Across a Distance: Unique & Powerful
"No Similar Works Elsewhere"
November 29, 2011Opera, in its most basic form, can be defined as a theatrical presentation in which a dramatic performance is set to music.
This type of production has rarely been inviting to the deaf population, but that was the challenge facing Emory & Henry College faculty member and stage director Dr. Kelly Bremner while working on her doctorate at the University of Wisconsin–Madison (UWM).
Across a Distance is a multimedia bilingual performance piece for soprano and deaf actor, incorporating both American Sign Language (ASL) and English. It made its debut in 2010 at UWM and is now being staged at Emory & Henry College.
"Working on almost every aspect of this play was hard," says Dr. Bremner. "Even simply rehearsing when we had two distinct languages and cultures in the room was challenging. It was very complicated to make sure both my actors knew what the other one was saying at all times, something that would normally be quite simple."
The performance tells an allegorical tale about Man (a storyteller) and Woman (a scientist) living on separate islands, who desire to be together. Through the assistance of magical companions, a flock of birds who converse through song and a pair of trees who express themselves through movement, Man and Woman meet.
Though Man speaks American Sign Language and Woman speaks and sings in English, the two magically understand one another. However, once they break the rules their companions set for them, Man and Woman lose their ability to communicate.
UNIQUE & POWERFUL
At the heart of Across A Distance are several probing questions: What is the nature of communication, and what are its limits? What happens when the magical first blush of love gives way to the challenges of uniting two disparate lives and realities? What are the possibilities and limitations of attraction? What is the relationship between knowledge and intuition? How can deaf performance and opera interact with each other artistically?
Dr. Bremner says there are no similar works elsewhere: "This is why this show is so special. There are companies that feature deaf performers for hearing audiences in order to help them to learn more about deaf culture and the beauty of the language. There also is a lot of wonderful deaf theatre performed for and by the deaf, but the combination of music and American Sign Language in our show is unprecedented.
The interpretation of the two languages is woven into the play in a unique way, as well. "Traditionally theatre is translated for the deaf into ASL through the use of interpreters on the side of the stage. This is awkward for deaf audiences because it requires them to take their eyes off the stage to look at the interpreters. In our show, the interpretation of the spoken English into ASL, and vice versa, is part of the very writing and design of the show. Translations are projected onto the scenery and are even withheld at key moments to allow the audience to experience the same frustrations in communication as the characters."
Bremner notes that creating a piece of theatre that unites deaf performance and opera — two seemingly unrelated worlds — was rewarding in the way that "it helps people see that there is something to be learned from that paradox."
She says, "Across a Distance has been one of the great joys of my life. I have such talented collaborators, and to work together so intensely for five years with such talent was amazing."
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