March 12, 2005
National Theatre of the
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.
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,
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.