For the cast and crew of ABC Family's Switched at Birth, shooting a scene in American Sign Language (ASL) is a pretty standard practice. But shooting an entire episode in ASL presented a whole new set of challenges.
On Monday's episode, "Uprising" (Monday at 8/7c, ABC Family), the students at Carlton School for the Deaf are devastated to learn that their school will be closing. Inspired by a famous successful protest at Galludet University in the '80s, in which students fought to have the deaf school's first deaf president, Daphne (Katie LeClerc) recruits her classmates, including Emmett (Sean Berdy), Travis (Ryan Lane) and Natalie (Stephanie Nogueras), to pull off a "Take Back Carlton" campaign and make the public aware of their cause.
Although the plot was conceived before the show decided to do an all-ASL episode, creator and executive producer Lizzy Weiss tells TVGuide.com that the two ideas fit together seamlessly. "The idea was always out there as a 'Someday, wouldn't it be fun to [do]?' thing," she says. "Then the network said on their own, 'Have you ever thought of it?' and we said, 'We've been dying to [and] now that you mention it we're telling a story already about Carlton closing which fits perfectly.' So it became this serendipitous moment."
While the series has always featured ASL scenes prominently, this episode was an entirely different ballgame. The usual ASL scenes involve series regulars and feature between two and four people, but for this episode, scenes included a bevy of extras and eight to 10 characters who each are required to have their own interpreter. "We had to allow for extra time for the director to say one thing in spoken English, the interpreter to interpret in sign language, the actor to have a question asked in sign language, the interpreter to say it to the director in English, and then [the director] say the answer. So it took twice as long at least," Weiss says. "We also had to block everything really carefully because you can't have someone walk in and say, 'Hello' and have the person turn. It has to be a completely visual way of blocking the scene so that the characters see each other at all times."
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Even the smallest details took precise planning. "You had to be careful about having props in the characters' hands so they could sign freely," Weiss says. "In editing we said, 'How are we going to put up our credits?' because you can't put credits over captions. That was one of things I will say we completely forgot about." And then there was the music. "We use music to represent the internal life of our characters because deaf people's internal lives aren't quiet [and we want] to reflect how the characters are feeling. But we also decided to let some scenes breathe and be quiet," she says.
A somewhat surprising plot point in the episode is the fact that Bay (Vanessa Marano) and Noah (Max-Lloyd Jones), students at Carlton through its pilot program, are shut out from the protest by their peers. While Bay has full hearing, Noah suffers from Meniere's Disease (which LeClerc has in real life) and is progressively losing his hearing. Both are seen as part of the "mainstream" and have a hard time being accepted by their classmates during the protest. Weiss says that this discrimination is common in these types of scenarios and she wanted to illustrate that.
"In every civil rights movement, there are always those battles of power," she says. "Who is deaf enough? Who is black enough? Who's gay enough? Who defines what a feminist is? You realize that people are on a spectrum — no one is ever wholly one thing. So, there's fascinating power battle inside these movements and [our story] is really no different."
In addition to the episode energizing the crew and promoting the show's theme of "it's OK to be different" in a new way, Weiss says that she's also thrilled that people will learn about the Galludet uprising, which she admits she only found out about when writing the pilot. "Why do we know about some civil rights victories and not others?" she says. "What's so fantastic about the story is that it worked. This was 100 percent, 'We want a deaf president,' and they got one. So that was a fantastic thing to model ourselves on."
Switched at Birth airs on Monday at 8/7c on ABC Family.
Watch a clip from the episode: