Switched at Birth Creator Talks Groundbreaking All-American Sign Language Episode

Switched at BirthOn Monday’s Switched at Birth (airing at 8/7c), the underrated ABC Family drama will deliver something never before seen on mainstream TV: an episode told entirely in American Sign Language (ASL).

Below, creator Lizzy Weiss previews how the groundbreaking feat came to be, the challenges it brought and the romantic drama that unfolds as the Carlton students fight to save their school.

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TVLINE | This is something you’ve wanted to do for a while. How did it finally become a reality?
The network called and said, “We thought it’d be really fun if you did it. Do you want to try?” I said, “We totally want to try!” We talked about it in the room [and said], “Let’s do it.” We always thought we would do it later. The writers and I always thought, “Someday. Someday.” We were more focused on, “OK, what’s the story we’re going to do next week?” Once the network said, “How about now?” we said, “Great! We have room for it in this cycle because we’re telling a story already about Carlton closing, and that’s probably a great time to do it.”

TVLINE | How did the cast react? Especially among those who are hearing, did they think, “Oh, I’m going to get a vacation”?
Ha! [Laughs] Actually, the opposite. They were really nervous at first because before any of them knew what the story was going to be, they assumed it would just mean a lot more signing for them. As it turns out, it wasn’t more signing for them. The story we ended up telling is more a story about deaf students, so most of the signing in the episode is by people who are fluent already. We have some scenes, of course, with the parents, but less than normal because it’s a one-story episode. It’s the first time we’ve ever done an episode in which there’s only an A-story. We don’t cut away to a parent story or to one of the girls having a different story or to a Toby story. It’s just the story of the kids trying to save the school.

TVLINE | And how did the deaf or hard of hearing cast react? You have so many new actors this season who know ASL.
It was really exciting because a lot of the kids had been extras. So we knew them and they were background and we’d seen them audition for roles. We always need one line here or there. Like Matthew [played by Daniel Durant] in the Valentine’s Day episode, he bought a rose from Bay and Natalie. We saw him perform. We saw a little bit of what he could do, and the kid who plays Cody and, of course, Natalie [Stephanie Nogueras]. This is an opportunity where we said, “We’re going to have to bump those characters up. We’re going to need kids who can do more and say more and are a bigger part of this episode.” So they all became a big part of the episode, which was exciting for them and exciting for us. We had an opportunity to spread the love a little bit.

TVLINE | Did you run into any unexpected challenges during this episode?
We ran into a lot of unexpected challenges. The sheer number of people on set… We had double the amount of people because, first of all, it was a really big episode in terms of characters and extras. And then we had to have an interpreter for every deaf actor. So there was just a ton more humans on set. It took a lot more time to shoot a scene because there was interpreting. The director would speak, the interpreters would interpret, the actors would listen. Then they’d ask questions, and we’d have to wait. The director would respond. Just like in any kind of translation with two languages, it took more time. And we had rain. We had budget issues. We had sort of the 40 plagues, and it all came out so beautifully that we felt like it was all meant to be.

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It’s about kids pulling together to try to save their school when they find out it’s going to be closed. It’s a very real story. As we know, there’s education-budget issues everywhere. It’s about kids fighting back and saying, “This is important to us, and we’re going to do [it] by any means necessary to save our school.” The stakes are a lot higher for deaf kids than they are for mainstream kids, because a deaf school is a very special place when you’re deaf. It’s a place where everyone speaks your language, everyone understands you. There’s no conversations happening that you cannot be part of just because you can’t hear. For a lot of deaf kids, they feel like if they’re mainstreamed, they walk into the cafeteria and there’s 50 conversations going on they can’t participate in. So they’re forced to stay with only people like them or, in a halting way, teach people their language. So it is very high stakes for deaf kids to lose their deaf school.

TVLINE | Noah and Bay have been outsiders at this school. What’s their stake in this fight?
They’re still outsiders. The whole season is a flip on being an outsider… There’s a lot of pushback from the kids about wanting to keep the space fully deaf, and it’s very controversial. Bay and Noah are in there, fighting for this school to stay open, and at the same time, a lot of the kids don’t even want them there. It happens a lot in all kinds of social movements where there’s conflict about who gets to decide. Who gets to be a part of the movement, and who doesn’t?

TVLINE | How will the Daphne/Noah/Bay/Emmett situation develop?
It’s interesting – you find that when there are good looking, smart, funny, cool guys, the same girls are going to be interested in them. [Laughs] This plays out in an unexpected way. We’re going to play out the reality of what would happen in the next 10 [episodes], as well.

TVLINE | There is a glimpse of a Noah/Daphne kiss in the promo. So is Noah going to be torn between the girls? Or is it more them torn over him?
Noah and Bay have a lot in common. They were both outsiders. They were in a very tiny pilot program together. And Daphne, for him, represents his future. He comes in very scared about becoming deaf, thinking it’s going to be a tragedy. When he meets all the kids, but Daphne in particularly, she’s this amazing, happy, young woman. For him, he’s turning more towards her because it makes him relieved about his future. “If this is being what deaf is, I’m OK with it.” So it’s actually a pretty profound shift. It’s not just any show with two girls fighting over one guy. It’s about a connection, particularly from Noah’s point of view, of he actually needs Daphne, unconsciously, more than he needs Bay.

TVLINE | Is an all-ASL episode something you want to do again in Season 2B?
I don’t know. Certainly not in the next 10 [episodes]. The writers and I have said, it’s been such a fun journey, maybe we can do something else like it. We talked about Moonlighting. They did a black-and-white [episode], they did a Shakespeare, they did a noir. That probably kept things fresh for both the viewers and the cast and the writers. We’ve talked about, hey, maybe we’ll do one a season that is special.

TVLINE | But not necessarily all-ASL?
Maybe. No reason why we wouldn’t do it again, but it whet our appetite to have fun and to try different things.