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Staging Greek Myths in ASL

Image: King Midas gets his wish and everything he touches turns to gold.

King Midas gets his wish and everything he touches turns to gold.

The sixth and seventh grade students of Kendall Demonstration Elementary School (KDES) worked with their American Sign Language (ASL) and English language arts teachers for six weeks on an ASL presentation of two classic Greek myths, “King Midas and the Golden Touch” and “Demeter and Persephone."

The students prepared the script, made the costumes and scenery, and performed both stories in front of an audience of family, friends, and the school community. "One of the biggest challenges in making our stage play was translating the English text into ASL, bridging the gap from a written language to a visual language," said English language arts teacher Liza Offreda, who co-taught the students with ASL teacher Debra Wolff. "The students spent weeks working on translations and glossed each line in ASL and wrote down the glossed versions on index cards."

Midas signs pile of gold

“Glossing” is a term used for transcribing ASL, showing how the concept would be presented. “In English word order, we use subject, verb, object,” said Wolff. “In ASL, we present information in a different order by topic and comment. Our students learned ASL glossing and wrote down their character lines on index cards for memorizing their parts."

Here’s an example of how the student playing the part of King Midas made a gloss card for one of his lines:

King Midas [English text]: "I wish for gold, gold, wonderful gold! Whenever I see it, I never feel old. There’s a special thing that will make me feel glad, I wish that everything I touch would turn to gold!"

ASL Gloss Card My Wish

Once the students had prepared their gloss cards, Wolff used different practicing techniques to help them learn to act out their lines. She worked with the students on how to incorporate ASL visual facial and body expressions and positions to express such concepts as when an action took place in time (i.e., past, present, future), the type of question (i.e., who, what, where, when, how), and the level of emotion (i.e., from mild to intense). The students then worked on how to present their lines.

The students began by working in pairs and helped each other with their lines, acting like a mirror for each other and giving feedback to his or her partner. Then they started practicing lines in a group circle in class, signing their lines in the flow of the script. After the students had mastered their lines, they practiced on stage and added where and how they would move.

“It’s especially important for deaf actors to be aware of body position, eye contact, and sight lines. The actors need to see each other’s signing and be visibly accessible so the audience can also see their signing,” said Wolff.

Underworld Zeus and Hades discuss a deal

The students related to their characters. In “King Midas,” the greedy king gets his wish to turn everything he touches into gold; he regrets this most of all when he turns his son into a golden statue. Student Kenneth Garcia, who played the part, said, “King Midas was a foolish king who wanted more gold when he was already rich.” Alyssa Biega, who played the Earth mother Demeter in “Demeter and Persephone,” found fault with her character who lost her child to the god of the Underworld. She said, “I would never take my eyes off my daughter like Demeter did by falling asleep under a tree!”

The day for the performance arrived. A small group of performers emerged in front of the curtain to perform the role of a Greek chorus, commenting on the theme and action of the play to come: “Midas and the Golden Touch.” “Be careful of what you wish for,” they warned, and the play began.