Nic Zapko is feeling the love.
With her close-cropped hair and charismatic presence, the ASL interpreter is drawing huzzahs for her strength and expressive interpreting of Gov. Tim Walz’s news conferences during the COVID-19 and George Floyd emergencies. Buzzy profiles have appeared in City Pages, the Daily Mail and on WCCO-TV. Ordinary people have taken screenshots of Zapko at work and posted them on social media.
But as she brings visibility, hope and inclusive messaging to the deaf community, she’s not just internet-famous. People who recognize her in the real world sometimes reach to touch or hug her, both no-nos in this era of social distancing.
Zapko, 49, is bashful about all the fuss.
“I’m just a person — a mother, a sister and a friend,” Zapko said during an interview in St. Paul. “I’ve been a mentor, trainer, actor, interpreter. People around me got my back and support me as I move forward. It’s definitely not a one-woman show.”
The greater world may be getting to know her now, but her gifts are well known in the Twin Cities performing arts scene.
“She’s extraordinarily smart and a great communicator with a very powerful presence,” said director Zaraawar Mistry. “But beyond her compelling gifts as a performer, she’s also committed and incredibly hardworking. When you combine those traits with being loving and kind, you get a very special person.”
Her career has been shaped by current events before. Zapko was about to open in “The Transposed Heads,” Ragamala Dance Company’s trilingual English, dance and ASL adaptation of Thomas Mann’s Indian folklore story, just as the Sept. 11 attacks hit in 2001. The terror strikes wiped away the show’s audience, but the company brought the show back a few years later under the same team, including Mistry.
Mistry would later stage and help write Zapko’s solo autobiographical work, “A Look in the Mirror,” first produced at Dreamland Arts in St. Paul in 2009 before going on a national tour.
“Mirror” told of some of the challenges she faced in her youth. Born in Pittston, Pa., near where NBC’s “The Office” is set, she grew up craving clear communication, stability and a sense of belonging in 1970s America.
“ASL wasn’t recognized as a language back then,” Zapko said through interpreter and friend Patty McCutcheon, the CEO and co-owner of Keystone Solutions, with whom Zapko works. “There really was this mix of speaking and signing at the time called Total Communication.
“But what really impacted me was my mother. She emphasized that I could do what I want, be my own person. She said, ‘Go forward and don’t let people tell you what you can’t do,’ and that you’re not able. That stuck with me.”
Zapko’s mother died suddenly when she was 13, throwing her life into turmoil.
“I ended up moving around from [her] sister to sister, and that’s how I ended up moving to Ohio with my deaf brother,” Zapko said. “My mom’s death was horrible, and from then on, I basically raised myself.”
A period of poverty and privation followed, worsened by how society treated the deaf.
“In the ’70s, there wasn’t a lot of access for a deaf person like myself,” Zapko said. “I had to show that I was bigger than that, and when people thought I couldn’t do something, I had to show them that I could.
“The things that inspire me come from those tragedies — they’re one in the same.”
Zapko moved to the Twin Cities in the 1990s, attended St. Paul College and found her footing in theater. It was an arena where she got to learn about the wider world, even as it opened doors for her. The tools of the field included “just being able to observe people, absorb their energy and thoughts, then give that back — that’s a gift,” Zapko said.
That gift is what people see on-screen as she interprets.
Harder than it looks
People who do something well often make it look easy. Think Simone Biles on the balance beam, Michael Jordan above a basketball rim or Meryl Streep before a camera.
Zapko is no exception, even as she’s quick to point out that it gets hectic and she’s the face of a team effort.
“I’m sweating up there,” Zapko said. “I have a whole crew that helps lift me and gives me ground.”
That team includes McCutcheon, who sits in front of the podium and interprets in real time as Walz, Attorney General Keith Ellison and other officials talk.
“I’m a real-time relay station,” McCutcheon said. “My job is to manage the speed that the information is being delivered to me and then back to Nic and still be able to get to the point and get the message clear and concise.”
The team does a lot of homework so that they can be clear and competent in the moment.
“We ask, what’s the message, the mood and what is the goal of the message, is it to move people, to calm people, to reassure and build trust,” McCutcheon said. “Oftentimes, press conferences are very secretive until the end. We sometimes get no heads-up. We remain calm and true to the person we’re interpreting for.”
“In English, we have exclamation points to make emphasis, and commas to show intonation,” Zapko added. “The interpreter delivers that information to me, and I then put my ASL equivalent message on my face to show tone to match his intent, his tenor. Is it a serious tone versus a little bit of humor versus getting your attention? There’s a huge range of emotion so that the audience sees what kind of person Gov. Walz is.”
For hearing people, gesture follows sound, the primary communication mode. But ASL is three-dimensional, with its own syntax. When Zapko is signing, she’s almost like a dancer, so fluid with her expression.
“English has its own rules of grammar and is more linear as a language,” Zapko said. “ASL is very dynamic. Its structure — noun, verb, subject order — is completely different. It’s more visual, and that’s why you have to show the language.”
The hearing world presents a bewildering barrier to a person who is deaf, including a fear by people who don’t speak ASL. The deaf can’t hear the cacophony of the world. And don’t get her started on a place like the airport, where everything is oriented for the hearing.
“Information, whether you’re hearing or seeing it, is something we lack in general,” Zapko said. “At the airport, there’s announcements all the time that people are listening to and following. They’re getting news. I see people’s heads move, look up, receive information that I’m not receiving, and I have to figure out what it is. It adds an extra burden.”
Sometimes, getting that information can mean the difference between life and death.
“In other states, if there’s a hurricane or a fire, the last people to know are always deaf people,” Zapko said. “Access to information is far from equal for us.”
She is glad to be able to transmit vital information to Minnesotans. “People are so grateful this is happening so they can get it in real time instead of getting arrested and finding out, oh, I violated curfew,” Zapko said. “These are major things for us.”
While this is the biggest stage for her work thus far, Zapko got another brush with buzzy renown when Minnesota achieved marriage equality. On Aug. 1, 2013, the first day that same-sex couples could wed, Zapko tied the knot with partner Lisa Zapko. Minneapolis’ then-Mayor R.T. Rybak presided.
Her experience coming through trauma colors her worldview, Zapko said, and gives her hope for a nation confronting COVID-19 and this latest social eruption against systemic racism and police brutality.
“As heart-wrenching and sad as things are, you get clarity,” Zapko said. “That’s what keeps me rolling.”