Katie Koch remembers leaning forward in her seat at the Omaha Community Playhouse as the magic of “A Christmas Carol” came to life on stage.
Even though Koch, who is Deaf, couldn’t hear the words, the 11-year-old knew the background of the story. Her head swung back and forth, looking between the stage and her mother, who tried to interpret as much of the play from her seat as possible.
Years later, in 2001, the Playhouse hosted its first-ever shadow-interpreted performance of “A Christmas Carol,” with Koch in the audience once again, this time as a 24-year-old. In shadow-interpreted performances, each actor has a “shadow” following them, in their own costume, interpreting the lines on stage as they are spoken.
“I was mesmerized by how I was able to understand everything,” recalled Koch, now 54. “I was glad there were interpreters there, and I was also surprised at how many interpreters were on stage, following each actor. It was like a dream come true for me to see a play that I loved that I could understand. I couldn’t take my eyes off the play.”
Historically, the Deaf community has faced challenges of social isolation, communication and a lack of access to public spaces and resources. Today, the Omaha Community Playhouse is working to change that, through both traditional ASL-interpreted performances and a new invention: shadow interpretation.
“We definitely need more of this,” said Patti Reitz, who became Deaf at age 10 after falling out of a moving car. “Deaf people need to have access to the same things that hearing people do.”
Although the Playhouse offers intermittent American-Sign-Language-interpreted performances throughout the year, often at the request of Deaf Nebraska community members, its annual shadow-interpreted performance of “A Christmas Carol” takes inclusivity one step further: featuring a separate interpreter-based cast that follows the main crew on stage.
Each year, the audience for this performance is filled with Deaf Nebraskans, from elementary schoolers to retirees.
“Getting to see an interpreted show can be a rare event for many Deaf and hard of hearing people,” said Taryn Peterson, student life advisor at the Iowa School for the Deaf. “Theater truly should be accessible to all, and providing interpreted shows brings us all closer to a world where everyone can enjoy the same things.”
For many Deaf individuals, she said, American Sign Language is their native language, and having interpreters at the show to facilitate full and accurate translation from English to ASL allows them to fully understand and enjoy the show in their first language.
Recently, students at the school traveled to the Playhouse for an ASL-interpreted performance of “School of Rock.” From groups of all ages, the performance received glowing reviews.
“We felt more included when they offered interpreted performances and we can completely understand the whole thing,” one student said. She added that the performance created an inclusive environment and she was blown away — both by the talent and the accessibility.
“For many of our students at Iowa School for the Deaf, this was perhaps their first real experience going to a theater and seeing a live show, so I enjoyed seeing their reactions to what was happening on stage,” Peterson said. “I saw students clapping along or moving their shoulders along to the music, and plenty of smiles.”
Barriers for ASL-interpreted performances
However, these traditional ASL-interpreted shows face their own barriers. Theaters often station interpreters off stage-right, spotlighted and stationary.
“If the interpreter is on stage alone, it’s hard to follow who is speaking or what they want,” Koch said. “When interpreters just stand in a corner or near the stage … it can be hard to follow.”
Shadow interpretation makes the show more enjoyable and easier to watch, Koch said. Based on feedback gathered from its 20-year run, Nebraska’s Deaf community agrees.
“For the Deaf community, a shadow-interpreted performance is a much preferable way to watch a live theater performance because the interpreters are in costume on stage next to the actors signing the show and are fully immersed into the production,” Box Office Manager Lanelle Poole said.
Nationally certified interpreter Glory Entinger, whose husband, Chad, is Deaf, agreed.
While having an interpreter is an appreciated accommodation, having them in costume and on stage with the other actors makes it feel like they’re a part of the play, rather than an afterthought, off to the side, said Entinger, whose children have also been interpreters in the play.
“Marrying a Deaf man and being involved in the Deaf community, I’ve seen how businesses will think they’re accommodating by doing the least amount they’re required to do,” Entinger said. “And then I see places like the Omaha Community Playhouse that go above and beyond what’s expected. You don’t just have an interpreter off to the side, you have the interpreter in the play with the actors, side by side. And then to have people who are skilled and enjoying themselves, like they were just a part of the play, not like they were just an extra prop, that’s worth something.”
Cathy Christiansen, lead interpreter for the Playhouse’s shadow interpreted performance of “A Christmas Carol,” compared traditional interpretation to a game of ping pong, withs Deaf audience members constantly looking back and forth between the interpreter and the cast on stage.
