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ASL takes center stage in ‘Prince Hamlet’

Most performing arts companies and venues will offer American Sign Language (ASL) translation or even devices that provided closed captioning upon request. In instances when ASL is the preferred translation, the interpreter is often placed on one side of the stage, outside of the action, providing direct translation.

PHOTO CREDIT: Bronwen Sharp

Deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley created the visual translation of ASL for the production and plays Horatio.

However, inclusivity is at the forefront in “Prince Hamlet,” coming to UtahPresents on Nov. 4. ASL is central to this production and is woven into each scene. Deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley created the visual translation of ASL for the production. She also plays Horatio, the story’s narrator who is on stage throughout the show.

There is no direct translation of either English or ASL in this adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” placing deaf and hearing audiences on a level playing field. Both will need to rely on visual cues and context as they watch the story unfold.

This radical approach to inclusivity and rethinking of the venerated play was the vision of Ravi Jain, director of Toronto-based Why Not Theater.

“Shakespeare relies so much on the words, and here there’s a story you hear and then a story you see,” Jain said in an interview with the Straight from the Banff Centre, prior to the show’s 2019 tour. “What’s beautiful is we’re both seeing and hearing the text, and I find I’m understanding it better. It’s so interesting to see what can be communicated with voice and what can be communicated with sign.”

Jain’s direction also brings a new perspective to who can tell this story by challenging traditional gender casting for the main roles. Female performers take on many of the male roles and Ophelia is played by a male actor. Jain has made a name for diverse casing in the Toronto theatre scene and brings that to this production as well, with an array of racial backgrounds represented in the cast.

Though many aspects of the production provide a refreshing update to the classic story, Birley is the undisputed star of the production. A review from Stories. Art. Design. Magazine states, “As she gracefully floats around the players on stage, her [ASL] translation is choreographic. She is not only translating the spoken word but her communication becomes a libidinal force, a much more visceral expression of the narrative happenings within the work.”

A review in The Pea of the production’s 2019 tour sums it up: “…this is how you do Shakespeare if you want to truly showcase the universality, accessibility and powerful storytelling of the Bard.”

Several classes of theatre department students at the University of Utah will benefit from the cast and creative team while the production is in Salt Lake City. In addition, Birley will lead a discussion at the Salt Lake City library, sharing about her career as a Deaf artist and advocating for an intersectional approach to theatre. This free event takes place on Nov. 1 at 6:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the downtown library (210 E 400 S) and is open to the public.

Tickets for the public performance on Nov. 4 at Kingsbury Hall start at $5 for U students (Arts Pass) and range from $10-$38 for the general public and are available at