‘Switched at Birth’ creator Lizzy Weiss on tonight’s all-ASL episode

The title of ABC Family”s “Switched at Birth” would suggest some kind of loud, cheesey exploitation drama. And the show certainly doesn’t run away from the more melodramatic aspects of how teens Bay (Vanessa Marano) and Daphne (Katie Leclerc) accidentally were raised by each other”s biological parents. But “Switched at Birth” offers subtler, deeper pleasures as well – not least of which is the way it explores deaf culture through the story of Daphne, who lost most of her hearing at a young age, her friend Emmett (Sean Berdy), and the school for the deaf both attend.
The challenges of being deaf in a hearing world – and of being hearing parents meeting the deaf daughter they never knew they had – is a complicated subject, and one that “Switched at Birth” takes very seriously. The show will frequently present scenes between Daphne and Emmett, or between one of them and Emmett”s mother Melody (Marlee Matlin), where the dialogue is presented entirely in American Sign Language, with subtitles. They”re among the show”s most powerful – and most attention-demanding, because you can”t fold your laundry or play Words With Friends when the characters are speaking without making a sound.
Tonight”s episode (it airs at 8 p.m.) takes the concept even further, as it details a student protest over the closure of the special high school. There”s a brief scene at the beginning featuring vocalized dialogue, but after that, everything”s presented in ASL and/or with subtitles, even scenes featuring characters like Daphne”s biological mother Kathryn (Lea Thompson), who always speaks out loud as she signs.
It”s a powerful use of the concept, and a great way for “Switched at Birth” to really drive home what the world is like for these kids.
I asked the show”s creator, Lizzy Weiss, about how she wound up writing a series with two hooks in one, the challenges and advantages of doing scenes entirely in ASL, and more. 
At what phase of developing the series did you decide that Daphne would be deaf? How and why was that decision made?
Lizzy Weiss: In September, 2009, I sold the concept of two families discovering that their daughters were accidentally switched at birth. After I wrote the first outline, the network suggested that we up the stakes even more by making one of the girls different in some way so that the family with resources might feel even more disconnected from her. I loved that thought and instantly said ‘What if one of the girls is deaf?’ I had taken a class called Theater of the Deaf in college — and I can’t tell you how many people made fun of me for taking such a ‘useless’ class instead of the requirements — so I had a bit of background in ASL (American Sign Language), deaf culture, etc. 

What, if anything, were you surprised by as you learned more about deaf culture?
Lizzy Weiss: I dove into research on deaf culture and history, visiting a deaf high school and a deaf theater company, reading memoirs, interviewing people. The thing that surprised me the most was something that we’ve explored a lot in the show, and explicitly said in a recent episode: most deaf people, if offered a magic pill to wake up tomorrow and become hearing, wouldn’t take it. There is a pride and perspective and identity that comes from being deaf that most people in the community wouldn’t swap out for a chance to be part of the mainstream. 

The deaf/hearing culture clash essentially makes this two shows (or at least two high concepts) in one, which in theory gives you more potential viewers to attract. Do you hear much, if at all, from viewers who say they specifically watch the show for that aspect of it, and who might not otherwise be interested in either a well-executed teen drama or a show about two girls who were switched at birth?
Lizzy Weiss: Our show is about a lot of things: nature vs. nurture, mother/daughter politics, how issues of class and race affect parenting, etc. And while the insight into deaf culture is fascinating, I think ultimately, viewers stay for the storytelling. We pride ourselves on doing a show that’s universal, emotional, and nuanced. 

When you were first developing the series, how often did you anticipate doing all-ASL scenes like the ones we so often get between Daphne and Emmett? Was there any pushback from network or studio executives on that aspect of it? I know the “Lost” producers, for instance, got grief at times when they would do a Jin and Sun story that was all subtitled. 
Lizzy Weiss: Early on, I told the network that I could ‘cheat’ the Daphne/Regina scenes (Daphne is the deaf teenager, Regina is her hearing but ASL-fluent mother) by having them ‘Sim Com.’  (Sim Com is short for simultaneous communication, which means signing and talking at the same time.) But I knew that I couldn’t cheat scenes between two deaf characters. They’d have to be captioned.  To my great surprise, the network instantly was onboard and said ‘let’s do it’, and they’ve never backed down from being supportive of our ASL-only scenes.