“As a Deaf person, if you’re looking at the stage you’re missing the dialogue and if you’re looking at the interpreters it’s hard to get the full impact of the play,” she said.
Also, Koch noted, when the interpreters are placed off to the side signing what everyone is saying in the play, it can be hard to tell who is saying what, which further diminishes the experience.
Request made for shadow-interpretation in 1980s
A request for a shadow-interpreted performance of “A Christmas Carol” was originally submitted to the Nebraska Theatre Caravan — the professional touring wing of the Playhouse — in the early 1980s, said Poole, who has worked extensively with the ASL programming at the Playhouse.
The Caravan, formed in 1976, traveled across Nebraska to smaller communities with active arts organizations for live performances. Since then, it has produced more than 100 plays — some completely original works — and toured 160 Nebraska communities and hundreds of others nationwide.
The group has performed the national tour of “A Christmas Carol” in more than 600 cities in 49 states and four Canadian provinces, seen by a collective 3 million audience members — but nowhere is it more beloved than its home in Omaha.
Poole said that while some work adapting the shadow-interpreted performance was done in the 1980s , before she arrived at the Playhouse, it was never fully conceptualized or produced until 2001.
“The Christmas Carol is such a traditional, classic Christmas experience — especially at the Playhouse,” Christiansen said. “Here’s this beautiful play that brightens the whole season and we want the Deaf community to be able to have the same experience. Having that available, without any obstacles, there’s a real joy in being able to offer that. … it just becomes alive.”
For the past eight years, the Playhouse interpreter team has been made up of six adults and several rotating, younger children — a change from the original shadow cast, which consisted entirely of adults.
“Including children added another dimension to the show and really changed the overall feel,” Poole said. “Instead of having to have an adult interpret Tiny Tim, we actually had another person right next to Tiny Tim that is their stature and size, creating that additional realism.”
Enjoying a beloved tradition
And that’s the goal, for everyone involved: to make the shadow-interpreted performance as realistic and equitable as possible, allowing Nebraska’s Deaf community to join in on the beloved tradition.
When the Entinger family first attended the show over a decade ago, Poole reached out to them to see if the children would be interested in being involved. The Entinger’s six children have all been involved with the production, gradually moving through parts as they aged in and out of roles.
The company prioritizes the use of CODAs — children of Deaf adults — who already know how to sign and feel comfortable on stage, said Poole and Christiansen.
While Christiansen said she can help kids learn to sign bigger and more visually, or show them certain time-period words, teaching children script-specific ASL often makes their signing look stilted and unnatural.
“Because it was our production of a Christmas Carol, which we did year after year, the people that became very involved with this didn’t have to learn a new script each season,” Poole said. “They had this script, they knew the adaptation, they had divided up the characters and knew who was going to interpret each character.”
Even with the cast’s expertise gained from the annual process, it takes a great deal of time and effort to get the show off the ground — contracting can start as early as August for the December performance.
Nebraska’s Deaf community recognizes the labor and energy that goes into the show, but still wishes there were more of its kind.
“They don’t have to do it this way, but they see how much it’s encouraging to the Deaf community to have an equal platform and to share the stage,” Entinger said. “The community wants more — they wish it wasn’t just one show that’s interpreted this way. They wish that other performances, other shows, other entities would be willing to share the stage like the Playhouse has done.”
Big time commitment for performances
To potentially include shadow-interpreted performances of other shows, the burden of time would be even larger and require the crew to undergo extensive text analysis of what’s happening, how best to portray it in ASL and how many interpreters are necessary to cover each actor on stage at any given time before even thinking about rehearsals.
For a theater with a dozen different shows each year, this time commitment isn’t always feasible.
According to Christiansen, after determining each interpreter’s role in the adapted show, the group spends a lot of time practicing, sitting in the audience and observing backstage.
“Once they’re going through the play from beginning to end, we come and just sit there and watch it — noticing details about what choices the actors are making and incorporating it into the signed performance,” she said.
The process is not only time-intensive, but it’s also incredibly expensive. Poole said that shadow-interpreted performances can cost nearly five times as much to interpret, thousands of dollars in difference.
Part of that increased cost is created by additional lighting demands.
“If you don’t have lighting, you can’t see the play,” Christiansen said. “The obstacle is, you’ve got the whole theater lit and staged so that the right people are lit when they need to be lit. You add two, four, six interpreters at a time on stage and you need that spotlight to be bigger to incorporate the interpreters.”
According to Christiansen, one of the most common complaints from Deaf audience members about the shadow-interpreted performance is that they were unable to see the interpreters’ actions during some parts of the performance.
