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American Sign Language Interpreting students hone skills by entertaining others

School of Theatre & Dance play premiere and last ASLIdol contest on the horizon

The American Sign Language Interpreting undergraduate degree has been offered by the Department of Communication Science and Disorders for only three years.

In that time, the program has meshed its academic rigor with an extensive community engagement strategy to better prepare its students for the work world.

This spring, two of those outreach efforts are doing more than benefitting the UH and Houston area Deaf community; they are entertaining them, as well.

The Philadelphia Story

When the curtain rises on the School of Theatre and Dance’s production of The Philadelphia Story on April 18, there will be two spotlights.

One, of course, will shine on the actors on the stage. The other will be trained on the American Sign Language interpreters using their hands, bodies and facial expressions to translate the actors’ words and actions.

The Deaf-accessible performance is the result of a new collaboration between the School of Theatre and Dance and the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders.

“After the American Sign Language Interpreting (ASLI) Program was featured in the Houston Chronicle in October 2013, Jack Young, associate professor of acting and movement, sent me an email to discuss a possible collaboration,” said Sharon Hill, assistant professor and coordinator of the ASL Interpreting Program. “Immediately, I jumped at the chance to work with the School.”

The four students selected to interpret the play are seniors enrolled in the course, “Service Learning and Fieldwork.”  Working as pairs, two students will interpret the first half of the play, and the second half of the play will be interpreted by the other two.

Interpreting a play in sign language takes as much preparation as it does for the actors performing on stage.

“Timing and delivery of lines must be synchronized with the interpreted delivery so that the Deaf audience’s reaction mirrors the Hearing audience’s reaction,” Prof. Hill said.

Interpreters attend live rehearsals so that they can analyze the script’s content and meaning, delivery components (intonation, emotional delivery, impact of the lines spoken), use of stage and movement, and use of sarcasm and humor. Additionally, since only two interpreters will be on stage, the script must be analyzed to determine which characters each interpreter will embody. 

“The students worked with me as an Interpreting coach and an ASL language coach, Dr. Brian Kilpatrick, ASLI adjunct faculty member, to assist them in providing a linguistically appropriate interpretation,” said Hill.

The event will be promoted across Texas to community agencies and organizations that service Deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals as well as to the professional sign language interpreting community.

Tickets for all performances of The Philadelphia Story are available at

ASL Idol

ASLI students enrolled in the “Senior Project” course will be participating in the third ASL Idol event on April 21. (Two prior ASL Idol events were held in February and March.)

Each participant is assigned topics to perform based on their individual interests coupled with faculty input regarding assessed strengths and weaknesses. The end result is a performance which is takes place before an audience and three judges.

“The entire show is in American Sign Language – no English interpretation is provided,” said Hill. “The judges are ASLI Faculty members - Terrell Brittain, ASLI assistant professor, Scot Pott, clinical instructor, and me. 

“Each judge assumes the persona of an ‘American Idol’ judge and, after watching each student perform, provides feedback and then assigns a score.  At the end of the show, the audience votes to narrow it down to the top two.  The judges then select the final winner. ”

According to Hill, students that have attended prior ASL Idol performances have expressed excitement about attending the next show.  Members of the Deaf community have also attended and they are thrilled with the concept and have demanded this become an annual event.  Student contestants have commented that they are learning poise, confidence, and stage presence as well as enhancing their understanding of assigned topics related to ASL Literature and Deaf culture.

"I believe that the UH ASL Idol has provided me with the insight into the Deaf community that I have never experienced before,” said Heather Porter, a student participating in the event. “In performing and researching the various topics for each performance, I have developed a higher respect and love for the Deaf community and their culture. I cannot wait for the next ASL Idol performance as well as the collaboration of the ASL Interpreting Program with the theatrical performance of ‘The Philadelphia Story.’"

Everyone is welcome to attend the free “ASL Idol” event. Tickets will be available starting April 7th at  The event is sponsored by the UH ASL & Interpreting Club and it is held in the UC South Senate Chamber, RM 204 from 11a-1pm.

- By Monica Byars