When Amara Ede and Haley Beach Vaughn attended a dinner theater show by the Baptist Collegiate Ministries, they realized some members of the audience had a less than ideal experience. The show was interpreted into American Sign Language (ASL), but while the actors on stage performed and sang in English, the interpreters were seated in the front row of the audience.
“We noticed that the deaf people were having a really hard time being able to connect fully to the show, because they’re having to look back and forth from the front row to the stage,” Ede said. “They’re missing a lot of the action.”
In March 2018, Ede and Vaughn founded Hands In!, an educational nonprofit that aims to “bridge the gap between Deaf and hearing through ASL learning.” To date, Hand’s In! has performed three official shows entirely in sign language, while the lines are spoken off stage. Auditions for its fourth show, “Polliwog Prince,” a twist on “The Princess and the Frog” will take place on Sept. 16-17.
Ede and Vaughn, both University of Georgia graduates, met in 2015 while working at a deaf camp.
“We had a mutual love and excitement about the language,” Ede said. “Deaf theater was just kind of a fun way to be able to share it with people.”
In addition to shows, the organization hosts classes, including an ongoing, hour-long after-school program that teaches ASL basics at the Athens Clarke-County Library, as well as a collaborative six-week workshop with the Athens Creative Theatre to teach sign language for theater purposes.
Classes feature people who have several different backgrounds, including those who have never signed before. Students learn theater basics from the Athens Creative Theatre staff and ASL basics from Ede, Vaughn and their colleagues.
“Our goal is not to find someone who’s the perfect signer,” Ede said. “We want to find people who are excited about the language and about the community because we can teach a lot, but we can’t encourage people to be excited.”
Amberley Harris, a junior theater major from Folkston, Georgia, had never signed before auditioning for an ASL show.
While having prior acting experience through her major, Harris briefly struggled with challenges specific to ASL theater, such as staying front-facing.
“With this type of theater, you have to make sure you’re being well-understood across the whole space,” Harris said.
While Harris’s focus wasn’t on learning sign language, she quickly picked it up and was even able to converse with some of the cast in her first show who were hard of hearing.
One of Harris’s fellow actors, Liam Cavanaugh, had a similar experience. He found himself gravitating toward other speaking actors during rehearsals, but soon realized others in the group couldn’t understand him.
“It was kind of a motivator — wanting to be able to include them,” Cavanaugh said. “I don’t like the idea of not being able to connect with someone.”
Cavanaugh is particularly interested in languages — he studied Spanish as well as chemistry at Georgia Southern University — but said anyone could benefit from an experience with Hands In!
“I think theater can help people in a lot of other realms of their life because a lot of it focuses on understanding how you present yourself,” Cavanaugh said.
Cavanaugh also noticed how theater helped both him and his friends, fellow science majors, overcome their fears about presenting their work.
“People in both the camps of ASL and theater benefit from a sort of interdisciplinary endeavor like this,” Cavanaugh said.