We just finished taping the American Sign Language (ASL) Tours for the Deaf and Hearing Impaired with SignWorld TV.
The video tour features actor and comedian CJ Jones signing in the galleries. The Highlights of the Galleries in ASL tour will be available on iPods as well as a video download on the website in Fall 2010.
Our crew of five, and at times six (when we were lucky enough to borrow Jessica, our wonderful intern from Development) included actor/comedian CJ Jones, producer/director Catherine MacKinnon, director of photography Jhett Bond, and gaffer Kevin Tobin, who did an amazing job with the lighting.
I filled the ever important role of holding the laptop as the teleprompter. CJ expertly and instantaneously translated the script to ASL as we dragged our equipment from object to object and outlet to outlet.
It was a remarkable process to witness as he had to finger-spell many of the proper nouns like “Merenptah” and “Kebensenuef.” Occassionally, his hand would wilt after a particularly challenging word, kind of like a manual stutter. He’d look at his hand as if it were a naked muppet and give it a friendly smack to get it working again. This process has really made me appreciate sign language and those who use it fluently — the way a physical language twines your whole body into expressing something that can’t fit into the trappings of plain old words and letters. Watching him sign the script that I’d become so familiar with breathed new life into it. It was like he was acting out history, becoming the people who made and used these objects.
My knowledge of sign language was limited to what I’d learned in a high school rendition of Godspell. I’m not sure if all versions of this musical have sign language in them, but ours did: “Day by day, day by day… Oh dear lord, three things I pray….” Kind of like those dialogues you’re forced to memorize in foreign language classes about picking up a side of beef at the carniceria, these are not the most employable words to have in my vocabulary. As the hours wore on, I found myself coming up with my own version of sign language, approximating what I thought might be the right sign for certain things. Sometimes, I actually managed to communicate something relatively accurately and CJ and Catherine clapped and nodded emphatically. Or one of our hearing crew members would pick up a sign and repeat it, and CJ and Catherine would make a knocking gesture which meant “Yes!”
We filmed the last tour stop in the Islamic Gallery at 2am. We deflated happily around the mosaic fountain half delirious and reiterated how important this project was for the Museum and for making our collections accessible to the deaf audience.
I also expect that most hearing visitors will choose to watch CJ sign the tour over the regular audio tour. He is so animated and expressive, it’s as if he activates both sides of your brain when you watch him sign and hear or read the script at the same time.
It was exhausting and exciting for everyone. At moments, I had to remind myself why we were doing the ASL tours in the first place, but I will save that for a blog post of its own.