Signs in the spotlight


Illustrations by J Rose Parker | Photograph by Nithil Harris

Signing takes center stage as RIT’s performing arts departments approve the production of American Sign Language (ASL) and spoken word theater.


Several well-known productions are spotlighted at RIT with the addition of on-stage sign language. One such production is a version of “In the Heights,” written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, which follows the story of a Hispanic community in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood.

This production of “In the Heights” is performed by the Performing Arts Department of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), which features both sign language and speech. This language combination is rarely seen in the theater world, which makes this production unique to RIT NTID.

Luane Haggerty, NTID Performing Arts keynote speaker and director of “In the Heights,” shares her thoughts on this form of theatre.

“Having both sign language and spoken language production is rare,” Haggerty said. “It’s hard to run two realities at the same time.”

“Having a production that is both in sign language and in spoken language is rare.”

Sign language is used constantly throughout the production of “In the Heights” by NTID. There are lines spoken and signed at the same time, but in a way that connects these actors rather than separating them.

Another production that uses a similar strategy is “Men on Boats”, which is a play produced by the school’s performing arts department. Signs are used throughout the play to signify important actions or events, but there are also entire scenes that are played out in sign language, which are translated into speech by an interpreter who is on the sidelines.

Enter stage right

Putting on a show – especially if it consists of a variety of languages ​​– involves a number of moving parts. “In the Heights,” for example, interprets four different languages: English, ASL, Spanish, and dance.

For Haggerty’s version of “In the Heights”, each actor who is deaf or hard of hearing is paired with a hearing actor, but they each have their own character in the musical. Even though they voice the same lines and actions, they are seen as two different characters.

“They’re a unit, they’re both part of that role and they both have a relationship with each other, not just following each other or being in the background,” Haggerty explained.

During the performance, actors who are deaf or hard of hearing can follow the rhythm thanks to the visual cues of their co-actors.

“Watching yourself out of the corner of your eye, you’re watching your neighbor to make the timing work,” Haggerty said. “What they’re reading isn’t necessarily just your hands, they’re reading your body language, your facial expressions, your gestures; they get visual cues by blocking.

Music is considered by many people to be auditory culture, but NTID Performing Arts has developed a way to integrate musical performance into its work. Deaf and hard of hearing actors are able to dance to the beat of the music by counting their steps and feeling the vibrations of the music through the floor.

“Dance numbers are done by accounts more than music,” Haggerty said. “We have a suspended wooden floor so you can feel the vibration of the music and the boombox, and we have strategically placed speakers.”

One of the challenges that actors who are deaf or hard of hearing face is that they have to present their signature in a way that is visible to their audience. This often means that they have to stand somewhat still when signing to make it easier for the public to follow them.

“While a deaf person can walk and sign at the same time, so the viewer can read and see what they’re saying, it’s much easier if you can sign while stationary and then move,” Haggerty explained. .

Be ready

Ana Rojas, a second-year NTID graphic design student, recently regained her interest in acting and decided she would audition for “In the Heights”, and eventually landed the role of Nina. The character, Nina, is a young woman who has a passion for college but is unable to maintain her grades while working two jobs. The story follows Nina as she tries to hide the fact that she dropped out of school from her parents.

Rojas compares his own story to that of his character.

“It benefits all of us when we try to open doors to people who have often closed them.”

“His story is almost like my story,” Rojas explained. “I love school, but I didn’t quit because I never quit and I will continue.”

Throughout the rehearsal process for “In the Heights,” Rojas found nothing difficult about communicating with hearing actors. There are enough cast members who know sign language and are willing to adjust their communication in helpful ways, making it a welcoming environment.

“It’s not difficult because I can still communicate with hearing students because they know sign language,” Rojas said.

The Showstopper

RIT’s “In the Heights” and “Men on Boats” brought together widely diverse casts based on language, ethnicity and gender identity, adding an extra layer of meaning to these productions.

“A chance to show female leadership in a play, to also be able to represent an underrepresented group of students and community members. I thought this was a really unique and exciting opportunity for NTID,” Haggerty said.

For Haggerty, “In the Heights” is a way for her to put the audience in her place. Growing up, Haggerty was immersed in Deaf culture and was able to experience life in Deaf and hearing communities, which she aims to project on stage.

“For someone who is part of the deaf community but also hears, you get pulled in a lot of different directions and I love showing that on stage,” Haggerty said.

With NTID Performing Arts, Haggerty strives to make each production as diverse and unique as the next, while pushing the boundaries and stereotypes of theater.

“It benefits all of us when we try to open doors to people who have often closed them.”


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