When actor Blake Wales first watched a performance by the improv comedy group J Names, he was deeply impressed. There was just one problem. He wished that his father, who is deaf, could have the opportunity to enjoy the show.
“I remember thinking, ‘This would be amazing if my dad could laugh with a hearing audience,’” Wales says. “That’s something a lot of deaf people don’t get to do.”
Now they can. Since last year, Wales has been working with J Names—and the group’s founder, Jay Flewelling—as an ASL interpreter. It’s a challenging and rewarding job that takes all of Wales’ skills as both an ASL speaker and an improv performer (as play-goers who attend the group’s Friday show at Curious Comedy Theater can see).
“’This is amazing. Why aren’t more people doing it? When are you doing it again?’ Those are the questions that I get after I do a show with J Names,” Wales says. “Hearing that need just made me more inspired to respond to it.”
J Names is one of the best-known improv groups in Portland, and Flewelling—who has also worked with Wales at Oregon Children’s Theater—jumped at the chance to expand their audience. “No one has been as excited about this as Jay has,” Wales says.
Wales is not a certified interpreter, but he does have a detailed philosophy about how to translate improv into ASL.
“You can interpret improv and not have a theatrical background and you’d probably do an okay job,” he says. “But it’s the difference between somebody who’s just interpreting music and an interpreter who has experience in a band or went to school and studied music. So instead of just signing the literal sign for music, they’re signing, ‘It’s a guitar! High pitched! This is the beat right here!’” (Running with that metaphor, Flewelling says, “Blake hears the music of improv perfectly.”)
Wales also has to be in tune with the multiple characters that appear in each J Names performance.
“I have to be very aware of where each character is onstage, and I have to pivot my body to adjust to where that person is,” he says. “I have to be so in the moment with each person onstage and everything they say, as far-fetched as it may be—who they are, what they’re doing in the scene.”
Flewelling sees Wales’ role in J Names as part of a greater movement. “Chance the Rapper has an interpreter,” he points out. “Snoop Dogg’s interpreter went viral. It’s just a wave that we’re a part of and that we’re helping along.”
For Wales, being a part of that wave is a deeply personal experience—not least of all because his dad has been able to watch him in action.
“He’s playing the dad role, just giving his son a pat on the back,” Wales says. “But I also feel like he really enjoys it and the friends that he brings really enjoy the show as well. They are often like, ‘Wow, I wish that there was more of this.’ And to be on the receiving end of that is special because I can tell that person, ‘Well, we’re getting there.’”
J Names performs Friday, June 29, at Curious Comedy Theater. Tickets and schedule information here: www.curiouscomedy.org