Many moons ago, I watched the movie Cats while hanging out at a friend's house. Kind of. I fell asleep somewhere in the middle of the first act and made my excuses to go home at intermission. As I recall, my general impression was that James Earl Jones1 dressed up as a fat cat2 and all the cats sang about themselves. And the one song I'd heard of before, Memory, was evidently in the second act because I didn't get that far.
1 It wasn't James Earl Jones.
2 Not rich, just literally fat. And a cat. A really big, fat cat.
So, not my favorite musical.
But I only get asked to interpret one musical per year.
And I don't get to choose what show they do at CVHS, although I keep dropping suggestions3.
Thing is, I'm not actually an interpreter by trade. I'm a church terp, which is to say, I'm a hack. I'm not state-certified. But when you're doing the terping as a labour of love5 and not for pay, even a hack can get in on the action. My co-terp graciously says I'm a very gifted hack. And I like doing the theater pieces.
3 Aida! Elton John's Aida! But as passionate as I am about that show4, the CVHS director has told me every year that they intentionally choose shows with big casts and lots of leads. And Aida has... three.
4 And about Elton.
5 I put the "u" in labour because I felt British. More about that later.
But whereas I knew Les Mis going into that show, I did not know Cats at all. So my co-terp and I started with the soundtrack. Get it into your head6. For those that didn't know, the entire plot of Cats is that this group of cats8 hang out together and sing-act-perform-show off in hopes of being chosen the one cat per year who gets to go to the Heavyside Layer, which ostensibly is Cat Heaven. The source material is a book of poetry by TS Eliot; each poem describes one cat.
6 Apologies to Big Frog, who also got Cats into his head. Three years later, he still occasionally breaks into "I have a gumby cat in mind/her name is JennyAnyDots. He, like I, has always been succeptible to Broadway Tourettes.7
7 Thanks to Garrison Keillor, A Prairie Home Companion, and Guy Noir for that diagnosis. Full transcript and audio available here.
8 Is there a collective noun for cats?
So the translation work was tougher than expected because there were far more steps than usual. From Poetry to Prose, but it was in British. Then from British to American, from American to ASL. Wiki is your friend. Wiki is your friend. Wiki is your friend.
Here are several unexpecteds we found:
1) Beau Brummell was an arbiter of fashion in 19th century England. The cat Bustopher Jones was "this Brummell of cats" because his markings looked like a suit with spats. Fortunately we knew what spats were in a wearable sense, as opposed to in a catfight sense, because Bustopher Jones certainly wouldn't stoop to that.
2) The cat Gus's real name is "Asparagus, but that's such a fuss to pronounce" translated remarkably simply to A-S-P-A-R-A-G-U-S FINGERSPELL (stare at hand, hit hand to show misspell, look perplexed).
3) Strasburg pie goes straight into the category of "don't eat British foods". According to The Ad-dressing of Cats, like caviar, one would use it to tempt a cat. But it's duck foie gras, wrapped in bacon, wrapped in puff pastry, served on a bed of pickles.
4) Know your audience. We made the decision to do a "Vanna White" for when Old Deuteronomy progressed up the opposite-side aisle because the lyrics were the same thing about 20x: murmurs of disbelief and "I believe it is Old Deuteronomy." He moved slowly and had a lot of cats delighted to see him. But our Deaf wanted to know what was being said. Our decision was to not sign the same thing over and over. But we should have at least indicated that the same words were being repeated ad nauseum.
5) Mind your edges. Cats is an all-aisles-used show. Actors in full cat mode were prowling up center aisles, side aisles, dancing their way into the audience. If they were human characters, the actors would have walked up the middle of the aisle. But cats slink around edges and between seats. And they demand attention. They want to be petted behind the ears. But only with their timing. And if you pull their tails, nothing good can come of it.
PS In personal growth, I've learned html for italics and superscript. So hopefully this makes my ramblings easier to track out of and back into the text.