As part of a continuation of our look at theatre jobs you didn't know existed, we spoke to some more theatre professionals to find out exactly what they do and we unearth the truth behind these mystery careers.
ASL Master: Deaf West Theatre's production of Spring Awakening, on Broadway through Jan. 24, is performed simultaneously in two languages: American Sign Language (ASL) and English. The job of an ASL master is to translate English into ASL specifically for a theatrical presentation. "ASL Masters are also responsible for overseeing issues such as clarity and delivery and presenting a visual eye to any possible impediments to the delivery and usage of sign language onstage," says Shoshannah Stern, one of Spring Awakening's three ASL Masters. "For example, signers clearly need to face the audience, whereas in other non-signed plays, that isn't necessary. Moreover, there can't be any visual noise that distracts from the signing." Two other ASL masters, Anthony Natale and Elizabeth Greene, work on the show with Stern. Stern and Natale are deaf; Greene is hearing. For plays, there are usually two ASL masters and they tend to be deaf native users of the language, Greene says, but for a musical, a hearing person is usually brought on to act as a bridge between their department and the musical department.
Greene, Stern and Natale are actors (Greene is also the understudy for The Adult Women), which is common for this job that requires an understanding of theatrical terminology and script analysis. They divided up translation of the songs with each person taking the lead on a set of numbers. In addition to the ASL masters, Linda Bove is the ASL consultant—another set of eyes looking at the show as a whole for a Deaf audience.
Part of what made the original Spring Awakening groundbreaking was the way characters would speak in an old-fashioned way suited to the time period — the late 1800s — and then whip out microphones to sing Steven Sater's anachronistic lyrics. The ASL Masters incorporated this shift into the signing as well. "The sign for 'now' has evolved throughout time and uses a different hand shape in the present day than it would have in 1891, much as abbreviated spoken words have evolved from, for instance, 'God be with you' to 'goodbye,'" Stern says. "When 'time' is expressed in the dialogue, it refers to where the sun might be in the sky, because the wristwatch wasn't invented then. When it's expressed in songs, 'time' is signed the way it is today, when it points to the wrist where the watch would be." There is a misconception, Greene says, that they translate everything word for word. English and ASL are completely different languages with separate grammatical rules so pure translation is impossible. "It's the job of the translator to create a comparable translation, so like with any language, there are certainly going to be things that don't have an immediate and direct translation," Greene says. "Because Steven Sater's language is so poetic and because it has quite a lot of abstraction to it, we encountered that a great deal."
For "Word of Your Body," Stern ran into the trouble of not having a sign for "bruise." "You could expand on the concept of that word and put it in three different signs, saying 'purple mark,' but then you'd have to put it somewhere on your body. When the line is, 'I'm gonna be your bruise,' where is that particular bruise going to be? It's not a literal bruise that would be on your elbow or knee. It's more vivid and significant than that. Also, you can't have three signs for a single English word when it's put to one count of music," she says. In the end, she chose a single sign that has no translation in English. "When Melchior signs it, he's literally saying 'a scar on my mind.' It means a painful experience that becomes a part of you, so much that it could possibly shape you. When Wendla signs it, it's the same sign, except it changes locations and now means 'a scar on my heart,' because Melchior leads with his mind and Wendla leads with her heart. "
Dialect Coach: Even when a show is only performed in English, there can be countless ways of speaking, depending on where the show is set, and it's the job of the dialect coach to help the actors work through it. Dialect coach Kate Wilson describes her role as that of a troubleshooter. "No two actors learn in the same way. There are as many ways into dialects as there are actors," she says.
This season she's worked on A View From The Bridge, Thérèse Raquin and Old Times, as well as the upcoming Fully Committed, The Crucible and Bright Star. "I feel like I have the best job in the world that I got to be a part of such extraordinary storytelling this season," she says.
Teaching someone a dialect is not just about the right vowels and consonants. "It's the words we choose, it's the length of our sentences and our phrasing, it's the melody we use, it's the duration, it's the pitch, it's the volume. Americans use volume and Brits make their points with pitch," she says. "It's way beyond Eliza Doolittle getting the right sounds. It's about getting the blood in those sounds and making sure that they're well lived in and the voice really springs out of a truth."
In order to do all that, she starts by looking at the text and speaking with the director about what he or she wants. Then she researches — beginning with native speakers. She has many international students, and she used a French student as source material for An American in Paris. "It's fun to gather voices, and I encourage my students to do that, to record everyone," she says. If she needs a dialect from a specific town, librarians are another helpful resource because they can connect her to historians or other helpful locals like fishermen or antique dealers.
