Listening with an Open Eye: Identifying and Working with Interpreters

Why is an interpreter necessary?

The participation of certified interpreters is crucial to the success of nearly every production utilizing a Deaf or hard of hearing performer. The interpreter’s role is to facilitate communication between individuals representing two different languages and cultures. As with two individuals of differing nationalities, communication between a Deaf/hard of hearing person and a hearing person requires the assistance of a certified and qualified third party. If, in the absence of interpreters, the intentions of the casting director, director and author are not sufficiently communicated and understood in the audition room, the producer/director/ casting director will not be able to see the full potential of a given actor who is Deaf or hard of hearing and the actor will not have had a fair opportunity to give his/her best audition.

Actor Troy Kotsur sums up the importance of the audition for the actor: “Auditions are our floor to give what we’ve got, but without a comfortable flow of communication, we are not able to give a hundred percent and show casting directors and directors the range of what we can do.”

Troy goes on to tell about the barriers he faced at a particular audition:

“When I had an appointment to see the casting director for a callback, I saw other actors waiting for their appointments too – one was Deaf and the other was hard of hearing. When [the auditors] called my name, I was not sure if they would have an interpreter for us so I went into their office for the interview. I felt awkward at the moment I learned that there was no interpreter at all! The casting director just spoke directly to me as if I could hear her or as if I could fluently read her speech. After it was over, I left the audition without saying anything. It was the worst audition I ever had.”


Monique Holt was disappointed that one major corporation did not provide an interpreter at her audition: “They didn’t hire an interpreter at all. They didn’t even hire an interpreter for the Deaf consultant they had on staff. I thought the producer of the spot made a really bad impression because [the company] already has Deaf employees but did not provide for their needs.”

Actress Missy Keast explains why having an interpreter at her audition was so important: “When I was in the audition room, the interpreter signed everything that the casting director and other workers said. That helped me to be aware of what went on. It gave me more confidence and so I just did my work as an actress. So the issue of being ‘Deaf’ was erased in the eyes of the audience in the room. I liked that. The only issue in that room was my work as an actress.”

The performing unions have their own rules regarding hiring an interpreter. While you should check with the specific union and contract which has jurisdiction over your production, generally, if you are specifically seeking to audition Deaf actors, it is the responsibility of the producer (and, by extension, the casting director) to provide a certified interpreter(s). With Actors’ Equity Association, this is applicable to all contracts, with the exception of the SPT3 and the “live corporate communications” agreements. If the interpreter and his/her role is established properly in the audition, the rest of the process is more apt to flow smoothly.

Hiring interpreters directly enhances the success of first, the audition process, and then, rehearsal and production. If the creative ideas of the director and writer are not understood by the actor and therefore, not carried out, the production will ultimately suffer. It is completely, totally, absolutely in the interest of the producer to hire interpreters from the beginning – we cannot stress this enough. The hiring of certified interpreters is also an indication of the producer’s seriousness and professionalism.


While it is the actor’s responsibility, once hired, to make his/her needs known to the producer right away, including the use of interpreters, common sense dictates that if the producer initiates the query, it sets the most productive tone for the process to follow. Occasionally, we hear of a Deaf actor who does not want to work with an interpreter. This is extremely rare. Most typically, depending on the size and demands of the role, one or two interpreters are needed throughout the rehearsal and production process.

Linda Hartzell, Artistic Director, Seattle Children’s Theatre: “For us, interpreters are there for every aspect of the process. During a production that employed a Deaf director, they were present at every meeting, whether design, development or production. During all productions, interpreters were present at all auditions and rehearsals…. At least one interpreter shadowed me when I was directing.”


What does it mean to be a certified interpreter?

All certified interpreters are listed with the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf (RID). Established in 1964, RID provides training for new interpreters, certification through its testing system and self-regulation to ensure the largest amount of qualified interpreters are available. RID’s telephone number is Voice: 703.838.0030; TTY/TDD: 703.838.0459.

What questions should I ask when hiring an interpreter?

There are several questions you should consider asking an interpreter. For example:

1. Are you RID certified?

2. What certificates do you hold?*

*There is no current specific certificate for performing arts. The person should have a CI (Certificate of Interpretation) and a CT (Certificate of Transliteration). While no longer offered, the older CSC (Comprehensive Skills Certificate) is still valid as well. According to RID: “Holders of a Certificate of Interpretation are recognized as fully certified in Interpretation and have demonstrated the ability to interpret between American Sign Language and spoken English, as well as a knowledge of professional issues. Holders of a Certificate of Transliteration are recognized as fully certified in Transliteration and have demonstrated the ability to transliterate between signed English and spoken English, as well as knowledge of professional issues.”

