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Deaf Culture:  Deaf Theater

Also see: Deaf Theater: Theatrical Roles and the Deaf

Montana Hodges
3/10/2005

Deaf Theater in the United States

     Deaf theater has been around in grassroots and small-scale forms since the early 1900s, mostly with performances based out of deaf schools and cultural centers. Gallaudet University, a leading school for the deaf, has drama clubs that date back to the 1930s and in 1961 the school began teaching theater (Baldwin, Stephen 1993). Even then, deaf theater was something that was part of deaf culture and very rarely part of hearing entertainment. This all began to change in 1959 when Anne Bancroft, a young actress, studies for her role in the play, “The Miracle Worker.”

     Bancroft was cast to play Helen Keller’s teacher Annie Sullivan in the play so she decides to study deaf culture and learn sign language in New York City. Over a six month period, she becomes involved with the deaf community and attends Gallaudet University’s drama club’s performance of Othello. She is inspired by the play and gets several of the staff working on “The Miracle Worker” to attend deaf theater. One of the people introduced to deaf theater by Bancroft is David Hays, a Broadway set designer. Hays was inspired by the physical forms of expression and became involved in many productions. At this time, the United States is undergoing changes with the civil rights movements, and the first play from African American theater (“A Raisin in the Sun”) hits Broadway (Baldwin, Stephen 1993).  Eight years later, in 1967, David Hays, who is hearing, founds the National Theater of the Deaf (NTD) and introduces deaf theater as part of mainstream American society (ntd.org).

     NTD began with a collaboration of help from hearing and deaf community leaders, along with federal grants from the U.S. Department of Health. The theater has continually grown since 1967 and has done more than establish the deaf community as a major role in the theatrical arts, however. NTD has broken barriers and introduced deaf culture, creativity and ability into hearing societies with public interest as well as demand. Since their humble beginnings, the public has embraced deaf theater and shows by NTD have been
to Broadway and beyond. NTD troupes have toured in all 50 states, often to sold-out audiences (Margo, Meisel. 1996). Today they work with over 40 theaters around the world they have helped found and have been on over 50 national tours and played in over 7,000 performances (ntd.org). Including both hearing and deaf theater, NTD is the longest continually-producing touring theater company in the United States (ntd.org).

     Deaf theater has earned its own prominence in its short run. Both deaf and hearing actors fiercely compete at a chance to become even a student at the most elite training branch- NTD, which runs a summer program sponsored by the Department of Education. Competition is fierce, however, and within the over two hundred applications received, only twenty lucky applicants make the cut (Baldwin 1993). Of course, what more could be expected from wanting to train with troupe coaches that have led their acts from a back
alley to Broadway. In 38 years, deaf theater has become a part of American history.

References:

Baldwin, Stephen C. 1993. Pictures in the Air: The Story of the National
Theater of the Deaf. Washington, D.C.. Gallaudet University Press. 142 p.

No Specified Author. (2004). About NTD: History/Timeline. National Theater
of the Deaf.  Retrieved 25 March 2005.
<http://www.ntd.org/about_history.htm>.

Margo, Meisel. 1996. Theater for the Deaf: Glass Menagerie. Boston, MA.
Fanlight Productions. (Video documentary about actors of NTD)


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