COMMUNITY VOICES | Why ASL interpretation is crucial at the Minnesota Fringe Festival: You can’t lipread a play


Some of you may have seen an American Sign Language (ASL) interpreter, usually dressed in black, stand to the side of a Minnesota Fringe Festival production; you may have watched their hands move about as if in a ballet of sorts. Most of the time you don’t wonder just why a show needs to be interpreted. It’s very simple, really. Just turn off the sound on your TV and try to lipread the actors in a show. (Turn off the captions, please. No cheating!) Make it even more confusing if you change channels and pick any show. Just watch. Can’t follow what they’re saying? Switch again. Are you feeling very lost? Good.

Welcome to my magical world of lipreading. It has been shown that even the best lipreaders can catch maybe 30 percent of what’s being said on the lips out of context. This is very important to understand. When I watch a story in a film in which a deaf person is hired to lipread a spy from the distance, I have to laugh. How well could she comprehend a stranger if no one tells her what the context of the stranger’s dialogue is going to be? The stranger could be talking about the lint in his navel and not about the next bombing being planned the following week. Context is crucial to my success as a lipreader. As long as I know what is going on, I can more or less follow a conversation. But that’s assuming that the environment in which I’m having the conversation is well-lit and without any visual distractions. (Bars are the worst places for any lipreader, especially if it’s dark and punctuated with strobe lights. It’s no wonder my eyes get very tired after an hour or so, and I have to leave.) And what about group conversations in which speakers flit from one topic to another without cuing me into their shifts? I might as well read a book because at least I can read what the characters are saying on the page.

All right. Let’s make it easier, shall we? Let’s have two characters talk onstage. You’d think that because they’re actors, they’d know how to project their voices and convey emotions in a way that would help the lipreading process. Not always. If I don’t know what the context of their dialogue is, I’m working hard to figure out what they’re talking about in the first place. Sometimes an actor will face another person onstage in such a way I cannot see his face. Just because I wear hearing aids doesn’t guarantee that I can hear him clearly enough. Again, if I don’t know the context of what’s being said in the first place, it’s going to be quite difficult to decode the words being spoken with the help of my hearing aids. There’s something else most hearing people don’t realize. Their mouths are quite small onstage. If I’m sitting too far away, it requires a lot of miracle work to figure out whether they mean “I love you” or “olive oil,” both of which can look the same on the lips. If the actors are wearing costumes that cover up their throats, it will be even harder to make the distinctions between consonants like “b” and “p,” and “c” and “t.” And it’s damn hard to distinguish between “s” and “st,” as in “say” and “stay.” Context helps me make that decision as to which word the speaker is using.

The bigness of hands and the clarity of facial expressions bring me to shows that provide ASL interpretation. The Twin Cities theater community is so blessed to have so many shows that are ASL interpreted—and have audio description for hearing blind patrons—every month, and we all need to thank VSA Minnesota for helping to make that happen. (And yes, please support VSA Minnesota via For once, I do not have to work so hard to enjoy what hearing people can enjoy so effortlessly. In the last few years I have been proudly involved with the Minnesota Fringe Festival, where I promote the shows with ASL interpreters and help bring more Deaf patrons to the Fringe Festival. For more information about Fringe Festival’s shows that are ASL interpreted (and audio described) this year, please click here.

Thank you for lipreading. Now that wasn’t too hard, wasn’t it?

Read our Fringe bloggers’ complete coverage of the Minnesota Fringe Festival.