"Break a finger," a friend bids Janet Bailey moments before she takes the stage in her original show, "It's a Good Day."
That variation of the traditional threatrical good luck wish "break a leg" is offered because when Bailey performs her show Tuesday nights at Gallaudet College in Northeast Washington, her finers are star performers.
She and her two sons -- Eric, 10, and Scott, 8 -- and three other adults use pantomime and sign language to convey the lyrics of 16 songs -- mostly from the 1930s and '40s. The show, part of the summer program performances for Gallaudet's College of Continuing Education, is designed to help improve communication between deaf and hearing persons, while providing diverse entertainment.
Seeing a need for better communication between the two audience groups, the 32-year-old Wheaton resident decided to become, as she classifies it, "an artistic signer." Although her mother had taught school for the deaf and she had learned to spell the alphabet, it was only when she moved next door to a family with a hearing-impaired child that she bacame a professional signer.
The child's mother was not well versed in sign language. Bailey proposed that they take a course at Gallaudet, where both learned to sign freely. Since then she has drawn on her experience as a theater and speech major in college to develop a career as a free-lance signer. This has led to her designation as resident sign language interpreter at the Folger Theater, where she translates 10 different Shakespeare plays by signing, and to numerous assignments at Arena Stage, as well as at college and dinner theaters in the area.
Her one-hour show involves some difficult signing because Bailey has conceived sign interpretations for songs of all tempos and lyrics, from the McGuire Sisters to Barry Manilow. The bass switch on the amplifier is turned all the way up to heighten the sound vibrations for any hearing-imparied persons in the audience. During some shows, balloons are given to audience members because sound waves are felt more distinctly through their surfaces.
But are the songs' catchy lyrics dulled in translation? Probably some," said Bailey, "yet the context of what we're signing is easy to grasp for the majority of that audience. The real challenge for them is learning how to watch the interpreter and the show's action at the same time." A vital part of the special artistic signing course she teaches at Montgomery College is a list of recommended pointers she has her students memorize to aid viewers of interpreted performances.
Her most complicated signing assignments to date have been the musicals "Hair" -- which requies the use of an additional sign vocabulary for sex-related terms -- and "Grease." "Since 'Grease' has so many verbal variables, especially the dated slang, I had to come up with a middle-of-the-road translation," said Bailey. Signing a choral program in Latin has been her least successful effort, she said.
Bailey is one of only 10 Americans who hold a performing arts Special Skills Certificate from the Registry of Interpreters of the Deaf. She plans to continue holding artistic signing workshops and adapting shows, such as her earlier "Free to Be You and Me," for both hearing-impaired and hearing audiences.
Tonight she will be signing Folger Theater's "Romeo and Juliet" and will follow that with "West Side Story" August 21 at the Dinner Theatre of Toby's in Columbia with associate Harry Zarin. Within the last few weeks, she has been approached by the Metropolitian Opera in New York about interpreting touring children's ballet and opera programs.
Bailey's primary aims are "advertising cultural opportunities for the hearing-imparied and teaching them an appreciation for the arts," she says.
One of the most moving segments of her latest show features the talented red-haired Bailey stretching out her arms and gazing far into the distance. She is signing Judy Garland's "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and dramatically does the lyrics "Little bluebirds fly over the rainbow; Why, oh, why, can't I?"
If that mystical rainbow symbolizes the array of obstacles she faces while trying to increase the number of deaf theatergoers in the area, there's every indication that Bluebird Bailey's persistance will one day carry her over it.