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January 31, 2008

Students learn to tell stories without words

Pass by the black box theater in Hutchinson Hall late on a Monday or Wednesday afternoon and you won’t hear much noise. Poke your nose into the room, however, and you’ll see lots of activity, as 20 students perform under the tutelage of a man who can’t hear. The class, offered by the School of Drama, is called Visual Storytelling.

The teacher, Howie Seago, is a well-known Deaf actor who is introducing the students to the world of sign mime, a cross between everyday gestures and more formal mime, sprinkled with “classifiers” from American Sign Language.

On their first day in class, for example, students stood in a circle, and when Seago pointed to one of them, that person raised his or her arms and became a tree. The students on either side then had to portray something related to a tree — a bird, a rock, a butterfly, etc. The tree in American Sign Language, Seago said, is a classifier.

“Classifiers are iconic,” he said through an interpreter. “They mimic something.”

They also become a kind of establishing shot in a sign mime story. For example, Seago mimed a dog by putting his hands behind his ears, fingers raised, sticking his tongue out and panting. He then used his hands to represent a wagging tail, a fat belly, legs running, etc. The original picture of a dog is a descriptive classifier; an audience will understand that all the subsequent attributes and actions belong to the dog.

Before the class is over, the students will be presenting stories in sign mime, many of them drawn from common folktales. But first Seago has to move his hearing students from their customary language-focused world to one where the visual is more important. He began on the first day, opening the class with what he called, tongue in cheek, a manual dexterity test. Standing in front of the group, he held up a finger and began moving his hand, inviting the students to follow along and copy his gestures. As they did, he chided them gently if they weren’t copying accurately. Precision in gestures is important when there are no words.

Later, the students stood in a circle and again copied gestures — this time from one student who served as a leader. Periodically Seago pointed to another student to take over as leader. Then a student went to the center of the circle and closed his eyes. When he opened them, he had to look around the circle and figure out who the leader was. Paying attention to others’ gestures is important when there are no words.

“Hearing people are used to ‘seeing by the ear,’ Deaf people say. They don’t pay as much attention to physicality as Deaf people do,” Seago said. “I’ve seen that often in my professional life. In this class the students will learn to focus more on the physical.”

Junior Emily Von Werlhof said she was enjoying that focus. “I am not a drama major, but I am learning to express myself and pay more attention to detail in how I express myself,” she said. “It brings a whole new meaning to ‘hands-on’ rather than just sitting and listening to a lecture.”

Seago got the idea of teaching the class after he played the lead in Intiman’s production of Skin of our Teeth last year. The other actors, he said, told him they learned a lot from watching him work, and one of them, Laurence Ballard, asked him if he would be willing to teach a class at the university in the East where Ballard had recently taken a job. Seago thought about it and decided to say yes. Then he thought, why not offer the class at the UW too? He talked to Drama School Director Sarah Nash Gates and Shanga Parker, who is the head of the undergraduate program, and they were enthusiastic about the idea.

The class is limited to 20 students to allow for hands-on activities with maximum one-on-one attention from the instructor. It filled quickly and had a waiting list.

“I saw Howie in the play in Seattle and in a film and I got a little star-struck,” said junior Shannon Erickson. “When I saw he was teaching, I thought it would be fun to take this class. I’ve taken a traditional voice class, but with this class I’ve learned that so much can be communicated without words. Howie focuses on the clarity in a scene without talking, but you still know exactly what’s going on and where you are.”

The class is spending the first part of the quarter almost entirely in group work. “We might have five or six people representing different things in a story,” Seago said. “They’ll be working collaboratively. When we’re done with that, we’ll ask the students to work on individual stories. First, we’ll have people copy the entire story they saw with the ensemble, but they’ll do it by themselves. Then, they’ll do an individual project.”

The class culminates with a showcase to which the public will be invited.

Seago promises that hearing people will have no difficulty following the stories, which run about six to eight minutes each. The showcase performances will be from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday, March 10, and Wednesday, March 12, in the black box theater. Half the students will perform solos in each performance, and there will also be ensemble work in both.

Seago isn’t sure whether the class will be offered again. He had to put a Deaf acting class he was teaching on hold because he doesn’t have time to do both, and that makes him feel guilty. “Deaf people are saying, ‘Why are you teaching hearing people when the Deaf people need you?’” he said. “On the other hand, teaching here allows me to be an ambassador for Deaf culture, and that’s valuable too.”