James Cummins uses sign language skills to interpret theater performances at South Coast Repertory

James Cummins uses sign language skills to interpret theater performances at South Coast Repertory
James Cummins is an American Sign Language interpreter at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa. (Courtesy of James Cummins)

James Cummins isn't deaf, but his life revolves around helping those who cannot hear.

Cummins has worked as an American Sign Language interpreter for 22 years, most recently providing his services for theater performances at South Coast Repertory in Costa Mesa.


This challenging task, interpreting the words of multiple characters in real-time for deaf attendees, is something Cummins sees as beneficial to the deaf community.

Cummins, 43, of Torrance has been interested in ASL since a friend in high school who had deaf parents taught him some of the language.


This fascination incubated in him and he went on to earn three certificates, two from the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf and one from the National Assn. of the Deaf.

In 2004, Cummins was hired as a staff interpreter at El Camino College in Torrance and became lead specialist interpreter at the school about three years ago.

Considering that mastering ASL has been a lifelong venture for Cummins — he's well-versed in the language — it still was challenging when he started interpreting plays about three years ago.

A fair amount of preparation is needed for SCR performances, including careful readings of the source material. Cummins signs for about five performances a year.

"Being on the spot interpreting is poor practice," Cummins said. "We want to come off as polished as the actors."

For a recent rendition of "Shakespeare in Love," Cummins was tasked with translating the enigmatic words of Shakespeare into a more understandable read, which was then translated into ASL.

For that play he also had to plan when to move out of the way when a sword fight commenced, though one of the usual difficulties he has to contend with is delineating between which character is talking on stage.

"We're grateful for James and all the ASL interpreters who assist with our shows for the considerable amount of work they do to ensure that South Coast Repertory continues serving the deaf and hard-of-hearing community in the best manner possible," SCR spokeswoman Tania Thompson said. "From the long hours of research and preparation to the valuable advice they provide us, their contribution to the patron experience is tremendous."

Cummins said he's always striving to better his grasp on the language, and while these challenging performances do aid this endeavor, immersing himself in the deaf community is the most important element to achieving this goal.

"Like with any language, hanging out with the native speakers makes you better with the language," Cummins said. "I make sure I have constant contact with members of the deaf community and my deaf mentors. Even with 22 years under my belt, there is always room for improvement. It's constant learning and growing."

While some may consider ASL a corrective for a hearing deficiency, Cummins said deaf people and interpreters generally believe ASL is its own unique language, with varying sentence structure, syntax and grammar.

Cummins said that due to his hearing abilities, he is still very much an alien to the language.

"It's their language, not mine," Cummins said. "It's a language I am borrowing from them.

"A lot of times people tend to think you are working with people who have hearing loss," Cummins said. "Hearing loss never comes into play in our work. The deaf community feels as if they are a linguistic and cultural minority. We as interpreters support that idea."

For a schedule of South Coast Repertory plays, visit