In the early days of movies deaf people
were played by hearing actors. Due to strong activism and lobbying
from the deaf community that has changed. There are more deaf roles
being played by genuinely deaf actors and actresses. Today there are
enough deaf actors that there should be no reason to hire a hearing
one to play a deaf role. A deaf actor by the name of Howie Seago,
played in a movie called “Beyond Silence.” He was interviewed and
asked about his feelings on hearing playing deaf roles, he responded
by saying “It definitely irritates me, wrangles me, and wrangles my
soul and the souls of all deaf people” (Slovick). Today there is
even something called deaf cinema. Which means the movie is made by
and stars deaf people. Some of the themes of these movies pertain to
deaf history, curing deafness, and sign language. The movies are
showed world wide at various deaf film festivals. There are silent
film festivals and they are played all over, even at deaf schools
like California School for the Deaf’s Little Theater (Silent Film
Festival by Elementary Students).
Marlee Matin, a deaf woman who is well known for her
role in “Children of a lesser God” is an Oscar-winning actress. She
now is also cast on a hit reality show, called “Dancing with the
stars”. It is incredible that she can do this to a choreographed
dance and not even be able to hear the beat of the music she dances
to. Another famous deaf woman is Heather Whitestone, who was the
first deaf woman to win a Miss. America pageant for talent, beauty,
and poise. Completely deaf Ludwig Van Beethoven surpassed his
disability by creating and playing music. Beethoven once stated that
one of the hardest things to deal with was turning around to see his
audience applaud and not be able to hear it. Actor, author, and
mime, Bernard Bragg has won best actor twice by Gallaudet
University. He was born deaf, and throughout is life has also been
commended as one of the best nightclub performers in America for
Miming (Theater in the sky).
Deaf people actually naturally make great performers because
the way they communicate is already very expressive. ASL, is a
three-dimensional visual language that uses manual signs, body
language, and facial expressions to convey meaning (Bacon).
In the Foreword of
Hearing People Only, Harlan Lane (1993) speaks to the obstacle
to hearing people’s understanding of Deaf culture. Lane suggests
that hearing people attempt to understand the deaf experience by
imagining themselves unable to hear, and so cannot help but
understand the deaf with “only the concept of handicap to guide
them” (Lane, 1993, p.8). Lane expresses concern for the myriad of
ways in which the hearing world attempts to define and describe the
deaf world portraying these attempts as dangerous and misleading.
Lane advocates for more self-description by Deaf people and states
that there is an increasing trend in the Deaf culture to
self-describe through art, drama, poetry, and literature. Deaf
theatre is one such genre that the Deaf community has embraced to
give expression to their own creativity, and to create a platform to
inform the hearing world of the rich diversity inherent in the Deaf
Deaf theatre credits its
early roots in theatre to productions at deaf schools and colleges
as far back as the 1860s. It was Gallaudet University, however,
under the sole direction of Gil Eastman that ultimately led to the
development of deaf theatre throughout the United States including
New York Deaf Theatre, Deaf West Theatre, and the National Theatre
of the Deaf. Eastman graduated from the American School for the Deaf
in 1952 and began his career at Gallaudet by 1957. He translated Antigone into American Sign Language (ASL), which was
ultimately performed at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. and in
addition, is credited with incorporating an innovative technique in
which readers voiced ASL verbatim for the benefit of non-signing
audiences. For 35 years, under Eastman’s direction, the theatre
department flourished, eventually becoming a complete theatre arts
curriculum designed for Deaf students. Through Eastman’s vision,
other deaf theatre companies formed, all with similar missions to
create a bridge between deaf and hearing worlds, to create
opportunities for deaf actors, directors, and writers, and to
promote pride in the culture and creativity of the Deaf.
Since their inception,
each of the aforementioned theater companies has performed thousands
of performances for deaf and hearing audiences. In 1967, David Hays,
at the Eugene O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center in Waterford,
Connecticut founded the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD). With the
help of federal grants, a professional school was created. Dedicated
to reaching both deaf and hearing audiences, NTD has created over
one hundred national tours to all 50 states, 31 international tours,
and over 10,000 performances. In 1968, The National Theatre for the
Deaf made its Broadway Debut (Baldwin, 1993).
New York Deaf Theatre, LTD (NYDT)
(http://www.nydeaftheatre.org, 2008) was
established in 1979 by a group of Deaf actors and theatre artists
living and working in New York. Wishing to create opportunity for a
dramatic art form not yet established in New York, these artists
founded a nonprofit professional theatre organization, the third
oldest Deaf Theatre company in the United States. As a means of
creating a connection between deaf and hearing worlds, New York Deaf
Theatre also reaches out to major corporation s in the financial
industry and produces interactive workshops.
Deaf West Theatre (DWT) (http://www.deafwest theatre.com,
2008), founded in 1991, was created to “directly improve and enrich
the cultural lives of the 1.2 million deaf and hard-of-hearing
individuals who live in the Los Angeles area”. In an on-going effort
to reach deaf and hearing worlds, DWT leads educational workshops to
deaf and hard of hearing children and presents adaptations of
classics, contemporary, and original works. All DWT productions are
presented in American Sign Language and translated simultaneously in
English in order to make deaf theatre accessible to all. Deaf West
Theatre produced Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on
Broadway in 2003. The play had roles for deaf and hearing actors
together and toured the nation to sold out audiences.
Through deaf theatre,
deaf actors, directors, writers, and other artists are able to share
the culture and the experiences of the Deaf. Deaf Theatre, no
different from hearing theatre, allows for a free range of
expression. Contemporary and original works allow the deaf artist to
communicate creatively and artistically to the deaf community, yet
also opens a window into the experiences of the deaf community for
the hearing world. Opportunities to connect through creative
enterprise often seem the best way to bridge cultural gaps, educate
one another, and create opportunity where there was none before.
Baldwin, S. (1993). Pictures
in the air: The story of the national theatre of the deaf.
University Press. Washington D.C.
Moore, S., and Levitan, L.
(2003). For hearing people only, 3rd edition. MSM
Productions, Ltd. Rochester: New York.
History of Deaf West Theatre.
(2008).Retrieved April 12, 2008 from http://www.deafwest
New York Deaf Theatre. (2008).
Retrieved April 12, 2008 from http://www.nydeaftheatre.org