Challenge for Interpreters: Cockney in ‘Fair Lady’

As Eliza Doolittle, Paula Dunn will screech, whine, cheer and sob with abandon. And as Henry Higgins, Dean Sheridan will scold and harrumph with equal force.

And neither one will make a sound.

Dunn and Sheridan are interpreters for the deaf. On Saturday in a special performance of Opera Pacific’s production of “My Fair Lady” at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, they will translate the lines and lyrics into American Sign Language.

It is the first presentation in the Center’s history to be interpreted for the hearing-impaired and the first offered by a Southern California opera company, according to Opera Pacific officials.


The 2 p.m. performance in Segerstrom Hall stars Patti Cohenour as Eliza and Noel Harrison as Higgins and is open to the public.

With a grant from Pacific Bell, Opera Pacific set aside 50 half-price tickets for the hearing-impaired, to be sold through Anaheim’s Dayle McIntosh Center for the Disabled. Those seats are nearly gone, but Opera Pacific said it will discount more tickets for the deaf if there is demand for them.

Interpreted performances are not new in the county (Laguna Playhouse in Laguna Beach, for instance, presents one signed performance in each run), but signed musical theater presentations, especially of the scope of “My Fair Lady,” are rare.

According to Karen DiChiera, Opera Pacific’s artistic director of community programs and coordinator of the hearing-impaired performance, the natural resistance of the deaf toward music is at least partly to blame.

“Many deaf people have had terrible experience with music,” said DiChiera, who introduced interpreted performances at the Dayton Opera and Michigan Opera Theatre seven years ago. (DiChiera’s husband, David, is general director of Opera Pacific and Michigan Opera, and artistic director of the Dayton Opera.)

“Often, deaf children are excluded from music classes in school. They’re told they can’t sing on pitch, so they must be quiet. . . . As a result, many of them think ‘this is something I shouldn’t do.’ ”

To give the hearing-impaired a “total theatrical experience,” the interpreters will be fully costumed (at other shows, they are often dressed in black) and will work on a comparatively roomy apron at stage right, using physical interaction, DiChiera said. Both Sheridan and Dean take full advantage of this freedom, mirroring the movements and expression of the characters they are interpreting whenever possible.

Sheridan, an electronics technician for TRW Space & Defense and a UCLA graduate student, will interpret all the male roles; Dunn, a Dayle McIntosh staff member, will sign for the female roles. When two characters of the same sex interact, Dunn or Sheridan will sign for the secondary character, whatever the gender.

Dunn has been interpreting for theater since 1980, but “My Fair Lady” marks Sheridan’s debut as a stage interpreter. The son of deaf parents, his hearing is severely impaired, with a level of 35 to 55 decibels when he is using hearing aids. (Normal hearing range is 0 to 20 decibels; 100-plus is total deafness.)

Dunn is a graduate of Gallaudet University in Washington, has studied with the National Theatre of the Deaf and has performed in sing-language productions on both coasts.

Although public awareness of the needs of the deaf is growing slowly, Sheridan said, opportunities in the entertainment world--for performers as well as audiences--remain limited.

“A lot of times, people pass the deaf off as the disease of the week,” he said. “It’s frustrating in terms of the theatrical and musical world. We’re performers; we just have a different way of expressing ourselves.”

Expression is the dominant theme in “My Fair Lady.” And an obvious question arises: How can Cockney, or any accent, be translated into intelligible sign language?

“In American Sign Language, the signs we make are basically nouns,” Sheridan said. “The facial and body expressions are the verbs and adjectives; they affect whatever signs we make.”

“About 85% of the language is face and body,” Dunn added. Demonstrating, she twisted her face into a comic expression, signing an aaaaah as broad and flat as the River Thames.

“Vocal inflections obviously don’t come across, but they can through the body,” she said. “For example, you would assume that somebody speaking like this"--she threw her shoulders back and assumed a prim expression--"would speak better than someone looking like this"--she bowed her back and drooped her head.

As it is not possible to translate the sounds of musical notes into sign language, the interpreters have worked closely with conductor Glen Cyugston to convey the feeling and pace of the music, DiChiera said.

To enhance the musical fabric of the piece, during wordless musical passages, the interpreters will sign appropriate phrases to convey the mood of the music.

With or without music, two pairs of hands, tracing in tandem the fall of notes in “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly,” is in itself a loverly sight.

Opera Pacific’s specially interpreted performance of Lerner and Loewe’s “My Fair Lady” will be presented Saturday at 2 p.m. in the Orange County Performing Arts Center , 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. Discounted tickets for the hearing-impaired are available by calling the Dayle McIntosh Center at (714) 772-8285 (TDD: (714) 740-2000) or by visiting the Center box office. “My Fair Lady” continues through Sunday.