of grammatical rules and syntax. In order for us to sign our lines, Sage translated them into what is called ASL Gloss, which tells you exactly what signs you are doing ‒ much easier than following the English text. Let me give you an example from my lines:

English: “Andrei lost two hundred roubles playing cards yesterday…. It’s the talk of the town…”
ASL Gloss: “Yesterday brother lost 200 dollars, why? Card games. City gossip.”

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L-R: Hannah Wayne (Masha), Matthew Rossoff (Chebutykin), Alex Montagnese (Irina), Paul Lampert (Chekhov), Nathan Redburn (Rohde), Jolly Amoako (Fedotik). Set Design by Rebecca Klein and Shawn Kerwin, Lighting Design by James McQuay, Costume Design by Robyn Barnes.


Issues of access
What I love about doing this show in these two languages is that it addresses the issue of accessibility in the theatre community. Because Sage will be signing the entire show, this offers the possibility of broadening the audience to members of the Deaf and hard-of-hearing community.

The side of this that you don’t see is Sage’s interpreter, Amanda, feeding the text to Sage through a setup that includes two screens, a laptop, and ASL ‘cues.’ This involves added tech work and Sage and Amanda being in rehearsals frequently to follow along with the show and ensure that everything is being signed at the same time as the action unfolds onstage. It seems complicated, but is it really? To me, it’s only a little added work to make the show accessible to the Deaf community. So, why aren’t more theatre companies in our city doing it?

I commend York and our dedicated cast and crew for supporting this project, and am proud to be a part of a show that is inclusive of Deaf and hard-of hearing audience members.

Three Sisters runs on the following days:
January 26th @ 7:30pm
January 27th @ 2:00pm
January 28th @7:30pm

Location: Studio 207, Accolade East Building, York University

For more details and ticket information, click here.

One thought on “My Experience Using ASL in “Three Sisters”

  1. Marco

    Thank you, ‘Olga’, for sharing your experiences with this demanding bit of theatre. I only wish we could have attended to watch it all unfold. Thank you for the translated sentence; that was really interesting for someone who knows nothing of ASL.
    I can imagine that it would be very mentally taxing exercise, signing and acting. Next up for you, singing and signing? (Sorry, that was just fun to type.)

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