Professional creative sign-language performer brings ASL storytelling to SRJC


Luke W. Morrow

Ian Sanborn (left) directs comically detailed ASL techniques for a rooster to four SRJC deaf studies students: Saadi Vega, 35; Dreena Edillor, 20; Marc Gonzalez and Tyler O’Brien, 22 (left to right).

Luke W. Morrow, Staff Writer

Hands spoke louder than words in the Newman Auditorium as a master American Sign Language (ASL) storyteller engaged the audience with poems and advanced signing techniques.

National Theatre of the Deaf graduate, Ian Sanborn broke down the steps to his artistic process through animated features that included facial expressions, body movement and rhythm. He shared his passionate through movement to an active, enthusiastic crowd of 40 Santa Rosa Junior College students, several of them deaf or hard of hearing.

After the event, Sanborn explained the numerous applications of creative storytelling through ASL documentaries, dramas and educational content. He believes that ASL students can learn to expand on traditional language through creative storytelling.

“Storytelling itself is universal,” Sanborn said. “I want [students] to know that ASL can be expressive in different kinds of ways.”

Sanborn has presented at Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood, Calif., and directed several productions for the Little Theatre of The Deaf, which is part of National Theatre of the Deaf located in the West Hartford, Conn. Sanborn expresses his creative spirit online by demonstrating his theatre work and providing educational videos, primarily for children, who are deaf or hard of hearing.

On Monday, Sandborn demonstrated his mastery of theatrical ASL movements and classifiers. His gestures were amplified by his energy and enthusiasm, while also providing ASL words through graceful swaying of his arms.

Some of the stories provided required translation, but when he performed his poem “Leaves” no interpreter was required or necessary. The crowd fixated on his every move, unable to look away. Although there was sign-language subtext to the poem, his performance turned into a one-man play that captivated even the non-ASL attendees.

In “Leaves,” Sanborn told the story of a rabbit, birds and a developing tree. The unspoken narrative of the poem was the blossoming of this tree in spring, then transitioning through the seasons to lose its leaves to gusts of wind in the fall.

Some of Sanborn’s movements were so dramatic the audience was unable to hold back chuckles or full-on laughter. Sanborn’s control of the mood throughout the auditorium was clear.

“It was inspiring,” said ASL club president Marc Gonzalez-Martin. He said that Sanborn used ASL descriptions, known as classifiers, in a way that he had not been previously exposed to in class.

“I always saw classifiers as these really rigid things that you could use to tell stories, but now I see they’re more flexible,” Gonzalez-Martin said about what he learned from Sanborn.

Deaf studies major and ASL tutor Tyler O’Brien, 22, who was also one of four volunteers in Sanborn’s activity, commented about his experience at the event.

“I’ve watched a lot of Ian Sanborn’s stuff online — he posts a lot of stuff on his YouTube channel,” O’Brien said. “It was just amazing to see [him] in person and to participate in [his presentation].”

SRJC ASL student Cecilia Lopez, 20, was amazed by Sanborn’s performance and felt she learned a few things as well. She appreciated the uniqueness of the ASL-style poetry and said it resonated more with her than conventional poetry.

“I never really liked poetry — never really understood it — but with [ASL poetry] it’s more like storytelling and something I can actually enjoy,” Lopez said.

When asked what he likes most about his craft, Sanborn said it “keeps me young” and “has an impact on the audience.” He truly enjoys entertaining people while providing useful tools for ASL students.

“All of that training that I have now becomes beneficial to sign language, to the community and to students,” Sanborn said.

Sanborn explained how good it feels for him to express his passion with others. He described his inspiration to create and perform as a deep emotion that originates from within.

“I’m sharing from my heart, and what my heart has learned to create — what I showed today”

Sanborn has reached a notable audience through deaf community websites, and he continues to provide creative and educational videos to help deaf children and ASL students. His videos can be accessed on his YouTube channel here, or can be found by searching Ian Sanborn.