‘Hands in Motion Interpret Story of Classic Comic Opera’

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

A story I wrote appeared in today’s St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. The story is about a trio of signers who will be interpreting a production of H.M.S. Pinafore tomorrow, March 8, at the Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center.


Kristen Willbur has trouble keeping her hands still. She uses them to communicate, express emotion and give meaning to what otherwise would go unheard.

And as a professional sign language interpreter, Willbur regularly gets called on to interpret plays. It’s not something most interpreters do, but those who take the gigs do it because they love theater and telling engaging stories.

At 2 p.m. Sunday, Willbur will have a good one – H.M.S. Pinafore, a classic Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera.

Willbur, Sandra Sanders and Greg Morrow, all from the Tampa Bay office of Sign Language Associates, have endured more than a month of late-night rehearsals to learn the opera. For the Sunday matinee, they’ll interpret it for a patron who plans to attend the show.

As storytellers of the stage, the trio of signers gives silence a soul.

When they interpret dialogue, they convey words, feelings and intent. When interpreting songs, they change the flow of their hands, mimicking the speed and rhythm of the song.

“When the song is about a fair maiden, then most likely our signs will show soft, flowing movements,” said Willbur, 33, of Lakeland, who has been signing for four years. “It’s a lot like listening to someone sing a capella. You don’t hear any music, but you know it’s a song. Signing music has your hands flowing through the air like physical poetry.”

With music and lyrics by Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert, H.M.S. Pinafore tells the story of a naval captain’s daughter who goes against her father’s desire for her to marry a high-ranking officer and instead falls in love with a lower-class sailor.

“If you had to count the most enduringly popular comic operas and musical dramatic works in general in this part of the world, you have to include H.M.S. Pinafore on the fingers of one hand,” said Constantine Grame, who plays the part of Ralph Rackstraw, the lower-class sailor, and who is musical director of the production. “It’s a story that pokes fun at classes, and it’s a period piece given its musical style and setting. Its gentle social commentary is just as relevant today as it always was.”

Willbur and Morrow will share the interpreting for the male actors, with Willbur playing the protagonist’s role and Morrow playing the antagonist’s role. Sanders will interpret all of the female roles.

“For the roles we try to keep consistent with male/female,” Willbur said. “But in our profession we have more females than males, so sometimes this isn’t possible.”

The characters’ lines aren’t interpreted verbatim. In fact, the copy of the script Willbur, Sanders and Morrow have been using isn’t the same one the actors have used. There are slight differences in the characters’ lines, Sanders said, but the overall story line is the same.

Only a small fraction of signers interpret theatrical productions, Sanders said, in part because of stage fright or a lack of interest in theatre. A production with the cast size of H.M.S. Pinafore generally requires four signers.

“We put weeks and sometimes months of preparation into a show on our own time,” said Sanders, 29, of Tampa. “Interpreters who do plays, concerts, lectures, etc., do it for the love of it, not for the pay.”

They do it, too, Willbur added, for the sake of good storytelling: “Who tells a better story? A businessman lecturing about an event, or a grandfather that re-enacts the movements and sounds of the event to reel you into the story? That’s what we try to do with songs. We want to capture what the actor/actress is feeling deep down inside.”

The feelings, Willbur says, are best captured with helping hands.

Freelance writer Mallary Jean Tenore is the James N. Naughton fellow at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists that owns the Times.

If you go

‘H.M.S. Pinafore’

What: Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera

Where: Tarpon Springs Performing Arts Center, 324 E Pine St., inside City Hall

When: 8 tonight, March 13 and 15 and 2 p.m. Sunday and March 16. Sign language interpreters will join the cast for Sunday’s matinee.

Tickets: $20 general, $18 for center members and students

Information: Visit http://www.tarponarts.org or call (727) 942-5605