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National Theatre of the Deaf :
Also see National Theater of the Deaf (2)

Also see National Theater of the Deaf (3)

Judith Rice

National Theatre of the Deaf

Theatre by definition is that branch of the performing arts concerned with acting out stories in front of an audience using combination of speech, gesture, music, dance, sound and spectacle -- indeed any one or more elements of the other performing arts ( The National Theatre of the Deaf, " better known by its abbreviation NTD" (Baldwin, 1993) exemplifies this definition and defines a worthy competitor in the use of elements.

Accomplished Broadway set designer David Hays founded the NTD in 1967. Hays took charge as the artistic director and utilized the Eugene O'Neill Memorial Theatre in Waterford Connecticut (Baldwin, 1993). The NTD was established to provide an arena for deaf actors to become professionals and share their art with all audiences. Both deaf and voice actors create productions utilizing American Sign Language and the spoken word. The original works performed by the NTD were translations of the classics, such as Woyzeck, Gilgamesh, The Three Musketeers and Volpone. In 1971 that changed with the production of My Third Eye, an original company piece (Humphries & Padden, 1988).

In the ensuing years the NTD has performed in all fifty states, seven continents, produced over one hundred national tours, thirty-one international tours and reached the milestone of ten thousand performances as a touring company (NTD, 2006). A lofty resume by all standards.

In the early days it was those gifted with a vision, David Hays, Dr. Edna S. Levine, Mary Switzer and her Vocational Rehabilitation Administration colleagues acquiring grants authorized by VRA that gave life to NTD (Baldwin, 1993). The past thirty-nine years has produced great strides for the NTD and those dedicated to supporting the deaf in sharing their artistry.  The magnitude of the financial support that has developed distinguishes the NTD in the American theatre (Neisser, 1983).

In 2006 The National Theatre of the Deaf is able to recognize support from such sponsors as The Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, The Friars Foundation, Metlife Foundation, Connecticut Commission on Culture and Tourism, Department of Education, VSA Arts and the American School for the Deaf. The support of these sponsors enables the NTD to fulfill their mission of "providing theatrical works to as culturally diverse and inclusive audience as possible and providing community outreach activities that will educate and enlighten the general public" (NTD, 2006).
Since it's initial presentation at the O'Neill Center in 1967 accolades for the NTD have been numerous, including the 1977 Tony award for theatrical excellence. While researching the NTD a most moving reading was a review by Taras B. Denis, a columnist for Deaf America. The mere beauty of the words compels one to read on. "All told, the new theatre- the showboat of the nation's deaf -- has been launched. Commissioned, but yet unchristened, she floats in port: Proud, the promise of potential in her planks, confident that her captain will come up with a crew capable of challenging the often rough seas of the entertainment world. How will she sail? What storms will she weather? What ports will she visit? What cargo will she unload? Above all, what new dramatic adventures will she be able to add in the log of her sister ships already on these seas? Not just time, but tide, too, will tell" (Baldwin, 1993).

Time and tide have told the story, one that inspires as the journey continues.

[Article submitted: April 5, 2006] 



Baldwin, S. (1993).
Pictures in the Air: The Story of the National Theatre of the Deaf. Washington, DC: Galludet University Press.

Neisser, A. (1983). The Other Side of Silence: Sign Language and the Deaf Community in America.  Washington, DC: Galludet University Press.

Humphries, T. & Padden, C. (1988).
Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture..
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

National Theatre of the Deaf. Atlas Hosting. Retrieved 1 Apr. 2006: <>

Wikipedia. Definition: Theatre. Atlas Hosting. Retrieved 27 Mar. 2006:

Katie Healey

March 12, 2005


National Theatre of the Deaf    


Actress Elizabeth Bracco once said, "Acting is creating with your body and soul." Music, visual and performing arts, a simple touch--all of these communications are all capable of conveying deep messages without the use of spoken word. Sign language is the unique language which uses body gestures and facial expressions to communicate with others. These characteristics are also essential in successful stage performances, as acting relies heavily on movement and facial expression.  The majority of dramatic productions do indeed rely on human speech to reach the audience; however, the instrument of the human body and its innate communication capacity is what captivates and truly convinces the audience. Today, many theatrical productions offer American Sign Language interpretation during certain designated performances. However, deaf theatre is making great strides in establishing its own unique identity in the world of performing arts.

                        The National Theatre of the Deaf was established in 1967 to dissuade the myth that deaf people cannot appreciate the arts, and to "educate and enlighten" society about deaf culture (NTD, 2005). Funded by the federal government, the National Theatre of the Deaf allowed local deaf actors to become professional performers. For the first six years of its existence, NTD performed signed translations of classic written works, such as Lorca's The Love of Don Perlimplin and Belissa in the Garden (NTD, 2005). Productions were simultaneously signed and spoken (Peters, 2000).  In 1971, NTD attempted a new idea--to provide their "hearing" audience with an introduction to and exploration of their language, American Sign Language, in the production of My Third Eye. Instantly, sign language transformed from merely a translation to a theatrical theme (Padden & Humphries, 1988).

This theme was later expanded in the 1973 debut of Sign Me Alice by Gil Eastman. Eastman, the drama club president at Gallaudet University, joined the acting troupe with NTD and began writing plays (Neisser, 1983). His famous work Sign Me Alice involves a young deaf lady dealing with the cultural expectations of deaf society. Her arrogant professor endeavors to "fix" her by turning her from ASL use to signed English. He asks exasperatedly, "Why can't the deaf teach their children to sign correctly?" She resists, and the professor ultimately realizes the true beauty of ASL (Neisser, 1983). Sign Me Alice is a spoof on George Bernard Shaw's musical My Fair Lady and its famous line, "Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?"

            The National Theatre of the Deaf enjoys great success. NTD has performed in every state in the U.S. and all seven continents, and won a Tony Award in 1977 for Theatrical Excellence (Neisser, 1983). It has turned out exceptional performers from its programs, including Linda Bove of Sesame Street and Phyllis Frelich of Children of a Lesser God (NTD, 2005). The occasional criticisms NTD meet by deaf persons involve the "transliterations" of English and altering of true ASL (Neisser, 1983). Indeed, signs are larger and exaggerated for dramatic and visual purposes, which can be challenging to recognize at first. But just as Shakespeare's embellished writing gets easier to understand after time, NTD states that people can get used to modified theatre sign (Neisser, 1983).  

The National Theatre of the Deaf has greatly advanced the visual/performing arts aspect of deaf society. It has also informed and shared with hearing audiences, providing a creative way to unite two diverse cultures. NTD's cultural and educational influences benefit all of society, as well as provide great entertainment and fun for all who attend. The beauty, flexibility, and power of communication are demonstrated by the unique productions of the National Theatre of the Deaf.



National Theatre of the Deaf. National Theatre of the Deaf - Theaters - Signing, deaf culture, Actors. Atlas Hosting. Retrieved 10, Mar. 2005: <>.

Neisser, A. (1983). The Other Side of Silence: Sign Language and the Deaf Community in America. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.


Padden, C., & Humphries T. (1988). Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.


Peters, C. (2000). Deaf American Literature: From Carnival to Canon. Washington, DC: Gallaudet University Press.


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