Bridging the Gap

Bridging the Gap

  By G. Cole Reynolds | iGeneration Youth

On the first day of production, SignTasTic! was quickly becoming a nightmare. SignTasTic! — a game show that asks hearing participants to memorize and recite American Sign Language — was an ambitious project from the beginning.

The Price Is Right and Wheel of Fortune have had Deaf participants in the past. But, as far as the show’s crew was concerned, SignTasTic! was a first for broadcasting. Never had a game show centered itself around Deafness like SignTasTic! before. The problem with being the first of your kind, though, is that there hasn’t been anyone to make the mistakes for you.

There was one take where host Dan Cook just strolled offstage as the action continued around him. Cook, who also produces the show, is Deaf and unable to lean on an earpiece for directions like most other hosts.

Director Doug Sicchitano thought he’d circumvented this problem by putting up monitors that relayed instructions. But three monitors, standard for a typical show, weren’t enough to feed Cook his cues … and the game scores … and directions — all of the information that would normally stream through an earpiece. So Cook just walked offscreen.

“No tools that we’ve developed in the decades of television really support a Deaf person,” said Sicchitano. “I quickly realized that this was going to be a challenge.”

Pair those technical problems with a stage that was installed without a floor and with faulty LED lights, and you have SignTasTic!’s first day of taping — four hours of filming without completing a single episode: a pace that would chew through the show’s $1.2 million budget and nine-day shoot.

“I can’t even count all of the things that went wrong,” said Heather Gray, who co-hosts SignTasTic!. “It was just a lot of frustration,” said Sicchitano.

“Frustration” is a common experience for many Deaf people in these environments with both Deaf and hearing. Spoken languages move faster than sign languages, and Deaf people are often left behind by conversations between hearing people.

Most of all, many hearing people are just uninformed about Deaf culture and Deaf people’s communication needs. Gray talks about visiting a McDonald’s with a Deaf friend. After the friend signaled that they were Deaf, a worker instead returned with a Braille menu designed for blind diners.

“I think that there is an invisible barrier between the two worlds,” Cook said. “And I would love to break that barrier with basic signs — hearing people could learn to talk and chat with Deaf people.”

It’s a mission to which Cook has dedicated his life. He first developed the idea for SignTasTic! as an ASL instructor looking for ways to help students learn sign language. And as SignTasTic! grew from a classroom activity into a card game and finally into a TV show, it never strayed from its educational origins.

“The real purpose of the show is to bridge the gap between the hearing and Deaf worlds,” Cook said. “I would love for the game show to motivate people to learn American Sign Language.”

But SignTasTic!’s grand goals couldn’t insulate it from the characteristic communication barrier.

Hearing producers and writers are used to tweaking scripts until the moment they’re read from the teleprompter. So when SignTasTic!’s writers changed an English script, it needed to be glossed into a written version of ASL. And as words became lost in translation, Cook became more and more confused. Cook would fix his script, but then it wouldn’t match the English version.

“It became a frustration between the hearing world and the Deaf world,” Sicchitano said. “People were making changes for their part of it, but they didn’t realize that that change caused another change for the other side.”

It’s a frustration that Roxie Dummett, a Deaf performer on SignTasTic!, remembers. When there was a mistake during filming, the hearing crew would talk among themselves, brainstorming an adjustment. And when the cameras rolled again, the Deaf performers were left confused, because nobody had kept them in the loop.

“With the hearing crew, there were some barriers,” she said.

“Like when they were busy, I didn’t know how to get their attention and share my opinion.”

That communication barrier leaked onstage too. On camera it looked like Cook was conversing with the hearing contestants and vice versa. But Cook was actually looking at an interpreter on a screen behind the contestants. And they were listening to a disembodied voice translating from off camera.

Edited together, it would look fine, almost natural. But really, both worlds were just talking past each other. Instead of breaking the barrier, SignTasTic! was just replicating it.

Frustrated and dejected, Sicchitano, Gray, and two coexecutive producers, Jared Bienglo and Kaleigh Fitzgerald, huddled in Cook’s office after that first day of production. Cook had been onstage alone, without any proper supports, trying to both host and produce the show. He needed time learning to balance both. But time was something the show was in short supply of.

“Heather, can I ask you a question?” Sicchitano said in the meeting. “Why are we making this show?”

“To bridge the gap between the hearing and the Deaf community,” she said.

“If we’re making a show for the hearing community, we’ve got to change,” Sicchitano said. Gray, who had a backstage role, needed to be onstage.

In a different stage of her life, this change might’ve been a dream come true for Gray. When she starred in high school theater productions, when she won homecoming queen at the University of Pittsburgh, her goal in life was to be famous.

