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how is it done?

[NOTE: The following discussion focuses on technical aspects of interpreting on stage using TerpTheatre's shadow interpreting environment as an example. Techniques and requirements may differ in other types of theatre interpreting.]

What Is Shadowing?

Shadow interpreting on stage places the sign language interpreter within the acting space of a play, musical, opera or other performance piece. TerpTheatre most often uses two interpreters to shadow the entire cast. The interpreters move on stage to position themselves near the location of a single actor – or group of actors.  As the focal point of the action on stage shifts, so do the interpreters. As they move across the stage, they may enter and exit with other characters, and interact with them on occasion. Some shows call for interpreters to dance, participate in crowd scenes, move set pieces and take on other actor-like qualities. Interpreters may shadow any number of performances in a show's run – from just one, to all of them.


Interpreters meet with the director and others early in the process to understand the artistic vision of the production team. The rehearsal process combines physical work with the process of translating the script or libretto into sign language and then memorizing these translated lines. Script analysis and observation of early rehearsals helps the interpreters determine character division.  An analysis of the movement (or "blocking") in each scene determines the placement and movement pattern of the interpreters as they shadow their characters.

Photo showing actor and interpreters in rehearsal

From Rehearsal to Performance
Rehearsal pays off when preparing to shadow interpret on stage.

In rehearsal for Translations at The Hilberry Theatre, actor Brian Ogden [ left ]  and interpreter Dan McDougall [ right ] explore their pattern of movement – "blocking" – and discover moments for interaction between character and interpreter.

In performance, actors Tiffanie Kilgast [ Bridget ], James Kuhl [ Jimmy Jack ], and Megan Callahan [ Marie ] react to the final product. Notice that interpreter Shelly Tocco  [ seen behind McDougall in the rehearsal photo above ] has moved to another part of the stage outside the performance photo, and the actors have been repositioned. The move from  rehearsal to performance space often results in such blocking adjustments. In this case, set dressings [ a crate and a bail of hay ] reduced the amount of space available for movement, and Tocco adjusted her position to the nearby stairway.   

Photo showing actors and interpreters in a performance of the scene shown in the photo above

Effective shadow interpreting requires a balance of book and stage work.  Interpreters should attend regular rehearsals with actors to effectively strategize and memorize blocking, and to develop natural working relationships with the cast. This includes exploration into the relationship between the interpreters and individual characters, and how these relationships result in moments of interaction between actor and counterpart.

Below: Actors and others discuss working with shadow interpreters on stage. [ CC available. ]

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Technical Considerations

To enhance the effect that the interpreters "belong" on stage, they are costumed appropriate to the production. Most costumers develop a single, basic costume of a neutral design for interpreters to wear throughout the performance. Some productions suggest the need for additional costume elements or specialized costume changes for interpreters.  In a production of The Rocky Horror Show, for example, TerpTheatre's interpreters began the performance costumed similarly to the characters of Brad and Janet, and ended the show in the transvestite-inspired garb of Frankenfurter and the other aliens in the show.

Interpreters preparing backstage

In preparation to interpret a performance of Crumbs From The Table of Joy at Oakland University, Valoree Boyer [ left ] and Shelly Tocco [ right ] apply make-up and style their hair according to the costume design for the production.

Because the goal of shadowing is to bring the interpreter close to an actor (or group of actors), special lighting may not be required.  Some situations call for interpreters to be positioned away from the actors. In some lighting designs, this may require additional lighting in these limited cases. Since theatre lighting has the potential to wash-out the facial features that are critical to signed languages, interpreters must be skilled in basic theatre make-up techniques.

Optimal seating for Deaf audience members will vary based on the set design, architecture of the theatre's house, and interpreter blocking. In general, shadowed performances do not require special seating sections for Deaf patrons. The interpreters can be seen from most seats with good "sight lines" – as long as the distance is close enough to read the signs of the interpreters.

Required Skills – What Makes A Good Theatre Interpreter

Interpreting on stage requires a unique combination of technical and creative skills. Part preparation – part performance, this specialty requires a number of important traits:

  • Excellent sign language skills and interpreting knowledge
  • Physical awareness and agility
  • Acting experience and knowledge of theatre terminology and protocol
  • Judgment and the ability to work in groups

While stage work is electrifying, theatre interpreters must always remain an ensemble member. Ultimately, the character originates with the actor. The interpreter feeds off the actor's impulse – even rides on it for a while – but, never seeks to replace it. It's called "shadowing" – not "over-shadowing".

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