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Tampa Bay sign language interpreters bring shows to life for deaf patrons

Some theaters and performing arts centers offer the local deaf and hard-of-hearing community opportunities to better enjoy performances.
 
American Sign Language interpreters Ben Jackson, left, Katie Bonneville and Ahmed Carames, interpret for the deaf and hard-of-hearing members of the audience in attendance while standing on the side of the stage during the production of the Broadway musical "Annie" at the Straz Center.
American Sign Language interpreters Ben Jackson, left, Katie Bonneville and Ahmed Carames, interpret for the deaf and hard-of-hearing members of the audience in attendance while standing on the side of the stage during the production of the Broadway musical "Annie" at the Straz Center. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published July 18, 2023|Updated July 24, 2023

TAMPA — Jenny Locy and Patti Sanchez filed into the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts on a recent Thursday evening and took their seats. They were there to see “Annie.”

They chose this specific show, at this specific theater, for a reason. There, they didn’t have to worry about not understanding what they were seeing. As deaf women, 59-year-old Sanchez and 44-year-old Locy have had one too many experiences like that.

But on the first Thursday of every Broadway production at the theater in downtown Tampa, live interpreters give them and other deaf and hard-of-hearing people the chance to drink it all in — every interaction and moment on stage. Over time, Sanchez and Locy became people who love going to the theater.

“I had no idea what I was missing,” Sanchez signed before the show.

From left, Patti Sanchez of Tampa, 59, and Jenny Locy of New Port Richey, 44, sign to communicate before heading to watch the production of the Broadway musical "Annie" at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa on June 8, 2023.
From left, Patti Sanchez of Tampa, 59, and Jenny Locy of New Port Richey, 44, sign to communicate before heading to watch the production of the Broadway musical "Annie" at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa on June 8, 2023. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Maybe you’ve seen these interpreters off to the side of a stage, dressed plainly. Their hands move swiftly and their faces are animated. Maybe your eyes land on them sometimes instead of those on the playbill.

They lie somewhere between performer and communicator, drawn to the craft because of their love of American Sign Language and love of the arts. They’re committed to extending performance experiences to deaf and hard-of-hearing people.

No other place in Tampa Bay has interpreted Broadway shows, Locy said, just the Straz. Regularly interpreted shows have been a staple at the center since 2015. Smaller theaters and centers, such as the Eight O’Clock Theatre and Carrollwood Cultural Center, also offer their own performances, but deaf people and interpreters alike hope for more.

Though limited data exist, Tampa Bay has one of the largest deaf and hard-of-hearing populations in the country, with Clearwater’s Blossom Montessori School of the Deaf estimating as many as 340,000 people living in the region. Almost a third of Florida’s certified sign language interpreters reside in Tampa Bay, according to the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf.

At the Straz Center, three interpreters emerged from behind a curtain. Under warm lights, they began to sign just before “Annie” started. It’s something they do every time, said Katie Bonneville, one of the interpreters. Bonneville played Annie while the other two interpreters cycled through the supporting characters seamlessly, moving their hands and bodies in subtle but pointed ways to differentiate which character was speaking. Sometimes they stopped so full focus was on the main cast. This helped direct the audience’s attention to moments like when Sandy the dog comes on stage for the first time.

A month in advance is needed to prepare for shows, 39-year-old Bonneville said, and no matter how skilled an interpreter is, they’re always learning. For “Annie,” the challenge became altering signs based on how children communicate. In her 16 years of interpreting, she had never done a production that featured mostly child actors.

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She doesn’t consider what she does performing, but there’s no denying the job requires elements of it. Bonneville is uncomfortable with the focus being on her rather than the cast. If deaf or hard-of-hearing people leave discussing the show, she said she knows she did her job.

Bonneville lives in Palm Harbor and interprets full time. She has two degrees in interpreting, but translating performances didn’t come naturally — she had to build up to it.

“It’s a very specific profession,” she said.

