JEFFREY JOHNSON USES gesture, facial expression, and script analysis to tell stories onstage and in the classroom — but he is neither an actor nor a theatre teacher. Johnson instead serves as an American Sign Language interpreter. He has worked one-on-one with deaf students for more than 20 years in Cincinnati’s Hamilton County Educational Service Center. Since 2012, he’s also moonlighted at the Newport, Kentucky, community theatre Footlighters as an ASL interpreter and accessibility coordinator.

In June, Johnson gained Thespian fans around the world as the official interpreter for the 2020 Virtual International Thespian Festival. Johnson’s friendly demeanor and deft interpretation of event programming earned him a constant stream of live-chat love from students.

Jeffrey Johnson provides sign language support for both theatre and music, including this concert for the Cincinnati Men’s Chorus.

Jeffrey Johnson provides sign language support for both theatre and music, including this concert for the Cincinnati Men’s Chorus. Photo by David N. Martin.

Throughout the week, he signed the words of Thespians, teachers, and special guests including Kenny Leon (Tony award-winning director, A Raisin in the Sun), Frank DiLella (Emmy Award-winning theatre journalist), and actor-writer-producer Tina Fey.

“I was interested in ITF because it was a theatrical thing, and I wanted to see how they were going to do this whole festival virtually,” Johnson said. “Then, with some of the names they had presenting, I was like WHAT — Tina Fey, what? I didn’t realize the magnitude of this event and organization.”

At the end of the week, Johnson tearfully accepted induction as an Honorary Thespian during the livestream of the International Thespian Excellence Awards (or Thespys) Showcase, as fellow Thespians poured their congratulations into the live chat. EdTA Membership Service Specialist Taylor Davis referred to Johnson as “the breakout star of festival, the celebrity of ITF, and everyone’s fan favorite” before leading him in recitation of the Thespian pledge.

Dramatics caught up with Johnson to learn how he started ASL interpreting, why he loves theatre, and how sign language overlaps with theatrical arts.

When and why did you learn ASL?
I got into sign language in high school because there was a community class in ASL at our church, which my friends and I took because we wanted to talk to the deaf [church members]. But also because we wanted to go back to school and talk to each other so the teachers and other kids wouldn’t know what we were talking about.

Then I went to college and there was this ASL class. I thought, I’ve already done this, so it should be an easy A. But I got really into it, and it kind of snowballed — and here I am, an interpreter.

Why did you go into theatre interpretation, and did you ever perform?
I wasn’t really involved in shows in school, but when our high school teacher took us to see Macbeth at Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park, I was like, “Oh my gosh, this is fantastic,” and I fell in love with theatre. Then after trying theatre myself a few times in college, I was like, “I … don’t think I’m an actor.”

But interpreting — I can do that. For me to stand in front of a crowd of 1,000 people and open my mouth and speak, I’m just nervous as can be. But to stand up there and interpret, I’m cool as a cucumber. When I’m there as an interpreter, it brings out a different personality.

The first show I saw interpreted was Rent at the Aronoff [Center for the Arts in Cincinnati] — I love that show. Then seeing it interpreted, I was like, “Oh, I want to do that!” I had some opportunities [to interpret theatre] through Cincinnati State [Technical and Community College] when I was taking classes there, then some freelance shows.

Later, I participated in the Theatre Access program in New York. They used to host a weeklong training program for theatrical interpretation at Juilliard, and when I went, the show we worked on was Rent! I was like, “See, I knew this was meant to be!” I remember thinking, oh, they’re going to give us a script and we’re going to be rehearsing all week, but we actually didn’t do it that way. At the beginning, they had us sit down with a deaf person who saw a video we’d sent in and gave us suggestions of things to work on. Then, they had us listen to the music, and we went to see some other productions. It wasn’t until later in the week that they said, “OK, we’re going to actually start rehearsing this now.” We went to the theatre, stood in the back, and took turns interpreting our part with a deaf person, who gave us feedback and ideas. I probably learned more in that week than I did in years of college.

