BY HARPER LEE
WHEN THEATRE EDUCATOR Robin Caporuscio wanted to produce The Miracle Worker, she was surprised to learn that many of her students were not familiar with the story. “They had never heard of it,” Caporuscio said. “They asked, ‘What’s that?’ I said, ‘That’s the story of Helen Keller.’ They said, ‘Who’s that?’ And I thought, ‘This is a good choice already.’” The director of Thespian Troupe 7919 at Armada High School in Michigan, Caporuscio scheduled the show to open on March 2, as part of her program’s 2017-18 season.
Based on the true story of Helen Keller and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, William Gibson’s play opened on Broadway in 1959, featuring Patty Duke as Keller and Anne Bancroft as Sullivan. As a toddler, Keller lost her vision and hearing, which led to raging tantrums that traumatized her family. Anne Sullivan moved in with the Kellers and taught Helen to communicate using hand signs.
The film adaptation of The Miracle Worker was released in 1962, with Bancroft and Duke reprising their roles — both actresses won Academy Awards. Gibson received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay, having won a Tony for his play, which has been produced countless times in high school, professional, and community theatres.
As Caporuscio began planning, she felt that the show would be a special production — emotional, dramatic, and engaging for people who have never before been inside Armada’s theatre. Instead of a more naturalistic set showcasing the detailed interior of the Keller home, Caporuscio imagined a minimal, more stripped down and abstract design with a monochromatic color scheme and platforms rising from upstage center.
On top of the highest level, at the heart of the production, Caporuscio decided to add two American Sign Language interpreters. Present throughout the show and dressed in period clothing, the pair will interpret the entire show in all of Armada’s performances, making the shows accessible to audience members who are deaf or hard of hearing. A video feed of the interpreters will be projected in the house.
“This is a direction that I want to start moving in,” says Caporuscio, who sees theatre as a way to connect her students with a wide variety of people, lifestyles, and world experiences. “I want to make our shows more accessible for everyone and, at the same time, educate my students not just on what happens onstage but also on how to be more sensitive people and have an understanding of what is going on with other people.”
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Caporuscio reached out to Paul Fugate, an ASL instructor and interpreter who teaches in a nearby school system, Romeo. Fugate, who has made his career in ASL, began his journey almost 30 years ago. As a teenager, he regularly encountered a young man who never responded when Fugate said hello. After discovering the man was deaf, Fugate decided to learn how to communicate with him.
“American Sign Language is based on concepts and not on English,” Fugate said. “One phrase could be ‘I’m going to go to the store tomorrow’ — four signs in ASL and eights words in English. People think it’s just the movement of the hands. Well, no, it’s not. It incorporates body language, facial expression, hand gestures, movement — it’s all incorporated into signing. If I said, ‘That is not really funny at all.’ You sign it, ‘Funny no or funny-un.’ ASL is not a shortened or shorthand version of English. It’s based on concepts.”
To prepare to interpret plays, Fugate will spend time with the script: reading and rereading. For a production of Much Ado About Nothing, Fugate estimates he spent almost 100 hours translating Shakespeare’s language into contemporary speech and then into ASL. Fugate is currently preparing three of his most advanced high school students to interpret Armada’s Miracle Worker.
He especially likes Caporuscio’s decision to integrate the interpreters into the middle of the action. Often, directors will position ASL interpreters to one side of the stage, creating what he describes as a ping-pong effect for audience members who are hard of hearing: They look at the action on stage and back at the interpreter, then back at the action and so on. “That’s really not ideal,” Fugate says. “You miss a lot.”
Fugate’s student Grace McCulla is a senior at Romeo High School, where she has studied ASL for the past five years. McCulla says she’s never been onstage before, but when Fugate asked for volunteers to interpret The Miracle Worker, hers was the first hand up. “I just think it’s cool to communicate without speaking,” she said. “I have a script of the play, and I practice a couple more lines every day. I’m excited, but I’m nervous, because it’s my first play — my first experience with theatre at all. I just wanted to have the experience of being in a play.”
To promote the show, Caporuscio and a student marketing team is hoping to collaborate with organizations that serve people who have lost their hearing or their vision. “We have a group of kids who will be finding out information to contact different organizations,” Caporuscio said. “Right by our stage is our cafeteria, and the plan is to have organizations be able to set up an exhibitor booth display in that room. We would like to do that at least at intermission, if not pre-show, so our patrons are able to learn about some of the work that they do.”
Caporuscio hopes to continue learning and experimenting so that Armada’s productions are accessible to a wide variety of audiences. The Miracle Worker has provided complex roles for her students and valuable opportunities for her program to engage new partners and cultivate new ways to share the magic of theatre.
“The plan with the show, aside from obviously doing a show, is to make it an educational experience, not just for our students but also for our audience,” Caporuscio said. “We don’t have students who are blind. We don’t have students who are deaf. We don’t have a very diverse population in our building at all. It’s going to be a very big eye opener for everyone.”
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