The lights flicker and the audience begins to settle into their seats: the show is about to start. As the curtain rises, the spotlight fixes on a figure at the corner of the stage. But it isn't the lead actor coming to deliver his opening lines. This figure, this silent player, is Chuck Daube, the sign language interpreter.
Daube is no stranger to the stage. After 35 years of interpreting, he has completed more than 300 performances all across the U.S. and in London.
Daube's journey into interpreting began in 1978. After graduating from Gallaudet University with a Master's degree in Deaf Education, Daube had been teaching at the Indiana School for the Deaf for six years. Wanting to share his passion for theater with his students, Daube contacted the Indiana Repertory Theater to ask if he could interpret an upcoming performance ofThe Taming of the Shrew. The IRT refused, saying that an interpreter would be too distracting for the rest of the audience.
In classic Chuck Daube fashion, he took his class to the show anyway. With his students sitting behind him, Daube silently conveyed the plot to them between scenes. Eventually, the IRT allowed Daube to interpret a matinee performance, which turned out to be a great success, and he has interpreted hundreds of shows there ever since.
In 1989, Daube attended a choral music festival in Seattle. While there, he observed several interpreters performing songs with the choral groups. "I thought, 'I can do that,'" Daube says. Soon after, he began interpreting for the Indianapolis Men's Chorus, a job he has enjoyed for the last 23 years.
"The Men's Chorus opened a lot of doors," Daube explains. His success led to his interpreting all the Broadway Across America shows at Clowes Hall and the Murat Theater.
Despite having a résumé that any actor would die for, Daube's role in the theater may often be overlooked. "We're like signing actors. But we don't want to steal the show," he says. Like actors, the interpreter must develop characters that will bring the performance to life. "There's an art to it... It requires a lot of prep and a lot of practice." Daube says. "You've got to love music and you've got to love theater and you've got to have the stage bug."
Daube explains that since sign language is a visual language, interpreters must rely on facial expressions and body language to convey the emotions acted out on stage.
In American Sign Language, the language used by most deaf and hard of hearing people in the U.S. and Canada, facial expressions are used for grammatical purposes, but also for expressing emotions.
"The hearing audience is able to understand the emotions of characters through an actor's voice. Interpreters must show emotions on the face and through their body language," Daube explains. "It's all about getting the face involved."
One of Daube's favorite shows is Miss Saigon. He has interpreted it three times, once on Broadway when he was chosen from a group of interpreters attending a weeklong workshop at the Julliard School in New York.
He fondly remembers a duet in the show called "Sun and Moon" and his work with another interpreter to show the two different voices in the piece. "It was so visual... Moments like that are really amazing," Daube says. "They don't happen very often, but you try to make them as much as you can."
Another one of "those moments" happened when Daube was interpreting a show called Defending the Caveman, a comedy about the differences between men and women. He remembers looking into the audience during the show and seeing a deaf couple laughing and joking with each other. "I knew that they understood," Daube says.
One of the biggest misconceptions about interpreters and their work in the theater is that they are distracting to the audience. Daube disagrees. "Many hearing people believe the interpreter enhances their experience," says Daube. "They can still understand the emotion on the interpreter's face even if they don't understand the signs." Daube says that interpreters help to add to the emotional experience of a show, not only for deaf people, but for the hearing audience as well.
Throughout his career as an interpreter, Daube has done performances ranging from Broadway shows to choral music to Shakespeare. He has come to realize the importance of portraying emotions and characters with depth and vividness and he has spent countless hours practicing and perfecting his craft. While his profession may often be misunderstood or overlooked, Daube considers himself an artist, a key player in the theater just as important as any of the actors, no matter how silent he may be.