3. Briefly describe your experiences interpreting for auditions

Is there specific etiquette a certified interpreter must follow?

RID has established a set of principles of ethical behavior to protect and guide interpreters and transliterators and those who employ them, to ensure the right and ability to communicate properly. One of the most important of the guidelines is the understanding that all assignment-related information is to be kept strictly confidential. The link to the full listing is as follows: RID – Code of Ethics

At an audition, the interpreter should be outside the audition room with the other waiting actors so s/he can interpret the call. Then, the interpreter should accompany the actor into the audition or interview for the express purpose of facilitating the communication between the Deaf actor and the producer/director/casting director. When the audition or interview has concluded, proper comportment of the interpreter dictates that s/he leave with the departing auditioning or interviewing actor, and then enter again with the next actor. This should be done regardless of how many actors are auditioning. It is improper to make the interpreter privy to the discussion that occurs between casting director and director regarding actors between auditions. By requiring the interpreter to follow the actors, his/her sole role as communicator is firmly established.


What are the most prevalent concerns of Deaf and hard of hearing actors regarding interpreters?

Competence of the interpreter is a primary concern. An interpreter ideally should be experienced in the performing arts setting. An interpreter not only serves to communicate the director’s expectations to the Deaf actor, but also to effectively convey the actor’s communication to the director. The ability to interpret from ASL to spoken English, sometimes called “voicing”, can be a complicated process. Lapses in this process can make the actor sound awkward or non-fluent. Sometimes a production may hire an actor who is not certified as an interpreter but who knows some sign language to function as an interpreter. This is akin to hiring an accompanist who knows only some of the notes and chords. Beyond being unprofessional, this ensures that the decision-maker will not see the best work from the actor.

The conduct of the interpreter is also a concern. Most certified interpreters know that their role is to facilitate communication between the producer/director/casting director and the Deaf or hard of hearing actor, period. Occasionally, however, a hired interpreter acts inappropriately and also auditions for the same Deaf-specific role.


Actor Anthony Natale had a difficult experience in an audition for a national commercial:

“Nervously excited, I was reading my lines before I was called to go into the room for the audition. I was expecting that the interpreter would be in the room. The door opened and I caught a glimpse of an interpreter voicing for other Deaf actors. I was relieved. Finally I was called in. I did my audition and was pleased with the interpreter following everything I had said. When I was done, I went out but then came back in and saw the interpreter reading lines. I asked him what was up with the reading. He said, ‘Oh, I’m an actor as well.’ I was at first puzzled then became a little disturbed. I feel strongly that an interpreter wearing both hats at the same time is a conflict of interest. How can an interpreter represent me as best he/she can if they are also after the same role?”

It is the responsibility of both the producer/director/casting director and the Deaf or hard of hearing actor to insist that the interpreter’s place at the audition is purely to support the Deaf actor. When you hire a certified interpreter, that person should know the parameters of the role. It would also be wise to specify in your agreement with the interpreter that s/he may not be a candidate for a role. Further, once the interpreter is hired, it would be inappropriate to ask him or her to serve in any other capacity, such as consultant.

While it is unusual for a certified interpreter to overstep her/his bounds, if there is a problem, you have an organization, RID, to turn to with a mechanism in place for filing a grievance.


How do I find an interpreter?

In addition to local chapters of RID, there are several other organizations that can assist you in finding a certified interpreter. For example, the unions listed below may be able to help you as they may be familiar with interpreters who have worked in a performance-related capacity. As Linda Hartzell, Artistic Director, Seattle Children’s Theatre cautions, “Just because an interpreter is a fine general interpreter does not mean s/he will be a good theatre interpreter. To be effective, s/he he must be familiar with the technical theatrical language.”

Additional resources include social service agencies which serve the Deaf and hard of hearing community and local and regional interpreting agencies, easily obtainable through the Yellow Pages or over the internet.


