Note for the unaware: sim-com means simultaneous communication, a method for communicating with deaf people by simultaneously signing and speaking. The use of sim-com in the revival of Spring Awakening has been criticized, but they pale in the face of the sea of positive reviews. In comparison, the use of sim-com hasn’t been discussed in-depth, which is why I focus on the topic here. More specifically, I focus on whether sim-com should be used in theater.
“All shall know the wonder of purple summer…” the cast sang as the show came to a dreamy close. At the charmingly-aged Brooks Atkinson Theater, I sat in the front row of the upper mezzanine, sipping the last of my red wine before joining the standing ovation along with the rest of the theater. I looked over at my husband, who was removing his hearing aids– as he always does the moment he no longer needs them for entertainment– and I felt a colossal sense of relief that we were encouraged to read the script beforehand by our friends who had seen Spring Awakening.
It was because of that very good advice that we were able to notice and appreciate what transpired on the stage before us in the past two hours– such as the background actors and other various elements– instead of straining for the entirety of the show to understand the sim-com. To get an idea of the average Deaf theater-goer’s experience at Spring Awakening, take a moment to watch the video below.
My experience was somewhere in between the first and second clips, having read the lyrics beforehand and being able to hear the music through my hearing aid. For those that don’t know American Sign Language (ASL), let me take a moment to outline the problem:
…of living / And living in your head / It’s the bitch of living / And sensing God is dead
Melchior’s ASL translation of the lyrics above goes something like this:
That’s life / Thinking obsess / Shit that’s life / God none
Or it could be easily misunderstood as:
Stay life / Thinking obsess / Shit stay life / God teach
Without knowing the English lyrics, it’s difficult to tell which version Melchior means, because the signs are so similar and his facial expressions and mouth movements do not match the signs. Now, watch a Deaf character, Moritz, do a different part of the same song completely in ASL with his voice shadow* standing from behind.
*More on voice shadows further down in this post.
The difference between ASL and sim-com is clear and undeniable. As Daniel Durant, playing Moritz, eloquently demonstrated, facial expression is part of ASL. It’s what helps make ASL more clear, especially when done onstage. Theatrical ASL is already tough to pull off, because sign language doesn’t travel the way sound does. If you’re watching the show from the upper mezzanine, like we were, the facial expressions and appropriate mouth movements are huge factors in ASL clarity. Let me emphasize this point: sign language involves more than just the hands.
My husband and I are both Deaf and ASL is our native language. We grew up watching people sign while often mouthing the matching word in English or making an ASL-appropriate mouth movement and always with facial expression. Our brains have been wired to take in both the hand movement and facial expression in order to understand ASL effectively, so when Austin McKenize, playing main character Melchior, or any other hearing actor, signed one thing while mouthing something else entirely, red flags shot up in confusion in our brains. We literally could not understand anything they said.
“Sign language involves more than just the hands.”
I asked ten people who identify themselves as Deaf and had gone to a Spring Awakening show to rate from 1 to 10– 1 being not at all and 10 being completely— their ability to understand the hearing actors that used sim-com and the Deaf actors that used full ASL. The average rate of their ability to understand the sim-com was 3.8. The average rate for ASL was 7.7.
To be clear, this is not a criticism of the hearing actors, but the decision to have them use sim-com. The only reason I was able to get the gist of what they were saying at any given time was because I had the read the script and was able to make connections from the Deaf actors’ responses to them. Again, this is not an example of their acting skills, but evidence that sim-com will never be able to do ASL justice.
The Deaf actors, by the way, had “voice shadows” (hearing actors who spoke their lines, often standing behind or beside them in creative ways) or subtitles displayed on a blackboard for their lines. Spring Awakening nailed some of these strategies with voice shadowing, especially with characters Wendla (played by Sandra Frank/voiced by Kate Boeck), Thea (Amelia Hensey/Lauren Luiz), and Moritz (Daniel Durant/Alex Boniello).
With Wendla’s character, I liked that Kate was subtly present, strutting away on her guitar, but never overshadowing Sandra. I felt that I could really keep my focus on Sandra while her voice shadow created an aural atmosphere around her.
It was actually the opposite with Thea as Amelia and Lauren were consistently side-by-side. Lauren was also playing another character, Melitta, who appeared to be Thea’s twin sister or the ultimate BFF. Of course, when Lauren was sim-comming as Melitta, I could barely understand anything, but when she was voicing as Thea while Amelia signed, it worked beautifully, especially as Amelia and Lauren mirrored each other so seamlessly they seemed one at times.
My favorite example of voice shadowing was accomplished with Moritz’s character. Daniel had a way of dominating the stage with his strong facial expressions and signing, which was awesomely matched with the voice of Alex. The creative dynamic between Alex and Daniel was fun to watch. One particular scene stands out: Daniel and Austin (Melchior) sit across from each other having a tense discussion about sex while Alex stands behind the table in between them. Austin hands a cigarette to Daniel and he, after puffing on it, passes it to Alex– never breaking eye contact with Austin. At that moment, Daniel/Alex learn something shocking from Austin and Alex blows a cloud of smoke back in Austin’s face.
This scene is an example of how voice shadows– when done cleverly and creatively– can really add to the story, so I don’t get why Melchior’s character couldn’t have had a voice shadow rather than have Austin carry the burden of sim-com throughout the show.
“Voice shadows– when done cleverly and creatively– can really add to the story.”
How, you may ask, would we make this show– or any other show for that matter– truly accessible for the Deaf community? Here are some suggestions:
- Assign a voice shadow for every character that signs, so the signing actor can articulately express their lines in ASL.
- Show subtitles whenever an actor speaks or signs.
- Display lyrics in English for every song.
- Reserve priority seating with the clearest view of the stage for Deaf people.
- Make the script readily available at the ticket purchasing webpage.
- Install ButtKicker speakers underneath the seats and/or provide Deaf people with the SubPac S2 audio vest. (Okay, I know this one is reaching, and super expensive, but this is the future of truly accessible music-listening experience for Deaf and hearing people alike.)
In conclusion, despite having read the script beforehand, the sim-com prevented my husband and me from enjoying Spring Awakening to the fullest. The other aspects of the show were amazing, however. Had the actors signed in full ASL with voice shadows and/or subtitles, it would have been a perfect show. I do think Spring Awakening helped put Deaf actors and ASL on the map for theater and other artistic mediums, which I very much appreciate. Watching Spring Awakening on Broadway was a memorable experience– one I am indeed glad I had. It is my hope that we can agree that we are allowed to– and should– support something while also being able to critique it. The opposite of love isn’t hate, after all; it’s indifference.
You can download a PDF copy of the Spring Awakening script here.
Full disclaimer: I have a bit of personal experience with Deaf West’s revival of Spring Awakening. During the summer of 2013, I was an actor in the Spring Awakening experimental workshop that Director Michael Arden hosted with Deaf West in Los Angeles. Those two weeks were one of the best times in my life and I hold the people behind this production in high esteem. I didn’t audition for the play when it went into production in 2014, however, having just moved to Austin, TX while working full-time at a job I loved. This review is based on my experience as a Deaf theater-goer, although I couldn’t be completely without bias. Still, I tried to make this review as honest and balanced as I could.