American Sign Language interpreters Ben Jackson, left, Katie Bonneville, center, and Ahmed Carames, right, interpret for deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members during a production of the Broadway musical "Annie" at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa on June 8, 2023.
American Sign Language interpreters Ben Jackson, left, Katie Bonneville, center, and Ahmed Carames, right, interpret for deaf and hard-of-hearing audience members during a production of the Broadway musical "Annie" at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa on June 8, 2023. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Interpreting from English to ASL is more about translating concept for concept as opposed to word for word, according to Bonneville. Because of this, interpreters have to be well-trained and qualified for performances, especially Broadway shows.

“If somebody doesn’t do it correctly, it can really skew the message … it’s not an easy job,” Locy signed.

Tom Bourque, who is also deaf, knows this. The 39-year-old has interpreted plenty of shows in his native Boston and one show in Tampa Bay so far. While preparing to interpret “The Wedding Singer” at the Eight O’Clock Theatre last fall, he was struggling to find a sign for Hooters, the chain restaurant that started in Clearwater. He’d recently moved to Florida and wasn’t familiar with the popular eating spot. What’d he land on? Miming a waitress — using his right hand to hold a tray and his other to make a breast shape. The other interpreters laughed.

He isn’t a certified interpreter and considers himself more of a performer. When Bourque found out about the Tampa Bay Interpreted Performing Arts group, he was immediately interested and auditioned. The group mentors and trains people who want to try performing arts interpreting.

In Boston, he felt “spoiled” because nearly every show he attended was interpreted. Here, not so much. He’s sometimes found himself having to request an interpreter when it is not offered alongside a performance. It’s frustrating, he said.

Bourque went to a performing arts high school and loves the stage. It takes him longer than others to prepare to interpret because he can’t rely on hearing lines and instead has to memorize them. The advantage is it allows for more creative storytelling, he said. He feels like he’s acting, not only interpreting.

Bonneville and other interpreters for the Straz watch the shows they interpret two times before their performance rolls around. While watching, Bonneville focuses on the actors’ body language and audience reaction to better mold her interpretation. The goal, she said, is to reduce eye fatigue for deaf and hard-of-hearing people because they have to look back and forth so much.

“It’s all about how I can make the deaf experience better,” Bonneville said.

This might result in choosing to use bigger signs or ones that encompass multiple meanings, so fewer signs can be used. Or matching a character’s outfit or hairstyle for better identification. These little things make a big difference, she said.

Eight-year-old Bennett Rohrbacker, center, talks with his brother Rowan, 10, before the curtain goes up for a production of the Broadway musical "Annie" at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa on June 8, 2023. Bennett is deaf and could fully enjoy the show due to the three American Sign Language interpreters present.
Eight-year-old Bennett Rohrbacker, center, talks with his brother Rowan, 10, before the curtain goes up for a production of the Broadway musical "Annie" at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts in Tampa on June 8, 2023. Bennett is deaf and could fully enjoy the show due to the three American Sign Language interpreters present. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Interpreting in the arts isn’t limited to the theater. Phyllis Gaines, an ASL and deaf culture educator, founded a Tampa Bay company that has allowed her to perform alongside musicians like India Arie.

To her, sign language dances. There’s a rhythm in moving back and forth between hands, and Gaines’ sign language musical dance company Sign of Da Times was born out of this belief. As a Black woman in a white-dominated field, she works to imbue her culture in performances through intentional song choices and dance styles.

Studying how deaf and hard-of-hearing people moved while signing helped her learn the language when she attended Gallaudet University, the first higher education institution for deaf and hard-of-hearing people. Her “aha” moment — or “pah” as she said it’s referred to in the deaf community — came when she realized she could combine her interest in the language with her performing arts background.

She teaches ASL to high schoolers and wants to transition to doing music interpreting full time. Bourque, who works as a grocery store clerk, would also like to continue interpreting but said it’s difficult because he volunteers, for little or no pay. Without agency representation, it can be harder to secure well-paid work for interpreting.

Gaines thinks the area holds her company back. She wonders if her company would have a larger presence if it was based somewhere else.

Even though people in Tampa Bay’s deaf and hard-of-hearing community agree that increased accessibility around things like the performing arts is needed, patrons like Sanchez and Locy relish in what they do have.

That night at the Straz, the audience at “Annie” didn’t miss a single beat. They laughed together. They “aw”-ed together. It was a shared experience. When the curtain closed for intermission, Locy mouthed one thing.

“Wow!”