By Candace Broecker-Penn, co-founder of Hands On and a certified American Sign Language/English interpreter
While The New Victory Theater was still being renovated in 1995, the organization knew they wanted families with Deaf or hard of hearing parents or children to enjoy their seasons of shows. They reached out to us at Hands On, a service organization committed to providing access to the arts for Deaf and hard of hearing people here in New York City. The rest was history! For 21 years we have been working hand in hand providing sign interpreted performances for every show.
Every season, we start our work the spring before when we meet with the New Vic staff to pick the interpreting dates. We also discuss the specific needs and challenges of each individual show. We’re some of the first people outside of the New Vic to see the scripts and get a glimpse of the wonderful upcoming shows, lucky us! While I interpret many of the shows myself, I often need a ‘team’ to help me out, so I make some calls to the talented interpreting community. Last year we had 14 interpreters working with us and our Deaf advisors!
Over the years the number of families who come to the New Vic has grown immensely and we now have a fantastic, dedicated audience. We greet each family in the lobby, and enjoy talking to audience members before and after the shows. There are often fun activities in the lobby and opportunities to meet the performers afterwards for autographs and pictures. We found a whole new audience this past fall when Hands On interpreted one of the autism friendly performances of Mother Africa: My Home. Hands On was asked by a Deaf mom, who has an autistic son if there was a way to combine both special nights. The New Victory and Hands On worked together on this opportunity and the whole family had a great time enjoying the circus together. We left the theater smiling, when a young girl, who was on the spectrum, shared her excitement about the interpreting because–as she proudly announced–she knew signs as well. It was a terrific experience for the whole audience and we look forward to repeating it in the future!
To help us coordinate all of these exciting initiatives, we have many amazing ushers who help us. Recently, we’ve been thrilled to see that many of them have expressed an interest in the Deaf community. Some, like Shamar Pelzer and Porscha Rippy, have learned ASL and gone out into the community to learn and volunteer. Shamar is even thinking about becoming a sign language interpreter! Having a direct conversation–whether it’s getting a ticket scanned or asking for a booster seat–helps to make the New Vic a place that everyone feels welcome.
Besides working with the wonderful Usher Corps, we also get the opportunity to work with the New Vic’s stellar group of teaching artists when they conduct classroom workshops at The Lexington School for the Deaf. When the TAs work with Deaf high school students on pre- and post-show workshops, we get to interpret! I love getting to see teaching artists begin to pick up signs from the students over the months they work together.
The New Victory has something for everyone in the family. We’ve interpreted shows for infants as young as six-months-old to high school students to grandparents as old as ninety. It’s wonderful to see families with Deaf parents or Deaf kids watching, laughing and wanting to come back. It’s an honor and pleasure to work here and we at Hands On look forward to 20 more years!
I am Candace Broecker-Penn, co-founder of Hands On and a certified American Sign Language/English interpreter. I sign many (many) shows on Broadway–but I will admit that my favorite times are here at The New Victory because this is where children learn to love theater like I did when I was a child.
My parents are Deaf and I grew up as a bilingual child using both American Sign Language and English. In college, I studied theater then worked with The National Theatre of the Deaf. As one of their speaking actors I toured the US and around the world presenting theater in ASL. Some of my favorite memories are performing Derek Walcott’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight at the Kennedy Center’s Imagination Celebration, touring Our Town to Japan, taking Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree to Trinidad and performing on Sesame Street.