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Deaf Theater:

Also see: Deaf Theater in the United States

Savannah McCall

Theatrical Roles and the Deaf

     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).


Bacon, Paul. Talking Hands. Sound and Fury. 2000.

Silent Film Festival by Elementary Students. Deaf Today. May 25, 2007.

Slovick, Matt. Out of Deafness.Washington June 9th 1998.

Theatre in the Sky. National Association Of The Deaf. 2002.

Chelsea Wielstein

 Deaf Theatre


     In the Foreword of For 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 community.

      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) (, 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, 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.

            Gaulledet 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


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