An Interview with David (DJ) Kurs,
Artistic Director of the Deaf West Theater Company
Los Angeles’ own highly accomplished Deaf theater company (Deaf West Theatre) teams up with Teater Manu, Norway’s award-winning theater group, to bring the Los Angeles theater community an international treat: “Sjalusi”(Jealousy), an inspiring production done in a mix of sign languages.
Sjalusi is a dark comedy about three women who live in the same luxury high rise but know nothing about each other. When I first saw the press release for this, I was really curious. I wanted more information about this interesting marriage between two exceptional groups, so I put together a little Q and A. For those of us who do not sign, there will be a live voice translation in English. This is a short run, so don’t hesitate if you’re as intrigued as I am.
Rose: Hi, DJ. this sounds marvelous. How did you come to learn about Teater Manu in Norway?
DJ: Ipek Mehlum, an actress from Norway, performed a role in “Cyrano” (2012) and from there, I developed a relationship with the Artistic Director of Teater Manu, Mira Zuckermann.
Rose: What prompted this production, which utilizes sign language, to be brought to the U.S.?
DJ: Mira and I have been talking about ways to collaborate. She approached me with the idea of performing this play in Los Angeles, and I suggested that the cast could do it in American Sign Language, which would make it a true collaboration. To my great pleasure, she agreed.
We do truly beautiful things at Deaf West Theatre: we bring hearing and deaf cultures together in both the rehearsal room and in the theater. There’s a language divide at first, but at the end of the process everything comes together. One of my artistic goals is to bring together people from different cultures, different languages and to see what happens. And with four languages in this production (NSL, ASL, English, and Norwegian) it can get pretty interesting!
Rose: Was“Sjalusi” written to be performed in sign language?
DJ: No, it is a play written by Esther Vilar. It’s apparently very popular in Europe, but to my knowledge, it has not been performed in the United States.
Rose: What does the title (which means “jealousy” in English) refer to in the play?
DJ: It is an insightful comedy about the ways that jealousy can inspire a variety of emotions including desire.
Rose: How difficult is it to adapt a play for sign language into speaking dialogue for the voice actor(s)?
DJ: There is a lengthy translation process. In this case, the play was translated into Norwegian, then into Norwegian Sign Language by the members of Teater Manu, then into American Sign Language by our ASL Master, Troy Kotsur.
And here at Deaf West we add two weeks on to the rehearsal process of each of our productions so we can divine the meaning of each line of dialogue and find the appropriate ASL equivalent.
Rose: Can you tell readers a little more about Sjalusi’s world premiere in 2009 for Clin d’Oeil, Europe’s largest cultural festival for deaf people held in Reims, France? What is that festival like?
DJ: It’s a fantastic festival. I truly wish there was something like this in the United States. I went for the first time last summer and for a lifelong student of sign language performing arts like myself, the festival was a dream come true: three days jam-packed with sign language theatrical performances from all over the world attended by deaf theatergoers from all over Europe and the world.
Rose: What was it like to have International Sign Language translated into American Sign Language? What are the major differences between the two.
DJ: Teater Manu uses Norwegian Sign Language. We are not doing the play in International Sign Language. Conversing in sign language with a person from another country is not so much as the use of one language, but a series of negotiations in which both parties arrive at a halfway point between both languages determined by trial and error, aided by a lingua franca that we call International Sign Language.
While such a lingua franca exists, we felt that it was a middle ground that would be less than satisfying. Instead, we sought to leave the moments in Norwegian Sign Language that would be understandable to our audience and to supplement those moments with ASL scaffolding. Like a facelift instead of a from-the-ground renovation.
Rose: How long did it take for Deaf West ASL masters to work with the cast and playwright in Norway?
DJ: Troy Kotsur spent one week in Norway, and he spent a little more than one week here in America working with the cast. The cast members’ dedication in learning the new versions of their lines is truly awesome. They make it look easy but it is truly a fraught process akin to that of capturing lighting in a bottle
Rose: Is there an opportunity for an American ASL play being translated into ISL and performed in Norway?
DJ: Absolutely. And because of internet video, people across the globe are becoming more familiar with American Sign Language. When I met deaf people from other countries fifteen or twenty years ago, it could be tough to communicate with them if they were not used to conversing with someone from another country. Now that gap has closed: so many people are familiar with ASL these days, and I kind of miss the old days when I had to invest more effort in bridging the language gap in our conversations.
Rose: What have you learned or discovered in working on Sjalusi for American audiences?
DJ: I feel that the difference between Norwegian Sign Language and American Sign Language is smaller than the difference between spoken Norwegian and English. It is an extremely gratifying process for me to see the cast members bring new dimensions to their roles by doing the play in a different language.
I like to think that when people presume that all sign languages are alike, they are in fact thinking about our facility with body language and non-manual expressions. That is one area where deaf actors truly excel, and perhaps that’s why we learn other sign languages so quickly once we’re immersed in other countries and environments such as Clin d’Oeil. The festival excels in what it does, and it’s up to theater makers like myself to tap the potential for artistic growth driven by cross-cultural collaboration within the international sign language theater community.
Rose: After Sjalusi, what is in the works for Teater Manu or Deaf West independently?
DJ: We are discussing another collaboration with Teater Manu in 2015, one that will have cast members from both companies and will be performed in Europe and here in Los Angeles. Deaf West is planning on doing “Spring Awakening” this fall and “American Buffalo” in cooperation with CSULA in early 2015.
Opens, April 24th and runs through May 4th
(818) 762-2998 (voice) or www.deafwest.org.
[Inside] the Ford
2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East
Hollywood, CA 90068
(just off the 101, across the freeway from the Hollywood Bowl and south of Universal Studios)