“Switched at Birth” episode to be broadcast entirely in American Sign Language

Switched at Birth: “Uprising” airs Monday, March 4, at 8pm ET on ABC Family.

For those worried about the prospect of watching an hour of television entirely in sign language — that means no voices or ambient noise — Switched at Birth creator Lizzy Weiss offers some reassurance.

“You learn in the first five minutes how to watch the show,” she says. “I think what a lot of people have responded to is — not just the Millennials, but everybody — we all watch TV doing five things at once with our iPads. This is [an episode] you have to fully focus on in a way that’s really interesting, and it captures your attention. You can’t do anything else; you have to watch the show.”

The Millennials (also known as “Generation Y”) may be the target audience for the sophomore drama, which follows the complicated story of two teenagers — Daphne (Katie Leclerc), who is deaf, and Bay (Vanessa Marano) — who find out they were given to the wrong sets of parents at the hospital. It has won raves for its realistic, respectful portrayal of the deaf community, and is taking that concept even further with Monday’s winter-finale episode, “Uprising,” which is about the students at a deaf school trying to save it from closing. The only sound viewers will hear is the musical score and songs meant to convey a character’s inner emotions. In that way, it won’t be much different than watching a typical silent film. The characters will speak in American Sign Language (ASL) and have their dialogue captioned.

Switched at Birth "Uprising" is broadcast completely in American sign language

Weiss shared with us how the idea for the episode came about, what it took to actually produce it, and whether she’s up for ever doing it again:

Channel Guide Magazine: I’d read that it was the network that actually came to you with the idea of a silent episode. How did you feel when they brought it up?

Lizzy Weiss: It was surprising. The network continues to surprise me with their forward-thinkingness. We’re always on the same page, which is so fun. It started way back when I was first writing the pilot, I called them and said, “OK, I can cheat some of it, but I can’t cheat two deaf people talking. They would never vocalize. We’ll have to caption it.” I was anticipating a little bit of a fight, and they said, “Great! Let’s do it.” So now they continue to be as excited as we are about pushing the envelope.

CGM: I’ve wondered about that whenever I see a hearing character speaking while they’re signing to a deaf character. Is that a bit of a cheat?

LW: It depends. If you’re fully deaf, it’s a struggle to vocalize … and you would normally just sign. Some people who are fully bilingual, if you’re hearing, will speak as well if there’s someone [else] hearing around in order to help them understand the conversation. Just like you would to be polite. But if you have two fully deaf people together whose first language is ASL they would never vocalize. No. They would just sign.

CGM: So what was production like, compared with a typical episode?

LW: It was chaotic and crazy and fun. In addition to being an all-ASL episode it was also just a big episode, too, in terms of number of actors, number of extras, the scope of it. And we had rain, we had just about every challenge imaginable. It was a fully bilingual set. We have spoken English and ASL going on pretty much at all times. SAG rules say we have to have one interpreter per deaf actor, so there was a ton of extra people on set, and the director, Steve Miner, would speak what he wanted and then he’d have to wait and the interpreters would interpret it for the actors. Then the actors would respond with questions, and the director would respond, so you can imagine everything took twice as long. On a set where you’re typically always trying to move faster to get your day done, that added another level of complexity. Then the blocking of the scene had to be totally visual. You couldn’t have someone walk in and say something and expect the other character to turn around. We had to block everybody so you could see them at all times during a conversation. And we had scenes with eight kids in it, everybody talking at once. We had to anticipate, “How are we going to caption this? Are we going to caption it simultaneously and just hope the viewer gets the general idea of the scene? Do we want to slow them down?” We had to think about all of those things. So from start to finish, from the writing to the editing, it was a lot of challenges for us.

CGM: But the episode isn’t completely silent.

