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LaVona Andrew, Holly Thomas-Mowery and Steven Snow

Signs of life: ASL interpreters enhance and enliven ISF performances for deaf audiences

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They're two of the most animated performers in the amphitheater of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival each summer. Yet, you may not see their names in your program. Not that you won't see them. In fact, the line of sight toward LaVona Andrew and Holly Thomas-Mowery has been essential, as the pair portray anyone and everyone from Macbeth in Macbeth to Pride and Prejudice's Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy, to the ABBA-crooning ladies of Mamma Mia! Just prior to an ASL-interpreted performance of Misery (they'll have two more this season--Pride and Prejudice on Tuesday, Aug. 29, and Beehive on Tuesday, Sept. 17), Andrew and Thomas-Mowery sat down with Boise Weekly and Steven Snow, executive director of the Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Andrew and Thomas-Mowery assisted with ASL interpretation of our questions for Snow, who is deaf.

When you're not interpreting a performance at ISF, how do you spend your days?

Thomas-Mowery: I'm a licensed real estate agent, but I've been a sign language interpreter for many years. I'm also on the board of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival as a consulting member. LaVona? How long have we been interpreting shows here in the amphitheater?

Andrew: I think our first play was in 2007. We interpreted two plays each season back then. In 2009, we began interpreting four productions, and ever since 2010, we've done all five productions. I'm an associate professor for the Idaho State University interpreting program. I'm also a representative to the Idaho Speech, Hearing and Communication Services Licensure Board. Our licensing classes have really taken over much of my professional life for the past few months.

Snow: The Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing is designed to ensure the highest quality of life possible in a variety of ways: Entertainment, healthcare, employment, you name it.

How does the public find out which performances here at the festival will include sign language?

Snow: Facebook is always a great tool. Plus, on the Idaho Shakespeare Festival calendar, you'll see a symbol next to a particular performance, and the legend tells you that it will be a signed evening.

How many people who are deaf or hard of hearing do you expect at tonight's performance?

Snow: I think we can expect more than 70. Drama is big; the element of fear is always a major attraction.

LaVona, I'm assuming that you've signed all types of productions: dramas, comedies, musicals. Do you have a preference?

Andrew: I have a healthy respect for Shakespeare, but I'm not intimidated by him anymore.

Plus, you have to be a fairly good actor, considering that you're portraying multiple characters.

Andrew: It's a skill that not too many interpreters do well. In the theater, you're required to take the physical space of the characters and all of their mannerisms. You need a deep understanding of the most impactful lines. It's intense.

Steve, can you recall a particular production that still burns in your memory?

Snow: I have a deep passion for Othello, because I portrayed Iago when I attended Gallaudet University. Theater is in my blood. So, all these years later, when I watch Othello it still gives me goosebumps. And of course, this season's production of Macbeth was another big favorite.

Ladies, do you have favorites?

Thomas-Mowery: Les Miserables was one of my favorite productions to interpret. It was so emotional to see the deaf audience sobbing along with the hearing audience. That was a pretty powerful evening. Lavona and I have interpreted two separate productions of Macbeth, so we've really developed a multilayered translation in how we split the characters.

Andrew: I don't have favorite performances as much as I have favorite moments. During Les Miserables, I had to interpret the song "Bring Him Home." I was communicating with a deaf man and asked him what it looked like when he prayed over his children. That's really what that song means in that moment of the show. I absolutely love how the open the deaf community has been in sharing that gift with us as interpreters so that we can do a better job in our portrayal.

Thomas-Mowery: There are places where we don't need to interpret anything because, quite often, the actors make it really clear in their actions. It's important for us not to cross the line where we become the show. Sometimes, we'll sign, "Look at the stage," because we've studied the show enough to know when something very dramatic is about to happen.

Let's take Misery as an example. There's some profanity in that. Can I assume that the profanity is part of your signing?

Andrew: Absolutely. It's full access.

Steve, how essential to the deaf community is the festival's commitment to these interpreted performances?

Snow: Society as a rule sees the deaf community as needing access to things for critical situations, like healthcare or education. But we often overlook the parts of life where we enjoy something such as theater or movies. The Idaho Shakespeare Festival recognized that the deaf community had been left in the background. For the past 10 years, this program has been fantastic. The Idaho Council for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing even recognized the festival with an award for excellence for [its] involvement with the deaf community. I also want to let you know, with these ladies here with us, that the quality of their interpreting is so impressive. I know when the deaf community sees that these ladies will be interpreting, there will be even more of us attending.

So, we're sitting with the A-list here.

Snow: Absolutely. I have to impress on you that they are the absolute best.

Steve, you're a still an actor at heart. Are you ready to step in, in case of emergency?

Snow: Well, maybe if they do Othello. But I should still probably hold myself back from jumping up on stage.

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