Soundless Music: Musical Expression Through Sign Language
Music is not just an art form for people who can hear.
In addition to the way pitch, rhythm, dynamics, and so on are heard, these qualities can also be expressed physically, which can help bring a performance to life. Through the lens of American Sign Language, musical expression can be greatly enhanced. In order to do this, Deaf and Hard of Hearing performers and creatives must be brought to the forefront of the conversation.
This was brought to Broadway by the 2016 Revival of Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s Musical Spring Awakening, produced by Deaf West Theatre, which describes itself as the “artistic bridge between the Deaf and hearing worlds.”
This production featured both deaf and hearing actors and was made to be understood by both deaf and hearing audiences. Hence, both ASL and captions were used alongside the music/dialogue. Deaf actors played deaf characters, who signed all of their lines and were shadowed by a hearing actor who sang and spoke their lines and represented inner dialogue. Hearing actors also signed while singing or speaking.
The already tragic story of Spring Awakening speaks of the treachery that can result from miscommunication and miseducation. The inclusion of deaf actors playing deaf characters only enhances these themes, as the communication barrier between the deaf and hearing characters adds a whole new layer of miscommunication. Director Michael Arden makes a point to connect the adult’s refusal to share information with their children to the Second International Congress on Education of the Deaf of 1880 that occurred in Milan. This conference led to a decision that forbade the use of sign language in the classroom and essentially refused education to deaf students.
Hundreds of rehearsals were required to help the cast understand the piece’s musicality since some of the performers could not hear the music to begin with. Choreographer Spencer Liff, and ASL consultants/translators Elizabeth Green, Anthony Natale, and Shoshana Stern worked together to translate the English text into ASL in a manner that preserved the rhythms. The ASL translations and corresponding choreography physically embodied the music– from tone quality to tempo articulation volume, and so on. This allowed Deaf performers to embody the music and made it accessible to the deaf community. In order to keep in time with the audible music, hearing actors would use small movements ranging from folding their arms, looking over, or brushing against someone, to cue the deaf actors to begin signing, and reinforce the connection between the music being heard and the music being visualized.
In addition to portraying the music physically, the emotional fabric of the music was portrayed through ASL, as the incredible deaf actors’ movements were loaded with nuance in their facial language and overall body positions and movements. This went beyond just showing the musical structure, but the emotional weight the composer filled his music with.
While it’s important to recognize this musical’s success in making music accessible to the deaf community, we must also acknowledge its shortcomings. The use of SIMCOM, which is simultaneously signing and speaking, gives precedence to sung/spoken English, as the actor’s expression matches their speaking pattern instead of the ASL translation. This makes the ASL more difficult to understand. Yet there could be a solution to this. In the same way that deaf actors had hearing actors shadow them, hearing actors could have deaf actors shadowing and signing for them, therefore ensuring a musical experience for all to enjoy.
Deaf West’s Spring Awakening is only a starting point for the musical experiences that can be created with ASL and the inclusion of the deaf community. As culturally responsible musicians, going forward we must keep this in mind as we make our way through the performance world. We must be willing to learn how to share our art with all audiences.
Watch a clip from Deaf West's Spring Awakening!