Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Cabaret cantor performance tells of work in synagogue founded by deaf people in Illinois

From The Pioneer Local in Ill.:

It's no secret that Charlene Brooks of Skokie (pictured) engages an audience with her marvelous voice, amusing real-life stories and playful manner onstage. So you may wonder what will be revealed when she presents "Confessions of a Cabaret Cantor!" on Saturday, Nov. 6 at the Skokie Theatre.

Well, for one thing, you'll learn about her work as a cantorial soloist at Congregation Bene Shalom, a Skokie synagogue founded by people who were deaf, and that still has a number of deaf congregants. Because some of those congregants will be in the audience, and Brooks doesn't want them to miss a thing, American Sign Language interpreter Donna Reiter Brandwein of Lincolnshire (pictured) will also be in the spotlight.

Brandwein is an animated interpreter, which is not surprising given her background. "I was an actress from the time I was 11," she said. Brandwein earned a bachelor's degree in acting from Loyola University.

"My first play as a professional, where I was actually paid real money, was with Chicago Theater of the Deaf and Black Ensemble Theater," she said. "I met my first deaf person, who was our coach, and I met my first interpreter and they taught us how to sign our lines."

The show toured Illinois. "All I knew were my lines," Brandwein recalled. "When you tour the state, afterwards you have lunch in the cafeteria with the kids. They would start talking with me and I didn't know what they were saying. I felt so handicapped."

Around this time, Brandwein was working as a legal assistant during the day and taking professional acting classes at night. She wanted to find a way to use her sign language experience when, while she was home recovering from chicken pox, she learned from a friend about the role of interpreter.

Brandwein took three adult continuing education classes "and really had a good feel for the facial expressions because of my acting background," she reported, explaining, "In American Sign Language, all the grammar and all the adjectival and adverbial information is in your face and your body.

"After I did a couple of classes, I realized how much I didn't know," Brandwein continued. She attended the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, earning a master's degree in sign language interpreting.

Since then, Brandwein has interpreted at every major theater in Chicago and for three Presidents. She was also the coordinator of sign language interpreters for 15 years at the Illinois Storytelling Festival.

"What's fun about interpreting is you get to go places you would never go," she said. "I always say, 'Yes, I interpreted for Bush, Clinton and Obama, but I've also interpreted for the lady who was learning to fold towels the right way at the hotel.'"

Brandwein first interpreted for Charlene Brooks at a concert last year. "We had a blast and the audience loved it," she said.

Brooks noted that even the hearing audience members appreciated Brandwein's presence. "She is so interesting to watch, even if you don't know sign language," Brooks said. "So many people told me how much they enjoyed it, even if they didn't know what she was signing because she's very dramatic. And the deaf members really appreciated it because they can watch me and see her at the same time."