On or off the job, Blake Wales talks with his hands. Mismatched wristbands frame supple, powerful digits dancing in tandem with conversational flow—each phrase punctuated by a precise judo chop. In another life, you'd imagine him a piano virtuoso or champion thumb wrestler, but Wales' powers of gesticular precision pointed toward a career path no less rigorous or rarefied. As American Sign Language translator for ascending Curious Comedy Theater improv troupe J Names, he works his fingers to the bone.
"It is exhausting," he admits. "Most interpreters at a performance venue have teams of two or three people, but finding somebody else who'd be comfortable in this situation is really hard. I make sure to do hand exercises before every show to warm up the instruments and make sure they're alive."
Although Wales grew up signing as the child of a deaf father and spent years with the New York Deaf Theatre honing his craft, he has never been certified as an interpreter, but formal training may only have hindered his abilities. Credentialed sign language professionals within the dramatic arts are taught to work exclusively from the scripts, while the particular challenges of conveying scattershot sketch comedy tests his theatrical background and native fluency in equal measure.
"I definitely appreciate the difficulty of what Blake's doing," raves J Names co-founder Jay Flewelling. "As with any art form, the true masters make it look easy. An interpreter on Broadway will have the text. An interpreter touring with Chance the Rapper will already know all the songs. They can just focus on expression since nothing new will be showing up. Blake's fluent in ASL and understands the language of improv. That's why I push the boundaries to get Blake near center stage. Interpreters are usually sequestered to this sad corner, but even when I'm performing, I find myself drawn in watching him."
Employing a variation of long-form improv format often called "the Armando," Flewelling invites favored performers (like this weekend's guest, Shelly Santa Cruz) to share their own personal anecdotes as a conceptual springboard for the troupe's sketches.
"I think the humor translates really well to ASL," says Wales. "The storytellers have material that's so rich and full of color. J Names does a lot of physical comedy, so they use their bodies in different ways. They're quick. They're to the point. There's a lot of action."
However thrilling for the audience, keeping the beat set by a top-flight improv team and matching their far-flung inventiveness requires a wearying combination of mental gymnastics and physical exertion from Wales. To sustain the show's breakneck momentum and back-and-forth banter, the interpreter must pivot and contort so that both roles can be instantly represented while minimizing his overall presence during the show.
"It's just that fun right brain-left brain balance," he laughs, "listening to what's happening and then redistributing it in a different language. The commentary mostly comes in unpacking jokes from the hearing perspective for a deaf audience. I'll position my body the right way and then take on the characteristics of how they're speaking and acting—their vocal quality, their attitude, their body language all influence the way I would interpret any certain thing."
While Wales' role as conduit might seem as if it can only be appreciated during live performances, J Names takes full advantage of their home venue's state-of-the-art recording equipment to stream their shows online with picture-in-picture footage of Blake's ASL translations with the hope of slowly luring crowds too often marginalized by inattention at smaller theaters.
"We want this to be an entry point for deaf and hard-of-hearing audiences to get that first foot in the water," Wales says. "There's a fear of going to see live performances because it might not be worth their time —the sense that all these jokes are going to be for hearing people. There's nothing better than seeing a deaf audience and hearing audience laugh at the same time. That's always special."
SEE IT: J Names will perform with ASL interpretation provided by Blake Wales at Curious Comedy Theater, 5225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., curiouscomedy.org, on Friday, March 29. 9:30 pm. $10 in advance, $15 at the door.