LW: No. The perspective that we’re showing is this is the world … if you were deaf. But we’ve always used music and score in all of our episodes as the emotional life of the characters. These characters don’t have a silent inner life, so we used score and songs similar to what we used in other episodes, more so even, because philosophically what music means and how it reflects what the character in the scene is feeling. Also, we just didn’t want to have a silent episode, you know? It’s not an episode about silence. It’s an episode about communication in a different culture. It’s not really about quiet. There are some quiet scenes, but what I really hope people take away from it is not an absence but more of a presence. Communicating in this language that’s totally visual in which you use your hands and not your voice is a totally different way of seeing the world. You can talk to somebody across the room without anyone else knowing, you can do all of these interesting things. So it’s not about absence of sound, it’s more about the culture and the language.

CGM: So let’s say if there’s a car running in the background, we wouldn’t hear that?

LW: No. We shot the scenes as we normally would. We wouldn’t tell hearing actors not to speak if in the scene they would normally. We had something called Sim Com, which means simultaneous communication, and that means you’re signing and speaking at the same time. So on our show, even a regular episode, a lot of the hearing characters Sim Com, they sign because they’re being polite to their deaf daughter. We had Lea Thompson and D.W. Moffett and Constance Marie Sim Com as they normally would and then we took out their sound in editing. You wouldn’t hear vocalizations, you wouldn’t hear ambient noise from the world.

CGM: As for the story of the episode, do you see this as kind of a standalone episode, or does it tie into the series’ overarching storylines?

LW: Oh it totally blends in! In fact we would have told probably the same story if we hadn’t decided to do an all-ASL episode. And again, it was sort of magic the way it happened, because we were already telling a story in this cycle of episodes — we do them in cycles of 10 — we were in the middle of telling an arc about this deaf school getting closed down, which is very real. A lot of that is happening today. Deaf schools are closing and they’re mainstreaming the deaf kids, which means putting them in mainstream schools for budget reasons and philosophical reasons. So when the network called and said, “Hey, do you want to do this?” we said, “That’s incredible, we’re actually already telling a story that would fit in perfectly, and so let’s make that the ASL episode.”

CGM: You’re in your second season now, and you obviously get a lot of comments and input from the deaf community. How much affect does that have on how you write the show?

LW: That’s a most interesting question. We are excited and interested to hear everyone’s response, all of our fans. We have a deaf consultant and an ASL master who we check things with, but we really sort of just go with the characters. We haven’t taken a lot from the outside world. We’ve created this set of characters, and then we sort of go with them where they would go. I don’t know. I mean, like any show, people have totally contradictory views at all times about everything, so the challenge is to be interested and to read the responses without being too swayed by them or else you just bounce around too much trying to please everybody. You have to really try, as hard as it is, to be true to what do you think the character would do, and not try to please people. What would be the best story?

CGM: That sort of feeds into my next question then, of how do you keep Switched at Birth from becoming a “message” show?

LW: Telling a good story has always been my driving goal from Day One. I never set out to do anything with a message. It felt exciting to tell stories about people from different walks of life that we’ve never seen before. But you have to make the ordinary extraordinary and the extraordinary ordinary, that’s something I’ve learned as a writer. It’s insight into a culture and language that most people have never seen before or explored in-depth. On the other hand, it’s just a story about kids in high school and their families. A huge part of the show is the family part. I wouldn’t say that has nothing to do with deafness; it is about being a parent to a kid. And of course the “switched” element drives most of our stories and the deaf element is woven in. But certainly we never would have survived on air at all, let alone 50 episodes, if we just did a show about deafness. It’s not a documentary. It’s a family drama that happens to have some deaf characters in it.

CGM: Now that this one is in the books, can you see doing another silent episode in the future?

LW: We hadn’t thought of it, but it came out so well that if the writers and I thought there was another good reason to tell the story this way, we totally would. But we don’t want to do it arbitrarily or as a gimmick. It totally fits the story we were telling, so if we came across another reason to tell the story this way, we would.

Photo: © 2013 Disney Enterprises, Inc. Credit: Eric McCandless