But all that has since evolved into the present Heather Gray, known for encasing paychecks in glitter and stickers. Or for signing all of her emails with a smiley face. And when workers spent the night building SignTasTic!’s set, she left each a handwritten thank-you note taped to their car windows.

Nowhere was this selflessness more evident than in her relationship with the Deaf community. A hearing person, Gray picked up ASL in college, eventually becoming a professional interpreter. As one, Gray had perfected the art of being invisible — a conduit of conversation, but not a part of it. “I serve at the pleasure of the Deaf community,” Gray said.

There was a reason that she wasn’t originally onstage. SignTasTic! was supposed to showcase and celebrate Deafness. Would her being onstage, as a hearing person, minimize Cook? Minimize Deafness?

Sicchitano didn’t think so. Onstage, he saw a Deaf host on one side. And he saw hearing contestants on the other. But he didn’t see a bridge. “She’s the bridge between both worlds,” he said. “It just made so much logical sense to put her on set.”

Gray could be the support that Cook needed. She could wear the earpiece and relay critical information from Sicchitano. And the contestants wouldn’t be talking past Cook anymore. They would talk to Cook through her. Still, Cook wasn’t convinced — at least when Sicchitano tried explaining it to him. So, Gray tried to. “I wanted to talk with Dan first, so it was like Dan and his friend,” Gray said. “I didn’t want it to seem like ‘Dan, all these hearing people are telling you what to do.’” And Cook bought in.

The next morning excitement started to replace frustration. Sicchitano stood in front of the cast “and went very Martin Scorsese,” as Gray describes it.

He moved both the contestants and Deaf performers to opposite sides of the stage. Against barren walls, both groups stand, isolated from each other. In the middle would be Gray, fixed in front of a flashing SignTasTic! sign.

Everyone saw the symbolism: Gray and SignTasTic! were inseparable — the bridge that both worlds need to communicate.

It was a complete makeover. The set needed to be rearranged. So did the cameras. And the scripts, which had been completed for months, had to be rewritten — sometimes in as little as eight hours.

But the plan worked. SignTasTic! taped the first episode in two hours. The next one took less than an hour. And the show was back on track.

And as the onscreen problems disappeared, the offscreen ones started to fade as well. A strong bridge is supported by two sides, and everyone on set did their part to build one. As the Deaf cast implemented Sicchitano’s ideas, he learned to better accommodate their communication needs.

On a busy set, it’s easy to see two people signing and just walk in between them, Sicchitano said. “It’s actually rude because it disrupts their communication. So that was one thing that I and my crew had to learn.”

It was a learning curve that the hearing contestants navigated as well. When Johanna McGinley, a contestant for SignTasTic!’s inaugural episode, walked through the front door, she was greeted by ASL judge MJ Shahen. Immediately — perhaps automatically — McGinley said “hello”. And without missing a beat, Shahen, who is Deaf, signed “hello” in ASL back to her.

McGinley had experienced her life largely in spaces tuned to her communication preferences. But from her first interaction, it was clear that this one wasn’t.

“I was like ‘I have to be more aware of who I’m talking to, and how I talk to them’ — to respect them,” said McGinley.

It’s this perspective that solidifies the bridge. That dilutes the frustration of receiving a Braille menu when all you need is a pen and paper. That eases the exasperation of being Deaf in an audiocentric world. And in a mixed environment, if everyone’s going to feel acknowledged — respected — then both sides must strive to accommodate the other. And it’s a perspective that SignTasTic! embraced.

“We were teaching them about sign language. They were teaching us about film,” Cook said. “Education can help us come together.”

All of this culminated in the wrap party. Throughout the show, the Deaf performers had eaten and hung out together. Same for the hearing crew. But at the party, everyone talked and ate and drank and danced together.

“None of us had ever seen each other with our masks off,” Gray said. “We were like ‘none of us has COVID. We’re all vaccinated. We’ve been tested. Let’s take our masks off.’ And we ate together.”

By the end of production, Gray had perhaps been to every Starbucks in the area. Not to buy coffee but to find specialty black mugs painted with rainbow-colored hands forming ASL signs. One Starbucks had an entire box of them. But mostly it was one mug here, two more there, until Gray stockpiled enough for the entire cast and crew. Everybody left the wrap party with one.

“You have this show romance, like you fall in love with your show,” she said. “These people become like your family.”

SignTasTic!’s last round is the money round — when a contestant has eliminated their competitor and plays for $5,000. It’s when Cook moves from the Deaf side of the stage and stands next to the competitor. Hands raised, he cheers them on. Symbolically, it’s when the bridge has been crossed.

Gray doesn’t appear back onscreen until the credits roll. Perhaps one day, there will not be a need for a bridge anymore. Cook certainly hopes so. But in the meantime, it’s people like Gray who allow the two worlds to exist just a little bit closer together.

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