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Preserving Sign Language Stories

February 28, 2007

Originally published February 28, 2007

By Bill D’ Agostino
News-Post Staff

A few months before he unexpectedly died from a heart attack, 37-year-old deaf comic Stephen Michael Ryan told his wife that he wanted a scholarship established for the study, teaching and preservation of American Sign Language storytelling.

The conversation was prompted by the couple’s concerns about the rise of cochlear implants and other threats to deaf culture, deaf clubs and deaf schools, his wife Laureen Lynch-Ryan recalled, speaking through an interpreter.

More than a decade after Ryan’s sudden death in 1995, his wife and friends are working to fulfill his dream to preserve ASL.

“We don’t want to see it fade out,” Lynch-Ryan said.

On Friday, three deaf storytellers will perform in Frederick at the Third Annual Stephen M. Ryan ASL Storytelling Event at the Maryland School for the Deaf. Proceeds will go to a fund, in Ryan’s honor, benefiting Gallaudet University’s Department of ASL and Deaf Studies, to preserve ASL stories and the ASL language. Ryan taught ASL at Gallaudet.

This is the third annual event in the area, but the first in Frederick. Interpreters will be present for hearing audience members. This year’s event is for ages 14 and up.

Ryan’s sudden death was a shock for many in the deaf community.

“We really miss him,” said Manny Hernandez, Friday’s master of ceremonies, also speaking on the telephone through an interpreter.

Modern technology, such as the “video relay service” Hernandez used to communicate with this hearing reporter, has been a mixed bag for the deaf community and its culture. The technology allows greater communication and access with the hearing world, but also presents risks.

Deaf students can now attend mainstream colleges using interpreters, Hernandez pointed out, whereas in the past they would only go to Gallaudet. There’s nothing wrong with that, he said, while cautioning that “we want to preserve our heritage — that’s very important too.”

A clip of one of Ryan’s performances, with English captions for those unfamiliar with ASL, can be seen on YouTube. In it, he jokes that he became deaf when his mother’s legs snapped shut as he was being born. By pushing his head through his hands, Ryan does an amusing impression of himself as a fetus exiting his mother’s womb. Most of his stories and jokes concerned deaf issues. Hernandez compared Ryan — both physically and in spirit — to the late “Saturday Night Live” actor John Candy.

Not all ASL storytellers are comics, of course.

At Friday’s event, Monique Holt, an actress who played Cordelia in a production of “King Lear” at D.C.’s acclaimed Shakespeare Theatre Company in 1999, will perform an Asian folk tale and a Shakespearean sonnet.

Video is a great way to preserve ASL storytelling, Holt said, also speaking through an interpreter. Unlike spoken English, ASL relies heavily on gestures and facial expressions.

While performing the folktale, Holt will create worlds and actions with her body. Her hands will, in effect, become the actors and the sets in the dramas she’ll perform.

With ASL, Holt said, she can do a lot of impossible things in storytelling that she couldn’t do in life.

What: The Third Annual Stephen M. Ryan ASL Storytelling Event

Where: Maryland School for the Deaf, Ely Building, 101 Clarke Place, Frederick

When: Friday, March 2 at 8 p.m.

Tickets: $25 for adults, $15 for students with ID

Information: SMRASLStorytelling@yahoo.com

*Note: See this article and photo of Stephen Michael Ryan, click: http://www.fredericknewspost.com/sections/art_life/display_ent.htm?StoryID=57400 *

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  1. March 17, 2008 at 11:41 pm

    Nice site!

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