Contrary to its title, Jane Martin's "Talking With" is only about 50% talk. At least, that's the way it is in Carol Ries' current staging at Company of Angels.
Ries has incorporated sign language into the piece (she does it herself), a collection of 11 monologues, featuring such diverse and affecting characters as an actress, a baton twirler, a rodeo rider, an expectant mother, a snake handler and a tattooed lady.
"When I suggested the idea, I really had no idea how I was going to do it," Ries said. "We ended up using three modes: an interpreter--me, then one piece is signed by a deaf actress, and the last actress signs her own piece."
As for her own positioning (usually overhead center stage): "I knew I didn't want to be on the side, because that's where interpreters are usually placed. I wanted to be part of the show--and, at the same time, not be a distraction. I'm signing for deaf people, period.
"Now, they really want to watch the actresses--that's the main activity--but they need me to find out what's happening. So I have to be as expressive for them as the actresses, talk directly to them, make sure they don't miss a thing. But I also wanted to be an extension, to deepen the play. Signing is such an incredible language; if you're really signing, the whole body and face and everything has to be with it. It's a full expression, a beautiful thing to watch."
An actress "all of my life" (she's been with the Company of Angels, on and off, since 1963), the Los Angeles-born Ries was drawn into the world of sign language five years ago, after seeing the film "The Miracle Worker": "I was fascinated by the prospect of someone being blind (Annie Sullivan) and being able to teach someone (Helen Keller)."
Ries signed up for a class that day, fell in love with the language and began volunteering at the Braille Institute. Nowadays, she makes her living working for the Los Angeles Unified School District, going into classrooms and signing for deaf students--or into the workplace, easing deaf employees into that setting. ("The employers aren't used to having deaf people and they're frightened of the communication, so I stay with them until they see they can do everything without me.")
Theater, Ries finds, has also been a bit reluctant when it comes to the inclusion of sign language. "I've only seen a few productions done with signing, and most of them weren't done very well," she said. "I understand that; it's hard to do. Our piece, for example, has gone through five translations since we started working on it. This is not a very picturesque show--it's extremely wordy--so we had to make the signing as picturesque as possible. I'm still creating signs, make them clearer, easier to understand.
"We do not always have a sign for every word; there's a sign that covers many things--depending on the context, the body language, the expression. I'm doing most of this in ASL (American Sign Language) storytelling mode. So that when I turn this way, I'm the mother, throwing sesame buns--then I turn this way, and I'm the daughter. I embody it . In the rodeo piece, when she says, 'My daddy put me on the horse,' rather than signing 'Put-on-horse,' you (act it out). Like I said, I'm not there to entertain the hearing audience. But, if they happen to look up, they're definitely going be more entertained by the storytelling mode than by English signing."
Of equal attraction, of course, is the rich subject matter.
"Each piece has something that I can personally relate to," Ries said. "I think people are very similar. We all have our tragedies: People die on us, we have love problems, problems of not being accepted. Yes, it has a women's consciousness; a lot of (the feelings and experiences are) uniquely female. But, mostly, it's very human. In that first piece, the actress comes out and says to the audience, 'I always perform for strangers--just once, I'd like to come out and know who you are. Can't we connect?' That wanting to relate to people is as universal as it gets."