Educational Theatre Association Membership Service Specialist Taylor Davis made Jeffrey Johnson an Honorary Thespian during the International Thespian Excellence Awards Showcase.
Educational Theatre Association Membership Service Specialist Taylor Davis made Jeffrey Johnson an Honorary Thespian during the International Thespian Excellence Awards Showcase.

Can you describe the process of theatre interpretation?
First, we get the script and rehearsal schedule. I’ll get in touch with usually the producer — sometimes the director, it depends on the theatre — and we figure out technical aspects like placement of the interpreters and lighting. The interpreters and I divide up the characters and start analyzing the script together. A little later, we go to rehearsals, where we get a feel for the characters, the speed, the flow of the show, their voices. And sometimes we switch characters at that point because one interpreter might match better with an actor or character.

We do have one interpreter who’s deaf, but she can hear a little with hearing aids, so we try to match her with the voices she can hear best. She typically will memorize her part, and she also relies on us to know her next cue. But otherwise, I recommend that interpreters try not to memorize the script, because it’s good to not always know exactly what’s coming next. That way you can respond more [naturally] because sometimes the actor misses or messes up a line. You really want to represent the actor’s performance as much as possible. I remember one time the actor I was interpreting wasn’t doing the best job with their acting, so I even sort of adjusted the quality and expression of what I was doing to match that performance.

How do you find the balance between being visible to the audience and not distracting from the action onstage?
For one thing, you have to remind yourself you’re not the actor and to not upstage the actor. Sometimes with interpreters, they have them onstage with the actors, in [what’s called] shadow interpretation. I’ve not done that myself, but I helped once, and that time the interpreters dressed in black and followed the actors around stage like shadows. I prefer to be offstage and kind of in front of it; I feel that helps with not upstaging the actors.

In terms of [visibility], if you’re light-skinned, you need to wear something dark. If you’re dark-skinned, you typically wear something lighter — to contrast your skin color. Typically for me, it’s all black. And we’ll try to match our outfits to what the show is. One time we did a Frank Sinatra thing, so I wore a jacket and tie and the other interpreter wore a nice formal gown, because it was a tuxes and gowns setting. When we did Of Mice and Men, we wore jeans and a shirt instead of dress clothes. Mainly we try to match the costumes of the show without taking attention away.

Michael James Scott and Jeffrey Johnson at the 2020 Virtual ITF Opening Ceremony.
Michael James Scott and Jeffrey Johnson at the 2020 Virtual ITF Opening Ceremony.

What could young actors gain from learning ASL?
Interpreting has helped me with analyzing language and being more aware of my own facial expression and body. What we call “facial grammar” or “tone of face” is a big part of ASL. It expresses the emotion going on and also things like the size of something, the length of something. Or if something’s funny, it shows that more. One example is that if something’s really big, you [move your mouth like you’re saying] “cha,” and if it’s something really small or thin, you do more of a pursed lip. And of course, eyebrows — if it’s a question, the eyebrows go up. Like, “Are you an actor?” [lifts eyebrows]. But that’s more for yes-no questions. If it’s an [open-ended or] rhetorical question, you actually put your eyebrows down instead.

Signing also gives you a different way to look at a script or a line. For me, it helps to get to the true meaning of text and how to express it because you’re not translating language word-for-word. Especially when it’s fast dialogue — or conversations, like the [ITF panel] discussions — you have to think about language differently because you have what we call a lag, where you hear what was said, then you’re interpreting that right afterward while also listening to the next thing. It’s hard to explain how; you just develop it through practice.

If you’d like to see if [ASL theatre interpretation] is something you’d like to do, I’d suggest taking a community class to get a feel for it. And if it’s something you’d really like, look into it in college. There are also apps to help you learn. But hanging around deaf people is really the best way. That’s how I learned a lot, and where I still learn the most. At the end, it’s all about helping them. … Some people might prefer captioning, but I feel … there’s more of a personal connection in being able to see the facial expressions and the body language, and all that adds to the show.

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