Shauna Wheeler is a twiggy, buoyant 20-year-old with a brown ponytail that bobs over her head. As she rehearses with the SignStage Theatre Company, her expression changes from petulant to joyful to sarcastic in the space of a few minutes. Her face has to be expressive and so do her hands, because Wheeler is deaf.

Wheeler discovered that she enjoyed performing when she attended a summer theater camp as a teenager. An interpreter accompanied her every day. She was the only deaf person there. The following year she participated in the camp again, but this time she worked on the crew, because “they didn’t know how to use her,” according to her mother, Michelle Wheeler. “That was before SignStage.”

In 1995, Raleigh’s United Arts Council funded a theater-and-dance program for hearing-impaired students at Athens Drive High School. Michelle Wheeler wrote the grant proposal, along with a couple of teachers from Athens Drive. Glenda Mackie of Arts Together taught dance, and Jennifer Scott McNair taught theater. The students choreographed and performed a dance piece and researched, wrote and performed mini-skits about famous deaf people.

After this initial effort, McNair wanted to keep on working with deaf and hard-of-hearing kids. The “deaf actors discovered they really liked working on stage, and there were no other outlets in this area,” remembers McNair. “They need a voice, and they have something to say, especially the teenagers.” In 1997 she put together a board, rented performance space and SignStage was born. Now a drama teacher at Cardinal Gibbons High School, McNair moved SignStage to the school’s new building, where it currently resides.

Shauna Wheeler has performed with SignStage for three years. Although Michelle Wheeler doesn’t expect her to become a professional actor, Shauna can now do ordinary things, like ordering flowers from a florist, without an interpreter. She may be using a little notepad or pointing at the flowers, but her mother doesn’t care. Michelle Wheeler is just thrilled at her daughter’s newfound confidence.

I ask McNair if Wheeler is typical of the actors working with SignStage. “Shauna is my energy!” she says. Wheeler, as McNair’s assistant, helps with “transliteration.” Scripts are not “translated” from one language to another; instead SignStage uses a combination of “pigeon signing” and American Sign Language. Pigeon signing is more like signing in exact English. The mixture of the two styles is easier for Triangle audiences to understand.

Although McNair cites professional companies like those in Rochester and Cleveland, the National Theatre of the Deaf, and a few at universities like Gallaudet University for the Deaf and Arizona State, SignStage Theatre is the only community theater company which integrates sign language into all performances. McNair herself didn’t know any sign language when SignStage began, but for the last four or five years, she’s taken lessons on her own time and has garnered a reputation for her work with deaf actors. Last September she directed a play for the Virginia Stage Company, which was touring with a deaf actor, and helped the company conduct workshops.

In most mainstream theater the focus is on the hearing actor, who may be shadowed by a sign language interpreter. SignStage patterns itself after the National Theatre of the Deaf, where all of the roles are simultaneously signed and spoken. “It’s a great experience to blend two cultures–the hearing and the deaf–and to foster understanding between the two,” says Michelle Wheeler.

This year’s SignStage production, The Honorable Urashima Taro, (which ran July 22 and 23), is a traditional Japanese tale, adapted by Coleman Jennings. Geared toward children age 6-13, the play’s title character is a fisherman who rescues a sea turtle and other aquatic creatures from the evil sea scorpion. Only two of this year’s cast members are deaf or hard of hearing. The actors are students from Cardinal Gibbons and Athens Drive High Schools, as well as N.C. State University and Appalachian State University. Miguel Casas, a Spanish teacher from Gibbons, plays the title character.

When I attend a mid-July rehearsal, I’m not sure what to expect–maybe a pantomime with a smattering of spoken words or some sort of flowing interpretive dance performance with off-stage narrators. But what I see looks almost exactly like the kind of rehearsals I remember from my high school theater days, right down to the gender ratio (seven to one, female to male). When McNair leaves the room, the actors, who had just been delivering mock Oscar-acceptance speeches thanking her for launching their careers, transform into students moaning about learning their lines and how they can’t believe how long they have to dance in the show.

The two deaf actors arrive a little late and seem shy about talking to me. McNair interprets, signing my name for them. When I ask the whole group how working with SignStage has affected their lives, cast member Anna Marrow replies that she is more patient and understanding with deaf people. She says learning to sign is like learning a foreign language, and using it feels “like using Spanglish–like ‘signglish.’”

Debbie Patterson, a theater major at N.C. State, talks about a proposal she made there to perform a signed children’s show. She wants to adapt Kipling’s “How the Zebra Got His Stripes.” But now that she’s actually doing a show with SignStage, she realizes how hard it will be. She presents this great image of two actors in a zebra suit: the zebra’s head signs, and the rear end speaks.

When the group begins rehearsing, I’m surprised by how familiar it looks. It is an ordinary rehearsal except for two things: All of the players use sign language, and the two deaf actors are shadowed by speaking actors.

It may sound straightforward, but it takes a great deal of concentration. Three actors form a chorus that must speak and sign simultaneously. Casas, as Urashima Taro, interacts with Wheeler and Patterson (the signing and speaking princess, respectively) and Kym Shepard and Kelsey Tucker (the signing and speaking turtle). He has trouble doing this when Patterson and Wheeler aren’t standing next to each other. He’s supposed to look at Wheeler, but keeps turning toward the sound of Patterson’s voice. Sometimes he gets a sign wrong; he only began learning sign language when he joined SignStage. And English isn’t his first language. You’d have to be really coordinated to do what this cast is doing. Talk about multi-tasking!

There are a lot of technical issues involved in this kind of performance. The script was adapted so that it’s easier for deaf children to follow, as their sign language vocabulary may not be as large as an adult’s. The actors have to be careful how they move on stage so that they don’t block each other’s hands, and the work is physically demanding. “My fingers get so sore during rehearsal,” says Julie Henderson. It’s also emotionally intense. “It uses so much of your brain, especially if you’re the voice for someone. You’re their partner; you really have to develop a relationship with them,” says Patterson.

Down the road McNair would like to see SignStage doing a couple of shows a year, instead of the one they’ve done each year so far. She would also like to see more support from the deaf community. She’d love to have a deaf director and hopes a friend at Gallaudet might arrange for a student intern to direct a play with SignStage.

McNair remarks that, “People who say they go to a lot of theater never come to see the National Theatre of the Deaf, which comes to Stewart Theatre every year. It’s worth it just to see the audience–a roomful of people signing to each other–and it’s quiet, but you know there’s a lot of communicating going on.”

During a break in the rehearsal I decide to take my leave. Shauna Wheeler pouts, as she signs to McNair that her battery’s dead. McNair says she has “a triple A” in her office. There’s a real comedy of errors as someone hands Wheeler a phone and a card from the American Automobile Association and discussion of jumper cables ensues. McNair advises Wheeler not to try to jumpstart her hearing-aid battery. Everyone starts laughing. “You must have staged this,” I joke to McNair. “I couldn’t have staged this,” she exclaims. “It’s all about communication, though.” EndBlock