WMU Theatre hosts American Sign Language shadow-cast performance of 'Clue'

Contact: Erin Flynn
An actor holds another in his arms in front of a door frame.

Donovan Boursiquot Wade holds James Cech during a "Clue" rehearsal. Cech is part of a shadow performance cast, which brings American Sign Language interpretation onto the stage and integrates it with the play.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—It was Col. Mustard in the library with the candlestick. Or was it Mrs. White in the lounge with a dagger? Regardless of whodunnit, audience members are in for a unique and immersive "Clue" experience as Western Michigan University Theatre prepares for a performance unlike any other to have graced the stage in Kalamazoo.

In partnership with Theatre Kalamazoo and through a grant from the Jim Gilmore Jr. Foundation, Western students will perform alongside shadow interpreters from Stage Hands, LLC. in an American Sign Language (ASL) accessible show on Sunday, Nov. 12, at 2 p.m. in Shaw Theatre.

"It's been awesome working with them, and I can't wait to keep incorporating them into our rehearsal process," says Frankie Braker, a second-year acting student from Lake Odessa, Michigan, who plays Mr. Green.

A shadow performance takes accessibility a step further than having traditional ASL interpreters signing on a platform next to the stage. 

"It's a fully integrated experience because we no longer only function as interpreters; we become performers. We're on stage in costume moving with the cast. Our roles are shifting, depending on whose language we're conveying," says James Cech, Stage Hands owner and performer. 

"The students have absolutely enjoyed it. I think there's a real buzz about it and an interest. We have more students in the cast than I realized who actually had the ability to communicate through ASL," says Mark Liermann, associate professor of theatre, who is directing Western's performance of "Clue." "We've had other students who want to sit in on those rehearsals and watch it, so we have students now who are really seeing it as a (career) possibility."

Actors rehearse on a stage.

This is the first time a shadow-interpreted performance has been offered by any theatre company in Kalamazoo.

One of those students, Kiara Durbin, an acting student pursuing a sign language minor from Cleveland, plans to focus her Lee Honors College thesis on Deaf theatre and has been working with Theatre Kalamazoo to promote the special performance.

"It was just so beautiful how this story came alive, with just the pure addition of these interpreters and this company; it was really magical," she says.

This is the first time a shadow-interpreted performance has been offered by any theatre company in Kalamazoo. Cech is excited to bring the experience to new audiences.

"Traditional audience members who don't have any accommodation needs will be able to experience the same show and, in fact, probably experience a very unique and enjoyable show," he says. "The show hasn't changed for them. Whereas for our deaf and hard of hearing audience, they're getting a much more full experience than they are when they're trying to compete between what's happening on stage and what's being signed."

"Clue" cast members say the shadow interpreters have breathed new life into their performances.

"Working with the shadow cast has been great! Having their presence on stage inspires me to be even more playful, creative and bold during my process," says Donovan Boursiquot Wade, a third-year acting and creative writing student from Evanston, Illinois, who plays Wadsworth. "My biggest takeaway is how important it is to be deliberate about what you're communicating through your art."

Learning more about ASL and accessibility challenges has broadened the horizons of many theatre students who are eager to explore even more avenues to expand their craft.

"Any new experience I get to have here at Western or in the broader theatre world is just so incredibly exciting," Braker says.

"It's not the first time Western has presented us with a new interpretation of theatre. I'm so glad I've chosen a college that gave me so many opportunities to add something to my tool belt before hitting the professional world of theatre. This type of experience is definitely one of those things; it's been amazing," says Brooklynn Hebert, fourth-year acting student from Grand Rapids, Michigan, who plays Miss Scarlett.

"I think it's transformative," Liermann adds. "Theatre is storytelling at its core, and it opens up that world of storytelling in a way that I hadn't even thought of. These students are the future of our artform, and … my hope is they see the value of this, the potential of it and that it opens new ways of storytelling."

WMU Theatre's shadow-interpreted performance of "Clue" is part of a longer run of the show, which spans two weeks in November. For a full show schedule and to purchase tickets, visit the show's webpage.

For more WMU news, arts and events, visit WMU News online.