Can you name two performers who have each appeared in more than 50 Broadway shows in the last 25 years?
Well, consider Alan Champion and Candace Broecker-Penn. Their credits, separately or together, range from A Chorus Line, Biloxi Blues, The Phantom of the Opera and The Lion King to Les Misérables, The Producers, Avenue Q and Wicked. They are sign-language interpreters for Theatre Development Fund's Theatre Access Project, which provides access to the performing arts in New York City for individuals with physical disabilities. This year the project celebrates 25 years of sign-interpreted performances onstage.
"The service we provide is so important," Broecker-Penn says. "Theatre has the ability to allow us to laugh, to think in a way that's expansive. It helps us grow."
Both Champion and Broecker-Penn have deaf parents. He grew up in Tulsa, OK, studied singing in college and began sign interpreting after he moved to St. Louis. Broecker-Penn majored in theatre and put herself through college in New Orleans working as a sign interpreter. She joined the National Theatre of the Deaf as a speaking actor, touring with the group for three-and-a-half years. By 1980 both had moved to New York, and Theatre Development Fund began offering sign-interpreted performances. The first was for The Elephant Man. Broecker-Penn was on the committee that chose the interpreters; Champion sought the job and was one of the first selected. A few years later Broecker-Penn moved from behind the scenes, and they first worked together in the early eighties on The Pirates of Penzance.
Their most difficult experience? "There are moments of challenge in all shows," Champion says. "A Sondheim or a Noél Coward presents a challenge, because so much of the beauty is in the language."
Having lights go out can be a major problem. "When Lynn Redgrave did Shakespeare for My Father, I was the only interpreter," recalls Broecker-Penn. "At the beginning of the second act, my light wasn't on. Redgrave stopped the show. She called to the stage manager to do something. It was very embracing."
"For the rest of the audience," says Champion, "if the lights are out, they can hear the play. But when the light is out on us, it's like turning down the volume."
They stand in front of the first row of seats, stage left or stage right. There are usually three interpreters per show. To prepare, they see as many performances as they think necessary and study the script. The evening of the show, they arrive early to make sure lighting levels are sufficient.
Theatregoers with mild to severe hearing loss may join TDF's Theatre Access Project for free. As members, they receive discount ticket offers to the special sign-interpreted performances, as well as to other performances that have open captions on the side of the stage.
"There's a good feeling from everybody in the theatre," Champion says, "that it's nice we can enjoy this experience together, especially mixed families, with a deaf child or a deaf parent. It's heartwarming."
Broecker-Penn agrees: "That's why we do it."