Giant Gestures

Brtittani Dimare

Theatre-goers were treated to an entirely new dramatic experience earlier this week when Sign Stage on Tour presented James and the Giant Peach at the Palace Theatre. The show, based on the bestselling book by Roald Dahl, had been adapted into an entirely new form, one in which cast members spoke their lines while also simultaneously signing them, creating an original deaf theatre production.

The story may have been familiar to some, but the theatre company managed to easily incorporate sign language into the show, making James a deaf boy and the magical crocodile tongues that begin his peach adventure an instant sign language learning tool. The entire cast, which consisted of two deaf members and three members who can hear, worked together to make the simultaneous communication work, signing for one another in some cases and speaking for one another in others. The cast has been touring with the show since January and will continue around the country until December.

“It’s very fun,” cast member Nick Spinelli said. “At first, it was very intimidating, signing and acting at the same time. But we’ve done this show so many times now that it’s almost automatic.”

The show’s audience consisted mostly of children and the cast really played up to that throughout the entire show. Although opening the performance with a rampant “rhinoceros” running and screaming throughout the crowd perhaps wasn’t the best way to first capture their young audience (the only thing louder than the rhino’s shouts were the babies’ cries), the cast definitely redeemed itself with the flamboyant and funny evil aunts Spiker and Sponge, a rapping shark and a storm cloud that tossed out small Styrofoam balls to eager children, all causing endless bouts of laughter from audience members. The cast never failed to keep the audience involved. One lucky boy, Jude, even got a surprise birthday present when he got to come up on stage to take a picture with the giant peach. The performance catered very successfully to its audience.

“I loved it,” six-year-old Rocco DeLorenzo, a Syracuse native who had come with his family to see the show, said of the performance. “I don’t know sign language, but I loved it. I liked the storm cloud. I wanted a ball.”

“I thought it was wonderful,” Rocco’s mother Margaret DeLorenzo agreed. “It really was the epitome of the theory of inclusion. I used to work with Autistic children in Connecticut and some of them were deaf, and something like this would have just been amazing. It’s celebrating the differences.”

Celebrating the differences is part of the reason that Sign Stage on Tour has continued to perform shows like James and the Giant Peach all around the country. The company has been doing so for about ten years and intends to continue for many more in hopes of spreading the magic and importance of deaf theatre to those who have never had the opportunity before.

“It’s to get people exposed,” Spinelli said. “It’s to let people know that deaf theatre does exist and that it can be for a hearing audience, too. We ask at the beginning of every performance how many people have ever seen a deaf show before and most people haven’t. It’s so important for everyone-and especially children-to see how it works and to celebrate it.”