Using ASL with Hearing Actors in the Drama Classroom

This is the first of my Posts-About-Conference, and it is about the first session I attended at conference this year. It was exciting that the very first session I attended had something in it that I knew immediately I would implement in my teaching. It is one of those strategies that I loved so much and can’t figure out how I never thought of it myself before.

The session was called Using American Sign Language as a Teaching Tool for Actors. Special thanks to Elizabeth Cox of Plymoth State University and Susan Lynskey of Georgetown University for bringing this session to conference!

The Use-It-Tomorrow strategy I took home from this session is this: Take novice actors who are learning a monologue and have them learn the signs for the operative words in the monologue that they have selected. Have them explore how performing the monologue with the signs impacts their work. Eventually the teacher may guide the student actors away from the signs themselves but encourage them to maintain the increased physicality, sense of point of view, etc. that naturally results. There are now a number of resources online and elsewhere for hearing actors to learn some ASL– my current personal favorite being an App on my iPod Touch called “iSign.” I know I will be using this in my fall drama classes and I am thinking about ways I can incorporate similar strategies in future rehearsals, particularly when working with actors who need nudging to explore physicality.

Bonus idea I’m stealing from this session: When students struggle with which words are the “operative words”– ask them “Where does your love live?”

Question for the World: Anyone else doing something innovative with American Sign Language in their classroom or rehearsals? Have a favorite (or least favorite) ASL resource?  Please share!


2 Responses to “Using ASL with Hearing Actors in the Drama Classroom”

  1. Emely Says:

    This rocks! I have been thinking about learning more ASL myself. I am working with adults with special needs and they really respond to the ASL. I only know a few words, but it is a cool teaching tool. I never thought of using it for operative words, but you can bet I am going to start playing with that! Thanks for the cool idea!

    • Susan Lynskey Says:

      Thanks Nora, Thanks Emely–
      Yes–I love this work and have found it really helps actors (hearing and deaf) create more specific and psychologically-physically integrated characterizations. ASL is an amazing language for actors as the grammatical structure demands expression, spatial relationships and p.o.v.
      I’ve had great success with my operative word exercises over the years—both as an actor and teacher—(and I’m happy to clarify details and answer any questions you may have).

      With the time demands of the AATE/ATHE Conference, I was only able to present the one exercise, but I have developed more– including more on the “Where does your *love live?” (insert ‘hope’/’fear’/ ‘other operative-words’ here*)
      Oh, Nora I’m so glad you liked that!–the kids really catch onto the relationship between an ‘idea'(in their head) and where that idea ‘lives’ (in the body) when you ask it like that.
      Run with it! (And let me know how it works for you/them! :))

      I also have some exercises I have developed for both youth (Nora) and special needs (Emely) populations. I’m happy to share.

      Please don’t hesitate to contact me at

      My colleague and friend Beth Cox is also a great fellow ‘ASL as teaching tool’ resource:

      Exciting to know there are others interested in the work!
      Would be delighted to hear from you all.
      (Signing ‘applause’)
      Susan Lynskey

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