Lighting is problemmatic
Increasing spotlight coverage is both difficult and expensive — it can require new rigs, equipment and crew to run it. A single light fixture can cost anywhere between $200 and $900, without accounting for installation and labor.
“We have incorporated additional spotlights on that particular performance to cover the additional people on stage,” Poole said. “The coverage of the characters is widened that night, so that it incorporates not only our actors, but then the interpreters standing beside them.”
The Playhouse also blocks out certain seats in advance, such as the first 16 rows of the auditorium, specifically for the Deaf audience to purchase. If an organization comes as a group, Poole works to make sure they’re seated in that space to give them an optimal view of the show.
The Playhouse hopes to include more shadow-interpretation programming, but with the current time and monetary constraints, doesn’t foresee it happening soon.
“I think Lanelle (Poole) has certainly been interested in offering more plays, but shadow is a whole different deal,” Christiansen said. “Shadowed is hard because they take so much more time and a higher level of what’s needed.”
“We would certainly love to be able to offer more shadow-interpreted performances to the Deaf community, but it’s a matter of finding people who are willing to commit to that time and having the money to fund additional interpreters,” she said.
According to Poole, funding for interpretive services — both traditional and shadowed — doesn’t come from ticket sales, but from private donors, grants and community partners. In the past, the Playhouse has worked closely with the Sertoma and Rotary groups of Omaha to underwrite these costs.
Although more shadow-interpreted performances aren’t in process at the moment, the Playhouse is working on increasing the number of traditional ASL-interpreted performances to ensure all of their programs are accessible to the Deaf community.
“We’re not to the point yet where we can do an ASL performance for each show that we offer, but that is our ultimate goal,” Poole said. “That’s something that we’re building into our upcoming budget as we get towards our 100th season.”
More ASL performances planned
The theater is currently in its 98th season of production. For the celebration of its 100th, the team hopes to have the funding in place to do, at a minimum, a traditional ASL-interpreted performance for each show, instead of having Nebraskans request these services for specific performances.
While the shadow-interpreted performance of “A Christmas Carol” is well loved by Nebraska’s Deaf community, there simply isn’t enough room for everyone.
According to the US Census Bureau’s 2021 American Community Survey, more than 77,000 Deaf and hard of hearing individuals live in Nebraska and 14,500 in Omaha alone.
The Omaha Community Playhouse, and its singular shadow-interpreted performance, has 558 seats in the main stage theater. Based on past attendance, approximately two-thirds of the audience for the shadow-interpreted performance has been a part of the Deaf community.
Although the Deaf audience greatly enjoys and appreciates the show, there just aren’t enough seats. The current set-up provides less than 1% of Nebraska’s Deaf community access to the unique shadow-interpreted performance.
Adapting to audience feedback
Although all parties agree there is still growth necessary to make theater accessible to all audiences, Poole said the program has adapted extensively since its original debut in response to audience feedback and continues to do so annually.
For example, the interpreters were not originally costumed — a choice that separated them from the cast, making them look out of place on stage, Poole said. Since then, the crew has worked to create costumes that fit into the scene, but also allow the audience to see the interpreters’ hands easily.
The Playhouse’s goal of maximizing accessibility is not linked solely to their perception of Deaf issues, but rooted in what they’ve heard directly from the community. Instead of telling the Deaf community what they need, Poole said, we try to give them what they ask for.
As the curtains closed on the evening of Dec. 11, hands filled the air, twisting back and forth amid the clapping as Deaf audience members joined in with their own applause. Although American Sign Language has a sign for clapping, which looks exactly like the action, the gesture is meaningless since the Deaf community can’t hear the sound, leading them to applaud visually instead.
“We do it because it is more accurately representative of our identity,” said Donald Grushkin, a professor of ASL and Deaf studies at Sacramento State University. “As culturally Deaf people, we interact with our world visually, and the Deaf applause is not only highly visual, but signifies that we are not trying to emulate hearing people by applauding in their auditory way, but rather, we are applauding the accomplishments of others in a way that conforms to our cultural and visual norms.”
From children and retirees, friends and loved ones, students and professors, the Playhouse’s audience is increasingly diverse across performances.
“The philosophy of the Playhouse is that everyone is welcome here,” Poole said. “When we make that statement, that means we have to truly provide the accommodations for anyone from the community to come see a performance and be able to enjoy it. We’re trying to make certain that anyone who has an interest in or an excitement to see live theater can partake of shows here at the Playhouse.”