Arts & Culture / Mosaic / January 22, 2009

Performer creates visual action to words

At 7:30 p.m. this Friday, January 23 in Harbach Theater Peter Cook will be begin his unique performance. According to theater professor Lindsey Snyder, Cook’s performance, which was co-sponsored by the Theatre Department and Caxton Club, with help from Dean Breitborde and the Campus Events Committee, will include storytelling, poetry, and a little personal experience. However, if you attend, you will not actually be hearing from Cook himself because he is deaf.

Snyder will be interpreting for Cook.

“Hopefully with some back up,” Snyder said. Snyder has been working as an interpreter of American Sign Language since 2001. She said that she initially became interested in sign language after she began working as an actor and met a deaf man who was working on the set. Her interest continued to flourish, leading her to take classes and eventually become a certified interpreter.

“I’m nervous too, in that I want to get the message across as clearly as possible,” said Snyder.

Snyder first encountered Cook while working on her PhD translating Shakespeare to American Sign Language. At the time, Cook was on a panel translating Twelfth Night into sign language for production. Snyder has also seen Peter Cook perform before.

“He’s amazing,” says Snyder, “He’s just amazing to watch.”

According to Snyder, Peter Cook is very well known both in the deaf community and in “specialized pockets of the storytelling community.” He has a regular performance schedule, and has performed internationally in the past. According to Snyder, he also has “an amazing artistic understanding of language.”

Cook is also important for his furtherance of deaf artistic expression. Snyder said that Cook took inspiration from Allan Ginsberg, who is a poet, key figure in the “beat movement” and author of “Howl.” According to Snyder, Ginsberg did a presentation on how he wanted poetry to be more visual, and challenged other artists to realize this vision. Cook has worked in concert with hearing poet Kenny Lerner to create the Flying Words Project, which, according to Cook’s website, promotes experimentation “with the possibilities of poetic language.” (For more information: http://web.mac.com/peterscook1/Site/Flying_Words_Project.html)

Snyder says that Cook is also unique in that in many theatrical productions, hearing actors who know sign language are cast instead of those who are deaf.

“I think the work he does is remarkable,” said Snyder. “With the increase of awareness, the success of the musical ‘Big River’ on Broadway, more deaf and disabled on TV…There’s work to be done. And I think he’s definitely one of the people to do it.”

If you do attend Cook’s performance, be prepared to take part in it. Snyder said that Cook often involves his audience, although, of course, involvement is completely voluntary. Cook will also be teaching a workshop earlier the same day, from 4 to 6 p.m., called Creativity in ASL (American Sign Language). According to Snyder, this hands-on workshop will focus on “approaching acting from a non-verbal perspective.”

While geared mainly toward the Theater Department, anyone from Knox may come and observe. Snyder will also be teaching basic “survival signs” and aspects of deaf culture to interested faculty at noon on Thursday, January 22 in the McClelland Room, Seymour. This presentation is expected to take about an hour.

Next week will also see the first meeting of a new sign language club. According to senior Devan Cameron, who has worked extensively on the logistics and PR aspects of Cook’s visit, junior Samantha Newport and sophomore Alicia Vallorani are “two of the main members” thus far.

“Bringing something inherently 3-D to the arts can be perspective changing — it was for me,” said Snyder of Cook. Snyder said, “Knox hasn’t seen anything like this in over 20 years. There is limited opportunity to learn about deaf culture or disability studies on campus right now.”

However, as both Cameron and Snyder note, Cook appeals to more than simply the theatrical or deaf communities. Snyder described him as “hilarious.” Cameron, who responded to questions via email, wrote of him, “Peter is the type of performer who appeals to not just ‘theatre people’ but anyone who lives in this world.”

Rachel Bauer


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