Theater and the Deaf
Since its beginning, Deaf theatre has been a
powerful force in shaping the public’s understanding of Deaf
culture, establishing ASL, and providing opportunities for Deaf
performers. The first formal theatre production was performed at
Gallaudet University in 1884. Gallaudet university began offering
formal drama classes in 1940 (Lane 145). Since then, Deaf theatre
has grown in popularity, with performances across the world. Deaf
performing artists have won Tony’s, Emmy’s and Oscar’s (Lane 144).
Deaf theatre continues to flourish as a well-recognized art form
Although the general purpose of Deaf theatre is
to present theatrical performances with Deaf themes to Deaf
audiences, the goals of Deaf theatre companies have expanded as Deaf
theatre grows (Lane 151). Deaf theatre provides opportunities for
Deaf playwrights and actors to express themselves through art and
provides theater workshops for deaf children and adults. Along with
allowing ASL speakers greater access to theatre and cultural events,
Deaf theatre has expanded to reach hearing audiences as well. Many
theatre companies have worked to raise awareness of the Deaf World,
educating hearing audiences of signed language and Deaf culture
(Lane 149). Deaf theatre has grown to influence society and have a
great impact on those involved, becoming much more than simple
Deaf productions attract hearing audiences
because of the beauty of sign language and the fascinating movement
that only Deaf productions present. However, hearing audience
members often leave the show with a greater understanding of the
Deaf experience in areas other than the language. (Lane 144) The
Deaf theatre production Children of a Lesser God had an
extremely powerful impact on society when it was turned into a
popular movie, spreading awareness of the Deaf World to a wide
audience. Similarly, the film Love is Never Silent spread
awareness of Deaf oppression (Lane 145).
Deaf World theatre, one of the main types of Deaf
theatre, uses sign language to tell stories with themes focused
around Deaf culture. This type of theatre both captivates hearing
audiences with the movement and provides them insight to a culture
of which most hearing people are unaware. Additionally, many
theatres incorporate spoken language to serve to the hearing
audiences their productions attract. For example, hearing actors
speaking backstage are broadcast via receiver headsets to those who
want it at the Deaf West theatre company (Lane 147).
One theatre company that was
particularly crucial to this movement was the National Theatre of
the Deaf (NTD). Founded in 1967, NTD aims to use Deaf actors to
bring theatre to both Deaf and hearing audiences. The NTD has put on
over 6,000 productions and is responsible for starting similar
programs in other countries, including the International Visual
Theatre (IVT). The NTD also created the first television program
featuring Deaf performers to be nationally broadcasted in 1967,
which was protested by the Alexander Graham Bell Association for
promoting ASL (Lane 148). The NTD continued to work for the
acceptance of ASL as a language through its performances, despite
resistance from those opposing the language.
Deaf theatre companies face other challenges in
addition to resistance against ASL. Deaf theatre productions are
costly, requiring small theatres because of the importance of visual
presentation (Lane 149). Deaf playwrights also deal with the
challenges of ASL and its many dialects, in addition to signed
English and other signing systems. Furthermore, there is no
universal written form of ASL, making it difficult for playwrights
to physically write scripts and near impossible for hearing readers
to understand them. (Bragg 147).
While Deaf playwrights face unique challenges,
Deaf actors benefit from unique advantages. Deaf people are adept
at reading human relationships and emotions based on facial
expressions and body language because of the incorporation of these
elements in ASL (Bragg 52). As observed by scientists Gremion and
McClelland, “Deaf children can do more precise imitations of people
they meet briefly than most trained mimes” (Bragg 51). Deaf Actors
also have a great special awareness, a very important quality to
have in the performing arts.
Along with acting, Deaf performers have found
ways to perform musical numbers through rhythmic, repetitive
signing. In these songs, performers sign in unison for each beat.
The usual rhythm for these songs is a “one, two, one-two-three”
rhythm. Although these songs have declined in popularity, the
Gallaudet College fight song, which uses this rhythm, is still
widely recited (Padden 78).
Deaf theatre is a unique art form
that continues to achieve great successes, despite the many
challenges that the industry faces. Certainly, Deaf artists will
continue to be successful in the future and this art form can become
very prevalent in both hearing and Deaf cultures.
Bragg, Lois. Deaf World: A Historical Reader
and Primary Sourcebook. New York: New York UP, 2001. Print.
Lane, Harlan, Robert Hoffmeister, and Benjamin J.
Bahan. A Journey into the Deaf-world. San Diego, CA: Dawn
Sign Press, 1996. Print.
and Tom Humphries. Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture.
Cambridge (Massachusetts): Harvard UP, 1988. Print.
You can learn American Sign Language
(ASL) online at American Sign Language University ™
by Lifeprint.com © Dr. William Vicars