All-Access Pass to Montparnasse
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All-Access Pass to Montparnasse

Maev Beaty, Erin Shields, and Joanna Bennett. Erin Shields and Maev Beaty will be joined onstage by an ASL interpreter for two performances of Montparnasse. Photo by Aviva Armour Ostroff.

“To be or not to be, that is the question.”—William Shakespeare
“There are two tragedies in life. One is not to get your heart’s desire. The other is to get it.”—George Bernard Shaw
“I can resist anything except temptation.”—Oscar Wilde
Many of the world’s most famous lines were first uttered on a stage. But for some people they have been, and continue to be, words on a page. Until recently, for Deaf audiences, heading out to a local theatre to see a play—where those words are brought to life—just hasn’t been an option. In this city known for its inclusion of all people regardless of politics, sexual preference, or cultural background, access for the disabled remains relatively missing from the mainstream arts and culture sector.

Once “as white as Wonderbread,” Toronto’s theatre scene now appeals to diverse audiences, says Rose Jacobson, artistic principal of Picasso PRO, a project that promotes inclusion of Deaf and disabled artists and audiences in the arts industry. But she insists that our theatre community has yet to conquer “the final frontier” of inclusion.
“You have to have a long arm to pat yourself on the back,” she says. “I mean that. We can’t get too self-congratulatory. A lot of people just don’t think about it.”
Six years ago, some larger theatre companies began introducing American Sign Language translation into a small selection of performances. Now ASL-interpreted theatre has found its way into shows on Broadway and here in Toronto on Mirvish stages. But so far it has been what Jacobson calls “traditional interpretation,” which treats the signer almost as an after-thought, holding them off to the side of the action and creating a split focus for Deaf patrons. (According to Jacobson and the Canadian Association of the Deaf, the term “Deaf” is capitalized when referring to those who identify with and participate in the Deaf community.) It’s a start, but only intended for basic translation: Deaf audiences get the basic plotlines, but the actors’ physicality, expressions, and nuanced intonations are mostly lost.
Jacobson’s solution is “integrated interpretation.” Just like it sounds, the goal is to make the translator a factor in all of the artistic choices made by the creative team—the costumes, the staging, the themes, and the overall tone of the play. Though they’re certainly performers, they don’t exactly have their own characters; an interpreter is rather a presence with the other actors on stage. And their narration not only relates the basics of the plot but also has an artistry in itself, much like rhyme or poetry in spoken word, that reflects the tone of the scene. Now, in partnership with Creative Trust and backed by Sun Life Financial, Jacobson and Picasso PRO are bringing this initiative to the attention of Toronto’s theatre community.
This past fall, Jacobson approached director Andrea Donaldson and Groundwater Productions about having their 2009 SummerWorks hit Montparnasse—starring Erin Shields and Maev Beaty as 1920s nude models in Paris—feature ASL integration in its two-week remount at Theatre Passe Muraille.
“My initial reaction? Yes, absolutely!” says Donaldson. “It’s a wild experiment. I wanted to be one of the first wave of artists to get on board. It could build an entirely new audience.”

Donaldson says she hadn’t heard of the practice of ASL integration until she saw The Africa Trilogy at last June’s Luminato festival, the first time this initiative came to a Toronto stage in action. Taking part in that performance was Joanna Bennett, who spent the last fifteen years working full-time as both an actor and an ASL translator. Now, she’s part of Montparnasse‘s production team, present at every rehearsal, observing the characters, participating in physical exercises, crafting her translation of the script, and working with a consultant to make the theatre-going experience as inclusive as possible.
An interpreter and a director usually only have two full rehearsals to physically thread the translator into each scene, but there were seventeen in Montparnasse‘s case. The goal during these rehearsals is to determine, from an artistic perspective, the signer’s motivation for being in the space, though it may never be expressed outright.
Montparnasse presents unique challenges when it comes to adding an extra body to the stage. Beaty and Shields each play multiple characters, going through about twelve of them in a five-minute period at one point in the script. It’s a tall order for Bennett as the sole interpreter.
Then, of course, there’s the nudity.
“There are moments when [the character] Mags is posing nude and talking to the audience about her experiences in Paris. There’s something about her being alone in the dark as a woman, posing, that says a lot. The combination of that, plus a woman who’s beside her in clothes who’s looking out and speaking to us…it alters the image,” says Donaldson. “There is a lot of nudity and scenes that require a certain level of vulnerability and intimacy. My desire is to incorporate [Bennett] as much as possible. My hunch is that I’ll be challenged, but she’ll be satisfied, too.”
“It infiltrates all areas—costumes, lighting, sound, the director’s vision. It requires more time and budget,” Bennett says, and Donaldson agrees that the only way Montparnasse is able to host ASL integration is because they have sponsors footing the bill. Bennett wants to get companies planning their upcoming seasons to think beforehand about what shows they want to have interpreted, so they can leave room for it in their schedule and budget.
Since it’s such a new concept, nobody knows how Toronto’s Deaf community will respond, or if it will catch on with other companies in the city. “I don’t know what our return will be. It’s definitely about the experience and bringing in an audience that potentially can’t see theatre at all. I can speak for us, that if the resources are there and it goes well this time, I would want to do it for every show that I do,” says Donaldson.
“It’s archaic that we still ban people from seeing our work. As artists, it doesn’t make sense,” Bennett says, arguing that ASL integration is just as vital in allowing theatre companies to grow as it is for providing a well-rounded theatrical experience for the Deaf community. She says it’s time for Canada to catch up with the United States and Britain, which already have legislated accessibility regulations in their arts and culture industries.
Following two successful ASL integrated performances of Factory Theatre’s recent Brothel #9, as well as the first audio-described performances of Bethune Imagined, Picasso PRO’s partnership with Sun Life Financial will end in the winter of 2012. But Jacobson hopes that the relationships being built will extend beyond that deadline.
With ASL integration, the end goal is not applause. Rather, Donaldson, Bennett, and Jacobson will know their job is done when they look out at curtain call and see a crowd of waving hands, the sign that their work is finally being received by all audiences.
Montparnasse runs from March 17 to April 2 at Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Avenue), Tuesday–Saturday at 7:30 p.m. ASL integrated performances will take place on Saturday, March 26 at 2 p.m. and Wednesday, March 30 at 7:30 p.m. For more information, view the ASL trailer here.