It’s very rare these days when I’m watching a TV show without having a second screen open, even if it’s just to take notes. But whenever you do an all-ASL scene, I can’t focus on anything but what’s happening in the show. (I didn’t even bother opening my laptop before watching this episode.) It’s a much deeper level of engagement than I have in a lot of shows. Did you think about that when began writing those scenes, or was it a happy byproduct?
Lizzy Weiss: I had heard the conventional wisdom that Americans don’t like to read too much and that we’d have to be careful about how many ASL scenes we have, but like you, many people have said that they love how engaged they have to be. Ironically, the silent scenes are the ones that command the most attention. I hadn’t anticipated this, but it has been, as you say, a happy byproduct, and one that has allowed us to go all the way — to an all-ASL episode. 
How long have you been thinking about doing an episode like this one? Was it a hard sell with the network?
Lizzy Weiss: In the writers’ room, we’ve always bounced around two ideas we wanted to do someday: an all-ASL episode and an episode in which we show life for the families as it would have been if the switch hadn’t happened.  For some reason, I always thought both of these episodes would be way down the line, but it came up recently with the network and they said ‘We love the ASL idea, why wait?’  

Obviously, it makes sense for the scenes featuring just the deaf kids to be ASL-only, but as Vanessa and Katie warn us at the start of the hour, there’s no vocalization for most of the episode, even in scenes featuring characters like Kathryn who are speaking out loud as they sign. Why did you decide to do it that way?
Lizzy Weiss: The concept of the episode is ‘this is what life is like for a deaf person.’ Every scene has at least one deaf person in it, that was our rule. We would never cut away to two hearing people, because they wouldn’t be signing to each other, and we wanted to keep our concept. I guess we could have done a scene from the POV of a deaf person of two hearing people talking, but then we would not have captioned the conversation; we would have shown what it’s like to be deaf in a world in which most everyone speaks only. We do scenes all the time in which we sim com, so the challenge was to do something different. Once we struck upon the concept of ‘this is from the perspective of a deaf person’, our ‘rules’ fell into place. 

There’s still music on the soundtrack. Did you ever consider the idea of going completely silent? Why did you ultimately decide to use songs, score, etc.?
Lizzy Weiss: We knew pretty early on that being all silent would be too quiet and give the wrong idea. What I mean is, even our ‘regular’ episodes, we use score to reflect the emotional state of the characters in the scenes, and this episode is no different. The score and the songs represent the emotional state of the characters as they struggle to take back their school.

Having made more than three dozen episodes of the show before this one, all of them featuring ASL in some way, were there any specific challenges to doing an episode like this? Or do you pretty know exactly how to structure and stage these scenes, even if they’re not interspersed among ones with vocalized dialogue?
Lizzy Weiss: We’ve learned a lot about how to write, shoot, and edit ASL scenes, but shooting 40 of them back to back in one episode was a whole other ballgame. We realized we had to tell more of a visual story, kind of like ‘The Artist’, where you figure out what is going by without people telling you. Plus there were all the production challenges of having a dozen interpreters on set (one for each deaf actor), blocking each scene so that the characters can see each other at all times and don’t have props in their hands so that they can sign, lots of things like that. But it was fun. We had a really good time with it. 

Is this something you’d like to try again at some point? If so, would you need a story to motivate it, like this one about the school closing, or would you be comfortable doing an entire hour from Daphne or Emmett or Melody’s point of view?
Lizzy Weiss: I hadn’t thought about that yet – but sure, why not? I know that the writers and I would want to figure out again ‘why are we telling this story this way?’ and if we came across another story that we felt would be best told this way, I can’t see why we wouldn’t do it again. 
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com