"There are no two days of my life that are the same. That's why I love my job," she says. As fulfilling as her job is, she doesn't want you to notice it. "It's my job to make sure that dialects are completely integrated into the story. So for me, if you're noticing the dialect, I haven't done my work. The dialect should be invisible," she says.
Associate Director: Portia Krieger, associate director of Fun Home, says her job changes a lot depending on her director. "It's really one of those jobs where you try to figure out what is needed in the moment and supply that," she says. For Fun Home, she assists director Sam Gold, ensuring she understands what he wants and making it happen.
When she works with Gold, she gains understanding of his vision for a show and the reasons for the choices he makes so that in his absence, she can speak for him and implement his vision. With other directors, the role can be more administrative.
Krieger has also worked as a director and she says the main difference between a director and associate director is that the director gets to do the imagining and the associate works with actors to support that vision. In rehearsals, tech, and previews for Fun Home, she distributed notes and implemented them; she also led rehearsals for understudies and swings.
Now that the show has been running for a long time, one of Krieger's responsibilities is to watch every few weeks and act as the liaison to keep things sharp and fresh. She also works with new understudies and vacation swings and soon she will prep the national tour.
"I would always recommend seeing a lot of work and then not being afraid to talk to the people who are making the work that you like, saying to them, 'How can I help you? I want to learn from you.'"
Keyboard Programmer: Similar to the way an associate director helps a director realize their vision, a keyboard programmer does the same for orchestrators and composers. "I work with the orchestrator and the composer to help make the sounds they're hearing in their head a reality," says Randy Cohen, keyboard programmer for The Color Purple, Hamilton, Allegiance and On Your Feet! "The flexibility of the keyboard allows the orchestrator and composer to have a larger palate of sounds in the arsenal. Even though the keyboard is a piano, it can also do other sounds that the space of the pit might not allow the composer to use," he says.
Cohen was a classical piano major in college, but has always been fascinated with cutting edge technology and finding balance between those two worlds. On the national tour of Titanic, he helped with some reprogramming and has been on that path ever since. The job of a keyboard programmer is done mainly in preproduction, tech rehearsal, and previews. Once the show is frozen (no more changes can be made), it's more of a maintenance role. Because he doesn't have to be backstage in the pit every night.
His work this season has been especially wide-ranging. Hamilton has a lot of electronics — four keyboards plus two electric drum pads programmed with sounds from synth drums to a horse's neigh to a gunshot. "It allows us to have a lot of different sounds to create the 1700s feel and incorporate the hip-hop flavor that Lin[-Manual Miranda] and Alex [Lacamoire] have written for," Cohen says. He describes The Color Purple as more organic and soulful with an R&B feeling, so he used piano sounds and a Hammond organ emulator. In Allegiance, the keyboards reinforce the Japanese flavors in the orchestrations, which already include the shamisen and bamboo flutes. For On Your Feet!, he worked with Clay Ostwald, part of the Miami Sound Machine, so it would sound like a Gloria Estefan concert. "This season has been a lot of fun," he says. "Just the variety alone. It keeps all the creative juices flowing because there are different challenges on each show."
Fight Director: The work of a fight director (sometimes called a fight choreographer or fight consultant) is also primarily done during rehearsals, tech and previews. The fight director builds the fight, which could be anything from a single slap to a full-on brawl to an actor being thrown out a window. His sequencing ensures the safety of the actors. Thomas Schall has worked on almost 60 shows, including this season's China Doll, Allegiance, Ripcord, Night is a Room and The Color Purple, which sometimes meant attending two or three different rehearsals in a day.
Schall says that in any fight scene, there are three layers of communication. The first is the communication between the performers onstage, so he choreographs specific and precise movement. "Hopefully the audience never sees that they are communicating with each other during this fight — that they are taking care of each other," he says. The next level of communication is between the actors and the audience, so the audience believes the violence. "The most satisfying thing is if I'm standing in the back of the theatre and the audience reacts viscerally. You hear them gasp or you hear a vocal response," he says. "You want it to be an emotional experience, not an intellectual experience." The third and most important layer is communicating story and characters' intentions as actors do in any scene. "There's a particular part of the story that these characters are telling through their needs. They're trying to get what they want," he says.
Schall starts by listening and watching the moments leading up to the fight and then develops the movement with the directors and actors. In tech and previews, Schall refines the scenes based on audience reaction and what it looks like with the technical elements in place. After a show opens, he will sometimes come back to work with a replacement or understudy, or just to check in. He says, "Things grow and change and you want to make sure they're growing in the right way."