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Sight Gags : Deaf improv group Light Flashes uses humor to build bridges between the world of the hearing and the world of the hearing-impaired

T. H. McCulloh writes regularly about theater for The Times.

“Whose line is it, anyway?” goes an old show-biz gag. In the case of Light Flashes, a new improv comedy group appearing Wednesday at a Groundlings Theatre benefit for AIDS Education Services for the Deaf, the gag might be changed to, “Whose sign is it, anyway?”

Light Flashes is America’s, and probably the world’s, first deaf improvisation group. Wait a minute. Think about that.

It’s an idea whose time just may have come. At least that’s what the group’s guiding light, Vikee Waltrip, believes. “There’s such a rich source of humor in our community,” says deaf actress/comic Waltrip, “and it really needs to be shown now. The time is now.”

Waltrip has had comedy inside her all her life, growing up in what she calls a “very dysfunctional” family. There was little communication with her hearing parents, except “dinner’s ready, time to go to bed.” Just the basic necessities.

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If there was ever any talk about emotions, she missed it. When the family watched “Laugh-In,” Waltrip laughed because everyone was laughing; she didn’t know why.

“Shows like ‘Laugh-In’ and ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ” she says, “those were really designed for people who could hear. For people like myself, I felt lost. Completely lost. We have our own humor.”

Then, 12 years ago, she got into show business, first with the National Theatre of the Deaf, where she first came across improvisation games. More recently, she and several colleagues were talking about the individual humor in the deaf community, and Waltrip decided to do something about it.

She maintains she was the one with the guts to approach the Groundlings. A frequent visitor to Melrose Avenue, she had seen the Groundlings Theatre many times. One day she noticed the door was open, and took that as an invitation. It was a momentous day for Waltrip, and the beginning of the current association between the two groups.

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Waltrip is adamant about building bridges between the world of the hearing and the world of the deaf. “As a comedy group,” she says, “this will be the best way to educate the general hearing community, through humor. When people laugh, the ice is broken. They can accept things more easily that way, rather than just standing there and preaching and lecturing.”

Humor has been a form of survival for Waltrip, just as it has been for other disenfranchised groups.

“Without humor,” she says, “I don’t think I could survive. I love American Sign Language, but English was my first language. And when hearing people communicate in it, it’s very frustrating. You feel isolated, and you add and add to that. Humor is my defense sometimes, too. A huge defense.”

Waltrip explains: “A lot of our humor is cross-cultural. It may be something that is uniquely ours, that a hearing person couldn’t understand. Hearing people would not get some of the humor at all without an explanation, like a lot of hearing jokes that are based on sound and go right past deaf people. Right over their heads.”

Many people do not realize that American Sign Language is a different language, which does not follow English structure. It is a language of concepts and pictures. It’s very visual.

How does that translate into improv comedy before a hearing audience? It isn’t easy. But Groundlings workshop director Cathy Shambley, who is guiding Light Flashes, says they have crossed a lot of hurdles.

Much of the group’s humor does not derive from being deaf, even though the subject is there.

“It’s just like regular comedy,” Shambley says. “When short people do humor about being short, they’ve made themselves vulnerable. If someone has no chin, they do a joke about that. You laugh, because they’re really being themselves. They’re really being raw and open for you.

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“Some of the humor has to do with the complications they have in life, the possibility for miscommunication. But very often it’s just about all of life, being human beings, facing the same things we face.”

Waltrip agrees. “We draw from our experience, yes, but some of the sketches relate to all people.” One sketch the group has worked on in rehearsal Waltrip calls the “Helen Keller Airlines” sketch, about a hearing person who is extremely uncomfortable crammed between two deaf people.

Another concerns a sign language interpreter who is a serial killer, doing away with all the other interpreters between the deaf and hearing worlds, for his own advantage. “Maybe it was a little sick,” Waltrip says, “but it was funny.”

It was even funny to Michael Purcell, one of three interpreters who will be translating Wednesday night. An actor who became interested in sign language while playing the lead in a production of “Children of a Lesser God,” Purcell went back to college to study the subject, became a professional accredited interpreter, and now splits his career between interpreting and acting.

“With deaf improv comedy,” Purcell says, “this is the first group, really new ground. We’re learning at the same time Cathy is learning and Vikee is learning. The interpreters are experimenting, using voices we may not have used before in a more standard interpreting situation, being more creative.”

On this new ground, there are special problems. What is said is not all that has to be transferred. The sense of humor has to be interpreted, the nuance, the flavor. Along with the words, the interpreter may have to add an accent or other ingredient that gives meaning to the hearing audience.

“They have to trust us,” Purcell says, “and the trust has to be complete.” It’s the same kind of trust that hearing improv comics have to generate.

“I call them voice actors,” Waltrip says. “An interpreter is just conveying information, but a voice actor is really acting.”

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And what about the slight time delay between the signing and the translation? Shambley says it’s no problem. The deaf performers cover pauses with physical comedy better than hearing performers.

Purcell says it’s no problem. One of his goals in the production is to redefine the role of the interpreter in the performance arena.

Waltrip says it’s no problem. “Some people will catch it later,” she explains, “and they’ll start laughing anyway. Maybe there’s a 10-second delay there. We’ve had to learn to live with it. It’s part of our cultural lifestyle.”

“Light Flashes” plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday at the Groundlings Theatre, 7307 Melrose Ave., West Hollywood. Tickets: $20. Call (213) 934-9700.


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