SAG, Actors’ Equity and AFTRA each have affirmative action or equal employment offices as follows:

Actors Equity Association – National Headquarters

165 West 46th Street
New York, NY 10036
Equal Employment Opportunities Department
Telephone: (212) 869-8530
Facsimile: (212) 719-9815

American Federation of Television & Radio Artists – Los Angeles

National Office – Los Angeles
5757 Wilshire Blvd., 9th Floor
Los Angeles, CA 90036-3689
Tel: 323-634-8100
Fax: 323-634-8194

American Federation of Television & Radio Artists – New York

National Office – New York
Ray Bradford,  Equal Employment Opportunities National Director
212/532-0800 x.605

260 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016-2402
Fax: 212-532-2242

Screen Actors Guild – New York Office

360 Madison Avenue 12th Floor
New York, New York 10017
Tel. (212) 944-1030
Fax (212) 944-6774
For Deaf Performers Only – TTY/TTD (212) 944-6715

Screen Actors Guild – Hollywood Office

5757 Wilshire Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA 90036-3600
Affirmative Action Department
TEL: (323) 549-6643
FAX: (323) 549-6647
TTY/TTD: (323) 549-6648

Perhaps the best way to find reliable interpreters is to consult the Deaf or hard of hearing actor(s) you plan to audition. Most Deaf and hard of hearing actors know of and utilize a small network of interpreters they trust. If an actor’s preferences are unavailable, consult again with the actor or his/her agent. When you hire a Deaf actor for your production, make every effort to hire the interpreter(s) of his/her choice. The more you use interpreters, you will develop a network of your own. Even so, always, but always check with the Deaf or hard of hearing actor first.


Actor Deanne Bray-Kotsur: “A shoot I recently did on Strong Medicine was great because my agent asked me who I would prefer to interpret on set. I had a choice. The working experience on set, as a result, was smooth. I had the freedom of a smooth back-and-forth flow. When my hearing aid battery died, I felt ‘safe’ knowing that the interpreter I had, had the qualifications that met the director’s and my needs.”

Troy Kotsur tells a similar story: “Working on the set of Strong Medicine for one week, I received my choice of interpreter who was fluent and professional. Through the interpreter, the director was able to explain what he expected of me. When I wanted to express my concerns or discuss my character, the interpreter jumped right in. I was also able to communicate with and get to know the crew during break. I didn’t feel isolated and felt a part of this production. My working days were smooth.”


Does the medium (film/theatre/television) affect the role of the interpreter?

The interpreter will need similar skills for working in all mediums of theatre, film and television. The length of time involved will affect the number of interpreters needed. If various callbacks are scheduled, it is extremely helpful to get the same interpreter(s). Consistency is key. Each time a new interpreter walks in, there will be a period of adjustment as the interpreter gets to know the style of the participants and the material.

What is involved in actually hiring an interpreter?

Once you have identified the interpreter(s) you will need, it is the producer’s responsibility to hire the interpreter(s) and to negotiate the terms of hire directly with the interpreter. The cost varies depending on geographic region, the number of performers requiring interpreters and the amount of time required. Interpreters can negotiate a range of terms, including fees and cancellation policies, depending upon the needs involved – hourly, half day, daily, weekly, by project, to being on retainer.

Here is one example that concerned a non-profit theatre. According to actress Monique Holt, “I suggested [to director Irene Lewis and producer George C. Wolfe for Skin of our Teeth that] they pay an interpreter a fee just like an actor. They liked the idea and paid my interpreter an actor’s rate so as not to kill the budget.”

According to Linda Hartzell, Artistic Director, Seattle Children’s Theatre: Casting a Deaf artist “adds at least two salaries per Deaf artist for the interpreters that must be on call. We continually look for funding to support this and hope to do more in the future..”

Judy Dennis, Artistic Associate at Center Stage and Tim Vasen, Center Stage Resident Director report: “Quality rehearsal interpreters, through rehearsals and previews, make the cost of hiring a Deaf actor double that of hiring a hearing actor. For our production (of Thorton Wilder plays last year), Center Stage received financial support through a special two-year grant. Center Stage is committed to its artists and to providing unbiased opportunities for all actors, so explores funding on an ongoing basis.”

While hiring interpreters is indeed an expense, you would hire an interpreter much like you would hire any other specialty consultant such as a pianist for a musical or a dialect coach on a film or television production. These expenses are part of the investment you make to ensure that the Deaf or hard of hearing actor can do her/his best work and the best possible outcome for your project. While needs vary, most often, two interpreters are necessary because the process is physically and mentally taxing.

Andrew Shea advises, “It’s very important to have a professional interpreter on hand at all times that Deaf and hard of hearing performers are in rehearsal or on set. It’s a big expense, and sometimes it might seem as though you can get away for a few hours here or there without an interpreter. But it’s a mistake, and it’s not fair to the performers.”


How far ahead should I hire an interpreter?

The simple answer is as soon as it is known that an interpreter(s) will be needed, contact the interpeter(s) of your choice with as much notice as possible. There is no standard advance time frame because it is a profession based on the demand for interpreters and the size and availability of a given interpreter pool. This varies from region to region. In large cities such as New York, interpreters are booked as much as a month or more in advance.



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