Visual Language and ASL Skit Night

Sep 29, 2013 | Posted in sci-osophy

Visual Vernacular from Light House on Vimeo.

This past Tuesday, I went to Skit Night during Deaf Awareness Week at the University of Vermont. I’ve been taking American Sign Language (ASL) for about a month now and attending at least one event was a class assignment. I was also curious to see how well I would be able to follow non-verbal/non-aural entertainment.

It’s not that non-verbal entertainment is anything new to a hearing person. The hearing are used to non-verbal entertainment like dance and music. In fact, dance (to music) is probably my favorite form of non-verbal entertainment. And many dances have a story component, such as the ballet Sleeping Beauty. So I expected watching the skits to be somewhat similar: movement depicting story.

I also expected my experience of the skits to be similar to that of watching Japanese Noh theater, where the actors’ movements are very stylized and therefore call attention to themselves. Noh plays are the closest I’ve come to non-verbal theater since silence plays an important role in Noh and my Japanese was never good enough to understand the chorus.

But none of my previous experiences prepared me for Deaf theater.

When I arrived at the bar where the event was being held, the master of ceremonies was welcoming everyone in sign language. I expected I’d be able to get the gist of whatever signing conversation I’d see that night. Where did I get this delusion? From the fact that my ASL teacher, out of necessity, mimes things for us quite a bit since our classroom is a no-speaking zone — total immersion. Naturally, I couldn’t follow the MC’s flying hands. Believe me, I was watching her as closely as I could, but I could pick up only a few signs here and there. And whenever she started fingerspelling, I was completely lost.

Which would have been okay, actually. I’ve spent months or years in various non-English-speaking countries before I’ve learned the language, so I’m used to the feeling of being lost in a flood of foreign language. The thing is, there was an interpreter for us ASL newbies (and for the hearing who just happened to be there). She was speaking into a microphone from somewhere in the audience. The problem is that my hearing is somewhat poor in loud settings. So not only could I not understand the flying fingers of the MC, but I had a bit of a hard time understanding the interpreter.

By the time the first skit started, my brain was already in overdrive from trying to follow the signing and the interpreting and not being able to understand either completely.

The first skit was a number story: the actors use the signs for numbers 1 through 5 or 1 through 10 and act out an activity with each finger shape. The fun of it is that the action has to be a clever way of using the finger shape; the action has nothing to do with the number. Each subsequent action builds on the last to tell the story. I don’t even remember what the first story was because I didn’t understand what was going on. I wasn’t trying to connect one action to the next; I was just watching for the number sign. Honestly, I thought, wow, this is going to be a looooong night.

The next skit was an ABC story, following the same principles as in the number story (an action for each letter shape). It was about grocery shopping. And maybe because it was longer — or maybe the actors or the story were better — but I suddenly got it. It was funny and clever and I waved my hands in the air (Deaf applause) enthusiastically at the end.

A few things I learned were that eye direction and gestural precision are important, the same elements that are key to ASL in general. For example, if you’re telling a grocery store story and you’re picking something off a shelf, you look at the shelf, reach up to it and pluck the object off. Yet the gestural precision isn’t the kind you see in mime where the movement is so precise it’s almost robotic. Gesture in signing, and especially in Deaf theater, is much more fluid, with personal flourishes.

Then came the first inanimate object skit. This type of performance involves an actor interacting with other actors who are portraying objects. Again, I was totally lost as to the entertainment value. It looked to me like a bunch of second-graders acting out a bad game of charades. I didn’t understand the concept at all. After the second inanimate object skit, I realized that the problem was that I was expecting it to be like a silent movie: I was missing the dialogue I’m so used to seeing when people are acting out a story. Without that dialogue, the skit felt slightly ridiculous and childlike.

So I mentally turned off my expectations and just watched the next skit.

It was the charming story of a girl heading out into a storm with an umbrella. The wind, the rain and the umbrella were portrayed by actors and I found myself completely immersed as the poor girl struggled against the elements, her umbrella blowing from side to side, then inside out. Another skit with the same theme portrayed a girl who didn’t want to use her umbrella. She just wanted to stand out in the pouring rain. But the umbrella kept trying to shield her, feeling inadequate and ignored when it ought to be fulfilling its mission in life. The personification of the umbrella was clever and subtle and particularly well suited to this type of storytelling since it was, in fact, being portrayed by a person.

What was most interesting to me, as a hearing person, was the difference in visual depiction compared to what I usually expect. I don’t expect an entire story to be told by gesture and expression. I expect to have the aids of dialogue or music to help describe action and emotion. So initially I missed or dismissed a great many visual cues because I didn’t think they were relevant.

This tiny exposure to Deaf theater has already improved my signing since my awareness of eye direction, expression and gestural precision has been heightened. It’s also made me think about film editing in a new way, and has given me new insight into visual object recognition in machine learning (more about this in a future post).

What a wonderful experience! (Hands in the air waving.)

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