In creating this adaptation of Titus Andronicus into American Sign Language, the creative team — Christine Albright-Tufts, Lezlie Cross, and Howie Seago — aims to create the first completely accessible theatrical experience in which both Deaf and hearing audiences will be able to attend any performance, sit anywhere in the house, and receive a full experience of the story. Unlike other productions at major theatres which feature Deaf performers, this play brings not just one or two deaf actors into a predominantly hearing show, but creates a play immersed in Deaf culture. This pioneering project will be the first fully bicultural Deaf production of Shakespeare in American theatrical history.

Our Titus opens in a Rome which is completely bilingual. In this imagined modern society, Deaf and hearing people live side-by-side in harmony. The infrastructure of the society provides equal access for people of all hearing abilities through a system of interpreters and electronic media tools such as computer assisted real-time transcription (CART). This enables a deaf family, the Andronici, to gain prominence through their military prowess. The daughter, Lavinia, is the only hearing member of the family and operates as their official interpreter. This cultural balance of power changes when the Emperor dies. His two sons vie for the crown. The eldest, Saturninus, believes that the society should go back to prioritizing hearing people and the English language. But Bassianus, partially due to his engagement to Lavinia, sees the manifold benefits in maintaining bilingualism. When Titus, the patriarch of the Andronici, uses his considerable influence to crown Saturninus and the newly minted Emperor chooses the Queen of the Goths as his bride, the balance of power begins to shift toward English speakers. Slowly, access for the Deaf is to be taken away. Interpreters disappear. The CART machines are unplugged. And the Andronici quickly go from respected military leaders to dangerous rebels.

In creating this adaptation, the creative team has worked with the most renowned Deaf Shakespeareans throughout the country, including two transformational workshops: the first at Gallaudet University and the second at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre. These collaborations with notable Deaf artists have shaped the nature of the adaptation, as all of our choices spring from an abiding respect for the Deaf perspective, culture, and experience. A notable feature of this version is an emphasis on visual storytelling which includes manifesting offstage scenes onstage, animating Shakespeare’s visual poetry through ASL, and using digital media as a communication tool. We believe that this visual approach to the play will electrify both hearing and Deaf audiences, as we live in such a visually oriented culture.

In order to create this adaptation, we had to address three vexing questions: 1) How do you create a scene Deaf audiences can understand when only hearing characters are on stage? 2) How do you create a scene hearing audiences can understand when there are only Deaf characters or their family members on stage? 3) How does a hearing character who does not sign and a Deaf character communicate? As you will see in the script, we have come up with a variety of solutions from traditional translation to digital media solutions to parallel scenes to mime to bringing off-stage scenes on stage. In all of our workshops, we also discovered that the eyes of audiences tire quickly, through intensive watching, and therefore we have aggressively trimmed the text.

This script is an adaptation ready for translation in to ASL. The act of translation for Deaf actors is as important and personal as a hearing actor’s choice of tone, pace, and inflection. We have therefore not translated the script, but leave that work to be completed by the cast preparing for production. The script calls for six Deaf actors (possibilities for doubling could make it five), one Hard of Hearing actor of color, seven hearing actors who are either fluent in ASL or can sign. The production would also require a Sign Master to aid with the translation and a Sign Coach to work with the actors. We also think it is essential that the artistic team include Deaf artists. With a full cast and Deaf members of the artistic team, we would need 3-4 interpreters per rehearsal room and 2 for meetings.

Should the script interest you, please contact Dr. Lezlie Cross at lezlie.cross@unlv.edu

Titus was originally commissioned through the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s “Play on!” program as an additional project, one of two Shakespearean adaptations commissioned through the program.