Sometimes, the words just get in the way.
Take, for example, the words of James Madison, who in the musical “Hamilton” is something of the straight man to the much more flamboyant Thomas Jefferson.
In many of the scenes they share, Madison will interject a sentence or a phrase into the flow of the conversation, either to add a salient point to the discussion or to inject a note of comedy.
But if one is trying to interpret one of these rapidly paced scenes through American Sign Language, something has got to go.
“The speed of this show is such that there are times when it simply isn’t possible to switch between characters,” Charlotte Ker said. “So instead of trying to do that, I more or less absorb what Madison would have said into Jefferson’s reaction. The point is made, but it’s made in a slightly different way.”
Ker is one of three people who will be interpreting the final Tulsa performance of “Hamilton” for the deaf. Ker, who has been an ASL interpreter for more than 30 years, has worked many times with Celebrity Attractions to make Broadway shows accessible to the deaf.
She, Josiah Fehlauer and Amy Linfoot have been working for months, endeavoring to translate the experience of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s sung- and rapped-through musical about the life and times of Alexander Hamilton into the unique visual language of ASL.
Celebrity Attractions offers ASL-interpreted performances at select productions, usually after a request has been made by someone who requires ASL as his or her primary means of communication.
However, the company decided from the start to make sure deaf and hard of hearing patrons would have access to “Hamilton.”
“Making sure we were able to provide an interpreted performance for ‘Hamilton’ was a priority for us,” said Kristin Dotson, CEO of Celebrity Attractions. “We have worked with Charlotte Ker for many years to provide this service for our Broadway engagements, but with ‘Hamilton’ — well, it is a whole different ballgame because of the pace of the show.”
“We are so grateful for Charlotte and her staff for jumping in on the monumental task,” Dotson said. “This show requires multiple signers and months of practice.”
“The complexity of this show is just intense,” Ker said. “It’s truly like no other show I’ve ever done.”
That complexity goes beyond the simple fact that the lyrics in “Hamilton” come at the audience at an average of 130 words per minute. “Hamilton” has 20 named characters, and figuring out how to divide them among the three interpreters was one of the earliest challenges.
“When we decided to do this, I divided up the parts, but when we did our first read-through, we immediately realized that it wasn’t going to work because of the way certain characters overlapped during the show,” Ker said.
Of the show’s major roles, Fehlauer has the roles of Alexander Hamilton, King George III and General Lafayette. Linfoot handles the roles of Aaron Burr and Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. Ker has the role of George Washington during the first act and Thomas Jefferson in the second act (Linfoot performs the Washington role in Act Two).
American Sign Language usually does not attempt to present a word-for-word translation, although there are moments in “Hamilton,” Ker said, where she thought it important to sign exactly what was being said.
“For example, one character says something about ‘reading “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine,’ ” Ker said. “When we sign that, we are signing how ‘I’m fascinated by political propaganda.’
“But when it came to something like ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,’ I felt that it was important to sign those words,” she said.
The trio will be positioned on the right stage apron of the Chapman Music Hall at the Sunday evening performance.
“Usually, we are sitting when we sign, but for this show, we felt it was more appropriate for us to be standing,” Ker said. “It’s not that we’re trying to be dancing or anything like that — we’re not there to compete with or distract from what is happening on stage — but there are some moments where one’s body language is as important to communicating the heart of a scene as the signing.
“Some of the tandem scenes, such as the ‘Dear Theodosa’ number, where Burr and Hamilton are talking to their children, are just beautiful,” Ker said. “Josiah and Amy just do a wonderful job with that.”
It’s all part of trying to help deaf audience members have as complete an experience as possible, Ker said.
“Our goal is that our audience enjoys the show enough that they want to come back and see more live theater,” she said.