As lighting design fellow, Wiegand illuminates silence

May 9, 2010

"Deaf people are very visual, we use our eyes. I think that contributes to my sensitivity to light. I think that’s why I’ve developed a fascination with light over the years.”
— Annie Wiegand, Chautauqua Theater Company lighting design fellow

As lighting design fellow, Wiegand illuminates silence
by Stacey Federoff, Staff writer

A computer program that spits out lines of type like a strand of ticker tape might not be an answer to accessibility, but for Annie Wiegand, Chautauqua Theater Company lighting design fellow, it is at least a step in the right direction.

Wiegand is Deaf, and has been since birth. She studied at Gallaudet University In Washington, D.C., and earned her undergraduate degree in theater at Appalachian State University. Afterward, she worked professionally in theater in D.C. for three years before enrolling in the master’s program at Boston University in 2007.

“Deaf people are very visual, we use our eyes,” Wiegand said. “I think that contributes to my sensitivity to light. I think that’s why I’ve developed a fascination with light over the years.”

Most of the time in technical rehearsals the theater is completely dark and the lighting designer relies on a headset to communicate with his or her assistant.

Tyler Micoleau, lighting designer for “Arcadia” and “The Glass Menagerie” earlier this season, spoke through a headset, which was relayed to Wiegand and her interpreter in their own headsets. The interpreter then signed to Wiegand, who would then usually speak out loud to Micoleau.

She has used interpreters throughout the summer at Chautauqua, but can read lips and speak proficiently.

“The sad fact is, when I go out in the real world, who’s going to pay for the interpreter? I can’t afford them myself and a lot of theater companies only have so much money,” Wiegand said. “Interpreters are very costly.”

This summer Wiegand has had the opportunity to use two interpreters at a time, rotating after about a week, through an agreement with Boston University. CTC has provided housing for the interpreters.

CTC Co-Artistic Director Vivienne Benesch said she is glad the two institutions could work together and allow Wiegand to work at her fullest potential.

CTC associate Jane Cox reviews the applicants to the design fellows program and assists Benesch and Co-Artistic Director Ethan McSweeny in selecting the best candidates for the summer. As Wiegand became an apparent choice for the lighting design fellow this year, Benesch said she knew she wanted to make the situation work as best as possible because Wiegand’s passion was apparent.

“For anyone with the dedication and love of the art form itself to weather the obstacles that Annie has had to weather, anyone who’s that dedicated, to me, has the soul of an artist,” she said.

Micoleau said he was curious how he and Wiegand, as his assistant on the first two shows, would communicate at first, but that it then became apparent they had several options, including e-mail, which is how they initially corresponded at the beginning of the summer.

“What’s different about me is that I speak very well, and Deaf people choose not to do so,” Wiegand said. “[But] I’m different because they don’t have to be in the dark all the time like me.”

Micoleau said after he and Wiegand met, they were able to work together without any difficulties.

“There is a grace period where learning each other’s personalities and quirks is important,” he said of getting to know the working style of an assistant.

Micoleau and Wiegand searched different ways they could improve their communication without an interpreter, including voice recognition software called Dragon NaturallySpeaking. They talked about experimenting with the computer software and incorporating it in their work together.

The software uses a microphone to pick up a user’s voice then converts it to text in documents or completed computer commands.

The program, however, is not made to recognize complete thoughts without the user specifi cally saying commands such as “comma” or “period” or “new paragraph.” So when Wiegand would use NaturallySpeaking in the theater, she would end up with a string of words without separate
new thoughts. Micoleau likened it to the jibberish in a spam e-mail message.

“The problem right now is that with any voice recognition program, the human voice is so intricate, how do you translate that to a computer? It’s very, very diffi cult,” Wiegand said.

The microphone Micoleau tried also picked up other voices in the theater like the actors onstage during
technical rehearsals.

“We have more questions now than we have answers,” he said. “Basically, I think we’ve just scratched the surface.”

Micoleau asked Wiegand to also assist him in the fall, when he hopes to continue experimenting with the technology while producing shows in D.C., Dallas, Texas, and Chapel Hill, N.C.

“I find it fascinating and I find her fascinating, and she’s a good assistant,” Micoleau said.

The design fellows take over responsibilities during the two New Play Workshops held earlier in the season. Working with Wiegand as a director during “Rx,” Benesch said it forced her to reassess the way she communicates and reflect on the way she gives direction.

“Being around Annie this summer has somehow made it clear to me that there is no obstacle there at all as long as you’re willing to communicate directly,” she said.

Benesch said Wiegand definitely has talent as a designer.

“Her innate understanding for the look, feel and sound of a piece of theater is far greater than I would have imagined,” Benesch said. “It’s been sort of revelatory to watch her work here and realize that her perspective and understanding of the work is at least as much as my own, I think.”

Wiegand grew up in Des Moines, Iowa, and was born Deaf. She said her family was never able to tell if her deafness was because she was born three months premature or because of the medicine she was given at the time.

She always has used hearing aids, starting with a large box she wore strapped around her chest at age 3. Wiegand said she can hear sounds — for example, she knows when the telephone is ringing — but they are not clear.

Her speaking abilities are a product of years of speech therapy as she grew up.

She also began to foster her love for theater during that time, when her mother enrolled her in a mime class at a community theater near her home at 5 years old.

She said she even traveled with her high school drama club to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in Scotland.

While studying at Gallaudet, Wiegand had a professor who worked as a lighting designer in D.C.

“I was fascinated by him, and I loved his job,” she said.

After wanting a program that focused more on design, Wiegand transferred to Appalachian
State in 2001 and graduated in 2004 from their program, which concentrated on theater design and technology.

She then worked as a freelance technician, as both a seamstress and an electrician for three years before enrolling at BU. Wiegand also worked as a fellow at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y., last summer.

With CTC, Wiegand still needs to set up interpreters when they are in large meetings, where she has some difficulty, especially when other designers are talking on top of one another.

“It’s very hard for me to jump in and say something, but for the most part the director and other people that I work with will develop a vocabulary that helps us understand each other,” she said.

Micoleau said he would have to consider where he positioned himself in a large to group to accommodate Wiegand.

He said sometimes he would forget about Annie’s need to see him speaking.

“Ultimately you end up relaxing into it,” he said. Then he would remember that she did not understand what he was saying because he was not in the right light, or positioned correctly in a group.

Micoleau said he personally was shocked to find that no other more accurate voice recognition program exists. He and Wiegand also will be working with one of her BU professors, Mark Stanley, with the hope to improve a system that works for her.
No matter what, Wiegand will continue working in the theater. She said that she realizes this is her art form and many in the theater are supportive.

“Theater people are very open-minded,” she said. “That’s probably one of the biggest reasons I get along in this business, because theater people are very accepting.”

The Chautauquan Daily
Friday, August 14, 2009
Volume CXXXIII, Issue 42
Chautauqua, New York

Tags: deaf, lighting designer, theater

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DIVERSITY: Production
DIVERSITY: Disabled Community