It’s a little after seven o’clock on a Friday night in September, and the show’s about to start. A tall man wearing a baseball cap is standing onstage in a dimly lit bar in Manhattan’s Flatiron District. He’s holding a microphone, but he doesn’t speak a word. Instead, he gently taps the mic with two fingers and looks around at the audience, smirking expectantly.
“I was trying to sign into this mic here, but it didn’t work,” says the voice of a different man, sitting offstage and watching the evening’s emcee, Douglas Ridloff, with rapt attention. This man has just interpreted Ridloff’s opening joke from American Sign Language (ASL) to English, and he will serve in the same role the rest of the show, for the benefit of the few present who are not fluent in ASL.
“Let me see all the deaf people here,” continues Ridloff, scanning the room of about 70 attendees who are at Pioneers Bar for the latest ASL Slam event in New York. A monthly open-mic night, the slams attract a potpourri of storytellers, rappers, poets, and comedians who improvise on stage.
The majority of attendees are deaf, as is evident by the sea of hands that shoot up in response to Ridloff’s questions. “How many level fours? ASL Level threes…twos…ones?” Ridloff signs to the crowd. Hands fall progressively, as there are representatives of each level present.
and it consistently draws ASL students eager to practice.
“CODAs?” Ridloff asks afterward, using the acronym for “children of deaf adults.” More hands go up, including one of Dean Tester’s, a second interpreter, who has tattoos, hair buzzed only on the sides, and glasses that complete an emphatically counterculture look. It skews to counter-counter-culture when he starts to sign fluently.
Both of Tester’s parents are deaf, but they don’t live in New York. “For me, the slam is sort of a refuge,” Tester says, after the open mic ends. A professional interpreter who goes as often as possible, Tester makes it clear that he attends as more than just an interpreter.
“ASL Slam promotes socializing,” he says. “It’s the deaf community reaching out to those who want to learn…but ASL in itself is an art"—an art that has been a part of Tester’s life for longer than he can remember. “Storytelling and passing on ASL is a cultural thing,” he adds, underscoring the solidarity that the slam instills among regulars.
The crowd that evening is familiar with each other. Couples take pictures of one other with their iPhones, pausing their signing to prevent the images from blurring. Friends sign to each other from across the room, their thoughts tossed into the air over rows of other conversations, politely avoiding any interruptions the way a shout would. A young woman practices her signs, indelicately, as she eye-eavesdrops on two giggly young deaf women sitting directly in front of her.
But when the show starts, I realize, not being fluent in ASL isn’t as much of a disadvantage as it could be if this show were in a foreign spoken tongue.
Watching someone sign naturally excites the imagination, and for the semi-fluent speakers, myself among them as I have deaf family members, a story unfolds regardless of whether it is the same story being told by its creator. It’s almost impossible to watch some of the evening’s repeat storytellers and not be taken to rarely-tapped corridors of your mind.
As the hour and a half passed, I witnessed a woman escape from a box then turn into a bird and fly away. Goosebumps developed on my arm as a man described a moonlit evening on the campus of Gallaudet University when the statue
“I’m a writer with my hands,” Ridloff, 37, explains to me through an interpreter on an earlier September evening at a Williamsburg beer hall. “I call it ‘Cinespace'—I don't write on paper, but I take videos of everything.” Ridloff says that instead of writing down stories or poems, he records the stories and edits the video until the story is completed.
When Ridloff signs conversationally, his eyes intensify and his lips move silently. Standing six-foot-two, he has a narrow face that is accented by a fashionably bald head (as if he intentionally chose to lose his hair) and a dark shadow of facial stubble. Pictures of Ridloff on his personal website show that there is also a mustached version of him, and that he sometimes sports a Dick Tracy-style hat.
Ridloff was born profoundly deaf. He cannot hear in
either ear and, growing up, was the only person in his immediate family who was deaf. “My great-aunt is deaf,”
he says, shrugging.
