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National Theatre of the Deaf :
Also see National Theater of the Deaf (1)

Also see National Theater of the Deaf (3)

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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