As "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" spreads its costumed singers, nubile dancers, children's choirs, Elvis impersonators and other exotica across the stage of the Lyric Theatre, sign interpreters Kevin Campbell and Lynda Casserly capture its story in vibrant gestures.
The pair makes a mesmerizing, off-stage sight. To most in the audience, this display of American Sign Language is an increasingly familiar form of performance art. But for the deaf patrons grouped near the interpreters, it provides the bridge between nonsense and meaning.
Mary Bogucki of Parkville, who was born deaf, is enjoying her first Broadway musical.
"It inspired me about the Bible," she says through an interpreter. "I liked it very much because it was a true story."
While many deaf people praise sign-interpreted theater, others shrug, saying that plays written for the hearing hold little meaning for them. If you want to attract deaf audiences, they say, stage productions in sign language that are written or adapted by deaf playwrights and directors.
"Most of the time I don't enjoy hearing plays with interpreters," Sandra Frankel, a deaf assistant professor in the Interpreter Preparation Program at Catonsville Community College, says through an interpreter.
As mainstream America works to improve access for people with disabilities, theaters are learning that transporting the cultural treasures of the hearing into the world of the deaf is complicated.
Consider the physical barriers.
Because theatrical sign interpreters usually stand off-stage, deaf patrons must engage in an intense visual pingpong, constantly shifting their attention back and forth between actors and interpreters.
"Hearing people in the audience can look away from the stage for a moment, yawn, look at the program, and still hear what's going on," says Will Rhys, an artistic director of the National Theater of the Deaf. "If you are deaf, your focus is split. And if something catches your eye on stage, you may lose out on what someone was saying. . . . So you're always thinking, 'Oh, my God, I've missed it! I missed it!' "
Theatrical sign interpreters usually work in pairs with each person assuming several roles. Under the best of circumstances, it is easy for deaf patrons to confuse which character is talking.
"Imagine going to a performance that is in not your native language," says Martha Ingel, accessibility director of Arena Stage in Washington. "Now imagine there are only two people doing the voice-overs for as many as 15 to 20 characters. It may work for you if you have someone with a very malleable voice who can do a lot of voice changes and is very adept -- say someone like Robin Williams. But even then, you have an advantage [over a deaf person] of being able to listen and watch the stage at the same time."
The greatest obstacle, however, is the language itself. Theatrical sign interpreters usually interpret English into American Sign Language, the primary language of the deaf. American Sign Language bears no resemblance whatsoever to English. It has its own grammar, syntax and vocabulary and usually requires years of study and practice before fluency.
For many deaf Americans, English is a second language.
Plays that rely more heavily on talk than on action are difficult for deaf people to appreciate. The rich cultural meanings of rhythms and rhymes, puns, idioms, double entendres, timing and tones of voice are often lost even when skilled interpreters do their best to equally flavor their presentations.
Some plays seem to resist interpretation. Neil Simon's comedy "Laughter on the 23rd Floor," which ran recently at the Morris Mechanic Theatre, attracted only two hard-of-hearing patrons out of an audience of roughly 2,000, according to the theater.
"There were a lot of timing issues because it's a very quick play," says Mr. Campbell. "Each of us played at least four characters. Getting all of those nuances is very, very difficult. There's hearing humor and there's deaf humor. Comedy doesn't cross the cultural barrier that well."
Any discussion of theatrical sign interpreting illustrates the complexity of the deaf community.
"It's hard to educate hearing people that people who are deaf are not a homogenous group," says Ms. Ingel. "Circumstances for deaf people differ based on the age of onset of deafness, on whether their parents were deaf or not, on how their education was approached once they became deaf, on whether they are just hard of hearing and have had progressive hearing loss or on whether they suddenly became profoundly deaf.
"You can have a pre-lingually deaf child who's orally educated and doesn't sign, for instance. The needs in serving the deaf and hard of hearing and in providing access for them are very broad."
Roughly 180,000 deaf and hard-of-hearing people live in the Baltimore metropolitan area, according to a 1988-1989 survey by the National Center for Health Statistics, the most recent figures available.