On a chilly morning at Santa Clarita Studios, the cast and crew of ABC Family’s “Switched at Birth” are about to tape a scene at an outdoor carwash. It is not quiet on the set. A creaky cart rattles past. Rubber cables swoosh as they’re dragged along the concrete. A hiss comes from the hot-coffee dispenser at craft services. In the distance, a car engine starts up. The collective sprightly chatter of milling crew members rises, then falls as a call for calm goes out.
The director, in a North Face jacket and wool cap, shouts, “Action!”
And then: silence.
Two of the show’s central characters, Daphne (Katie Leclerc) and Travis (Ryan Lane), are in a heated argument, but the only sound from the set is the gentle swish of the wind and an occasional snap of a wrist or slap of hand in palm. That’s because “Switched at Birth” is a bilingual show. This scene is unfolding in American Sign Language.
In casting a mix of deaf, hearing and hard-of-hearing actors — as well as showcasing silent scenes between characters communicating in sign language (subtitled for hearing viewers) in every episode — the show is a technical and cultural pioneer.
On March 4, a week before the show’s winter-season finale, “Switched” will air an all-ASL episode, something the network says has never been done before on scripted, mainstream television.
Creator Lizzy Weiss, a Los Angeles native who wrote the surfing movie “Blue Crush,” didn’t set out to create a show about deaf teens. She was inspired by a “This American Life” story about two women in their 50s who’d been switched at birth.
The network suggested that to further bump up the complexity she give one of the characters a disability. Weiss doesn’t have deaf family members, but she’d taken a sign language class as a freshman at Duke University. When researching the pilot, she visited L.A.'s Marlton school for the deaf, and that’s when everything changed.
“I told all these deaf teenagers that if my pilot gets on air, the deaf teenage girl would be the protagonist,” Weiss says. “They were just in disbelief, and then total excitement, to think that someone who looked and sounded and acted like them would be, week to week, the lead on a show.”
Now midway through its second season, “Switched,” the network’s second-highest-rated title after “Pretty Little Liars,” teems with romantic conundrums and cliffhangers. But it also offers moments of surprising depth and complexity as it explores issues of identity, self-expression and nature versus nurture.
The show, which airs Mondays at 8 p.m, centers on two Kansas City girls who discover, at 16, that they’d been accidentally switched in the hospital as newborns. Further punctuating the drama are the families’ differences: Bay Kennish (Vanessa Marano) lives in a wealthy, two-parent home. Daphne Vasquez (Leclerc) is the only child of a struggling, single, Latina mother, a hairdresser who’s also a recovering alcoholic. A bout of meningitis at age 3 left Daphne deaf.
Marlee Matlin, who broke barriers in Hollywood as a deaf actress, wasn’t originally part of the cast. But she viewed the pilot to give Weiss feedback and says she was so taken with the show’s authenticity she asked to be in “Switched.”
Matlin now plays Melody, mother of deaf heartthrob Emmett (Sean Berdy), whose parents were originally scripted as two gay men. And though she has appeared in numerous TV shows and movies — she holds the title of youngest lead actress Oscar winner for “Children of a Lesser God” — she says that “Switched” has been groundbreaking for her.
It’s the first time she’s seen multiple deaf characters featured so prominently on TV. It’s also the first time she’s been able to act without a third-party translator — either an on-screen interpreter, a narrative voice-over or a character written in a scene to repeat out loud what she’s signing.
“The subtitles allow deaf characters to communicate freely without being parroted,” Matlin says. “It’s like being an actor who speaks French, who has been dubbed in English all their acting career and suddenly the audience hears their real voice. It’s very freeing for me!”
In “Uprising,” the all-ASL episode, the students at Carlton School for the Deaf stage a protest to prevent their school from closing and themselves from being dispersed to hearing schools. The plot was inspired by, and marks the 25th anniversary of, the real-life student protests, known as “Deaf President Now,” that took place at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C., in March 1988.
“It’s a story about kids who are different fighting back, it’s not just relating to deaf kids,” says Weiss. “It should be a very universal story.”
With long, silent stretches of sometimes barely audible ambient sound, the all-ASL episode of “Switched” immerses the audience in the point of view of a deaf person. To balance the lack of audible dialogue, there’s more music in the episode, which is also decidedly more visual. Snippets of cellphone texts flash on and off the screen, there are more shots of hotheaded action, and the costumes, because of a school play, are more lavish.
“Will people have the patience, will they be willing to explore this with us? It’s a little risky,” admits ABC Family’s head of programming, Kate Juergens. “But I’m also intrigued about the possibility. It’s a fascinating world … and the silence is so powerful.”
Even “Switched’s” weekly episodes with a mix of ASL and spoken dialogue present numerous production challenges. A deaf-culture consultant, Josh Swiller, reviews the scripts for accuracy. An ASL master, Jack Jason — who is not deaf, but has two deaf parents and runs Matlin’s production company — stands by the director’s side for every take. He mouths aloud any signed dialogue so that the director better understands the actor’s performance. If an actor flubs his or her lines in sign language, the director wouldn’t necessarily know that if Jason weren’t translating.
“Directors want to know what’s being said on screen. It’s their show,” Jason says. “I provide the link between the deaf and the hearing worlds.”
Extensive subtitling has been done before on shows such as “Lost” and “Heroes.” The fact that audiences stuck with those scenes may have given ABC Family the courage to take subtitling a step further with “Switched,” Jason says. Like any dialogue coach, he teaches the hearing cast sign language and works with the deaf and hard-of-hearing actors on their diction, be it proper signing or fake spoken accents.
For example, Leclerc, who is hard of hearing in real life because of an inner-ear disorder called Ménière’s disease, uses a deaf accent on the show because her character, Daphne, cannot hear at all. In post-production, Jason makes sure the signing matches up with the subtitles.
Special blocking is used to make sure that signing actors’ hands are visible in the frame. And because ASL is a such succinct visual communication — it’s much faster than spoken or read English — the actors have to sign far more slowly than they would in real life to keep pace with audiences reading at home.
“It’s definitely more complicated, there’s an extra layer of difficulty and expense,” Juergens says. “But it has such reward.”
The all-ASL episode, with more deaf actors on set than usual, was especially chaotic “in a wonderful way,” says Leclerc. “There were eight off-screen interpreters for eight actors — and eight different interpretations of what the director was trying to get across. Just so much more sign language.”
After Leclerc and Lane’s carwash scene, the set is lively with sound again. It’s the last day of shooting for many of the actors before the show goes on hiatus. There’s much hugging and exchanging of phone numbers, not unlike the last day of school before summer break.
Lane, whose character, Travis, is described on the show as “a deaf Matt Damon,” settles onto a park bench on the edge of the set. It’s windy and the bright morning sun glints off his blue eyes.
Through his interpreter, Lane describes how he recently watched an episode of “Switched” with a friend, who is deaf like him. In the episode, Travis’ mother refuses to learn sign language, leaving him angry and alienated.
After the show ended, the friend’s father — who has also not learned sign language — texted an apology to Lane’s friend. The father and son came to a new understanding.
“I was in shock,” Lane says. “It was really touching. Obviously this show is changing peoples’ perspectives. It’s changing the world.”
‘Switched at Birth’
Where: ABC Family
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-LV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for coarse language and violence)