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    Wednesday, May 22, 2024

    Performing an O’Neill play in ASL and bringing a different dimension to theater

    Alison Wetmur and Derron Wood, founder and principal director of Flock Theater, laugh as they work through translating "Before Breakfast" into American Sign Language on Wood’s front porch in New London on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. Wetmur, who is deaf, will perform the one-woman Eugene O'Neill play, in full ASL in an upcoming Flock Theater production. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
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    Alison Wetmur and Derron Wood, founder and principal director of Flock Theater, not pictured, work through translating "Before Breakfast" into American Sign Language on Wood’s front porch in New London on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. Wetmur, who is deaf, will perform the one-woman Eugene O'Neill play, in full ASL in an upcoming Flock Theater production. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
    Buy Photo Reprints
    Alison Wetmur and Derron Wood, founder and principal director of Flock Theater, work through translating "Before Breakfast" into American Sign Language on Wood’s front porch in New London on Wednesday, June 14, 2023. Wetmur, who is deaf, will perform the one-woman Eugene O'Neill play, in full ASL in an upcoming Flock Theater production. (Sarah Gordon/The Day)
    Buy Photo Reprints

    On a recent afternoon, Alison Wetmur and Derron Wood were sitting on the porch of his New London house and focused on translating the Eugene O’Neill play “Before Breakfast” into American Sign Language.

    Wetmur — who will star in this one-woman show about a troubled marriage — shows Wood, founder and principal director of Flock Theater, possible signs for her character’s monologue. They talk about signs for rent, for instance, and starving.

    Wetmur’s character starts off the show shouting her husband’s name, Alfred, repeatedly. But rather than spell out his name in ASL, she thumps her chest with her fist.

    Wetmur explained that deaf people sometimes give name signs to others based on a personality or physical characteristic. The name sign she is using reflects the contempt her character has for her spouse; it’s a modified sign that can indicate laziness and a negative attitude.

    “The interesting thing is that it’s easy to see that it was originally a nicer sign, like sweetheart, which is located in the same spot, but has slightly different movement and an entirely different combo of facial and body language,” she said.

    Wetmur, who is deaf but can hear with hearing aids, and Wood are developing this ASL version of “Before Breakfast” that Wetmur will perform, likely this fall in the Thames Club in New London.

    It’s not a word-for-word translation but an interpretation. (Wetmur noted that it’s not easy to fully capture another language in translation.)

    “When Derron and I collaborate on shows, I’m always looking to choose signs that interpret the meaning of the English words. Then Derron tells me which ones strike him as visually interesting, and we go from there. We’re interpreting the text from English into ASL— I make sure that the message is faithful to the original text, and Derron makes sure the signs will work onstage. It’s a lot of fun,” she said.

    ‘Don’t exist to be inspirational’

    Wetmur, who is a social worker and a New Jersey native, moved to New London and across the street from Wood 12 years ago; she came to Connecticut to work at the American School for the Deaf in West Hartford. Since she did a lot of theater in high school and college, as she and Wood became really good friends, it was natural that they would start to collaborate.

    A few days before the aforementioned rehearsal, Wetmur and Wood sat for an interview, and she was wearing a T-shirt that depicted a checklist: Deaf: check, Badass: check, Inspiration: blank.

    Asked why the “Inspiration” box wasn’t checked off, Wetmur responded: “Because disabled people don’t exist to be inspirational for people who aren’t.”

    So … just to be badass? She bursts into laughter. “Yes!

    “You can think that I’m inspirational because I’m badass, but don’t think I’m inspirational because I’m deaf. Because it’s just another part of who I am. And honestly, I wouldn’t want to be hearing. Thank you, but no. I don’t know how you guys sleep at night. I take these guys out (she points to her hearing aids) and I am good.”

    She is completely deaf without those hearing aids.

    “When I was younger, my poor mother, I would turn my hearing aids off, cross my arms and then close my eyes. So there’s absolutely no way that you’re going to get any communication into me because I’m just not paying attention,” she recalled.

    Wetmur also sees disability as not being binary. People aren’t just abled or disabled but rather are on a spectrum. For instance, if someone needs to wear glasses, that’s a disability.

    “I think in America, it’s important we talk about disability, because we don’t talk about it,” she said.