Ridloff teaches physical education and ASL drama performance at Public School 47 in Manhattan. He lives in Williamsburg with his wife and his 21-month-old son, who are both deaf. Trying to explain the degree to which he can hear, Ridloff’s demeanor is matter-of-fact; he can hear “if it’ a bad rainstorm, or a dog barking,” he says. And he only wears one hearing aid because two give him a headache. But tonight, Ridloff is spared the din of the tipsy hipsters in the beer hall: “Unfortunately, the batteries are dead.”
Ridloff has spent years crafting his particular brand of storytelling after being influenced in high school by ASL poet Peter Cook. Cook visited the Lexington School for the Deaf in Jackson Heights, Queens, which Ridloff attended, and he collaborated with one of Ridloff’s classes.
“It’s a new genre,” Ridloff says of ASL storytelling. “There’s spoken and written poetry: ‘When you stop and smell the roses’—written, it’s three lines,” he explains as a hypothetical. “But for me to sign it, it’s very short and people might
not grasp the full emotion.” Indeed, Ridloff has a hard time explaining his art to non-ASL speakers.
HIS FORM OF STORYTELLING DOESN'T EXIST IN A WORLD WITHOUT MOVEMENT.
The stories in their totality can be seen when Ridloff emcees on slams nights, as well as in his one-man show, “Capital D,” which he has lately been performing in venues all over the country and internationally; last summer, he took the
show to France.
“English goes way back,” Ridloff says. “You have all these years of literature. ASL is very young. There’s not enough visual documentation. It’s a visual language…we’re moving into the artistic picture and it’s relatively new.”
ASL reportedly dates back to the early 19th century. One of the first films of the language was made in the early 1900s by George Veditz, a former president of the National Association for the Deaf.
“His signing is very old and different from how it is now,” Ridloff says of the Veditz film.
Today, Ridloff is doing his own part to encourage the documentation of ASL performance art through his videos, live shows and open-mics. His recordings have created the beginnings of what may one day be a fascinating visual compendium of this previously hard-to-capture art.
And as an artist, Ridloff’s standards are high.
At the recent ASL Slam in mid-September, the theme is Friday the 13th. Audience members who feel particularly brave are encouraged to come onto the stage and tell ghost stories using only two specific signs, which Ridloff calls “handshapes.” One of the handshapes is the sign for the letter “s”, a locked fist with an exposed thumb. The second is the sign for the letter “b”, a stiff-figured, open-faced palm, with the thumb closed over and touching the pinky.
Performers are not to use any other signs, forcing them to fill in the literal gaps with creative body mimes and using explosive or intricate facial expressions. One man improvises a story about a gambler who is addicted to the slot machine. Using the fisted sign, he enacts a pull of the lever. Suddenly, his eyes pop cartoonishly as he extends his arms stiffly in front of himself, shimmying his two open-faced palms to symbolize rapidly changing slots. The punch line, in keeping with the night’s theme, is that the jackpot is Jack the Ripper; his horror-stricken face shoots to the front of the stage as his body is sucked into the imaginary slot machine.
Another man casually saunters onto the stage, looks around as if second-guessing himself, then launches into a series of one-liners that ignite the room with laughter.
“Do you know how Captain Hook died? Jock itch!”
“I went to Starbucks, and I handed the barista a paper that said, ‘I’m deaf.’ She took it and didn’t even ask me what I wanted, just handed me a coffee. Later, as I was driving, I felt really sleepy. I thought, ‘What’s with this coffee? Seems so weak!’ Then I realized that she thought I’d written DECAF!”
A nightmare, indeed.
These particular stories are well done, but when performers’ handshapes are too elaborate—the fist not tight enough,
the fingers of the open-faced palm too slack—
Ridloff is unforgiving.
“Six strikes!” he chastises as a man leaves the stage, his head cast down sarcastically. “You see how difficult it is just limiting yourself to two handshapes?" Ridloff says. “But it’s an art form.”
Ridloff, who is not the founder of the slam, is careful to distinguish his art from his job as an emcee at the ASL Slam. Being an emcee is about encouraging the union of socialization and performance, he says.
“I would tell stories among my friends and I would get on stage and watch how the audience reacted,” he explains of his first slams several years ago, long before he stepped on stage as emcee. Eventually, he added, “A flower blossomed.”