    Wetmur was born deaf. Her sister is hard of hearing, while their parents and grandparents are all hearing. Wetmur noted that 90-95% of deaf children are born to hearing adults.

    “I grew up orally, which means that I didn’t sign. I didn’t know any sign language until I was about 23. I graduated from college, and I decided I wanted to explore this other part of me because I had the hearing parts down, but I’m not hearing,” she said.

    Wetmur became involved in theater in high school.

    “I was just looking for my thing, and I’ve always been a very dramatic person,” she said. “ … And I found my community.”

    In the deaf world, facial expressions serve, in a way, as grammar and syntax, Wetmur said.

    “We don’t have the pitch or the volume,” she said. “So I’m not going to know if you’re angry at me unless I can see it. There are things I’ve always done that I never realized were deaf things.”

    About ‘Before Breakfast’

    “Before Breakfast” is a short one-act that, Wetmur said, “packs a punch.” Wood said they’ll be playing with the silence in the production. (There will be performances, though, where someone delivers the text verbally as well.)

    Wetmur noted that her character is not meek, so using ASL “is a really interesting way of providing a voice without providing a voice.”

    And, Wood said, “What a way to look at that text at a different level. Women in the time period WERE silenced. (The play premiered in 1906.) There is this oppression that was put on that, and we’ve been exploring that through the use of sign language as she navigates through this story. I’m very curious to see how it will play both with a deaf audience and a hearing audience, and what will come out of it and where it will go.”

    Wood wants the set to be very simple, monotone and gray. He envisions Wetmur wearing gray, too, so her face and hands “really pop because that’s where the story is,” he said.

    Wetmur noted that ASL has roots in a variety of different sign languages and follows the French structure a lot of the time.

    “ASL is good at getting rid of all the English fluff. … (English) is a very fluffy language,” she said.

    Becoming a social worker

    Wetmur got her undergraduate degree in English literature, with a minor in creative writing, from Drew University but eventually was drawn to social work. She just finished her doctorate degree in social work from Rutgers School of Social Work. She focused on language deprivation, which happens when deaf kids are born to hearing parents and there’s no natural access to language during the normal acquisition period.

    In her private practice, Wetmur specializes in trauma and tries to work a lot with the deaf and hard of hearing population because it’s hard to find accessible treatment.

    She has taught at a number of colleges. She was on the faculty of Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., last year in the social work department, but, even with a hybrid in-person/online schedule, the commute proved to be too much. She has been an adjunct at Connecticut College for a number of years, teaching ASL and disability justice, and she teaches the same subjects online for Manchester Community College.

    From ‘Macbeth’ to O’Neill

    This isn’t the first time Wetmur has performed in ASL in a Flock production. In “Macbeth,” she played one of the three witches who communicated only via ASL; supertitles provided audiences with the written words.

    “It really lent this whole otherworldly (aura) to it. We were terrifying and we didn’t make a sound,” she said.

    Wood said that, dramatically, extended silence is unnerving, because audiences are used to productions having a certain rhythm, and that’s part of what directors craft. In the case of “Macbeth,” it meant crafting it all in silence, and theatergoers had to look “at the language of the hands,” he said.

    Wood is, coincidentally, losing his hearing; he has hearing aids but says that, while they’re great in controlled environments like lectures, he hates them otherwise because he’s not used to background noise.

    Pushing theater’s boundaries

    Wetmur thinks that Flock naturally has more of a focus on disabilities because it’s such a community-based organization.

    “We have disabilities, and why not bring everybody in? Because many hands make light work,” Wetmur said. “And Flock is a family. It’s important for everybody who engages with Flock to feel seen and validated, and we’ll do what we can to make your life, to make it work out well.”

    She said that Flock has as a mission exposing the arts to a wider variety of people and to include people whose voices perhaps haven’t been heard in the theater.

    By using ASL, she said, “I love that we’re having a chance to bring a different dimension to theater. This is unique. It doesn’t happen very many places … I’m hoping the audience gets an understanding of ‘Oh, wow, people do live different lives than I do, and my experience isn’t universal.’ I also hope what they get out of it is ‘Wow, this is really cool. I want to learn more about this. And take an ASL class or ….”

    “Or take an O’Neill class,” Wood interjected.

    “And (that we) continue to work together and push the boundaries of theater,” Wetmur said.

    k.dorsey@theday.com

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