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Theater and the Deaf


By Maggie Leppert

8/8/2013

 

Theater and the Deaf

Since its beginning, Deaf theatre has been a powerful force in shaping the public’s understanding of Deaf culture, establishing ASL, and providing opportunities for Deaf performers. The first formal theatre production was performed at Gallaudet University in 1884. Gallaudet university began offering formal drama classes in 1940 (Lane 145). Since then, Deaf theatre has grown in popularity, with performances across the world. Deaf performing artists have won Tony’s, Emmy’s and Oscar’s (Lane 144). Deaf theatre continues to flourish as a well-recognized art form

Although the general purpose of Deaf theatre is to present theatrical performances with Deaf themes to Deaf audiences, the goals of Deaf theatre companies have expanded as Deaf theatre grows (Lane 151). Deaf theatre provides opportunities for Deaf playwrights and actors to express themselves through art and provides theater workshops for deaf children and adults. Along with allowing ASL speakers greater access to theatre and cultural events, Deaf theatre has expanded to reach hearing audiences as well. Many theatre companies have worked to raise awareness of the Deaf World, educating hearing audiences of signed language and Deaf culture (Lane 149). Deaf theatre has grown to influence society and have a great impact on those involved, becoming much more than simple entertainment.

Deaf productions attract hearing audiences because of the beauty of sign language and the fascinating movement that only Deaf productions present. However, hearing audience members often leave the show with a greater understanding of the Deaf experience in areas other than the language. (Lane 144) The Deaf theatre production Children of a Lesser God had an extremely powerful impact on society when it was turned into a popular movie, spreading awareness of the Deaf World to a wide audience. Similarly, the film Love is Never Silent spread awareness of Deaf oppression (Lane 145).

Deaf World theatre, one of the main types of Deaf theatre, uses sign language to tell stories with themes focused around Deaf culture. This type of theatre both captivates hearing audiences with the movement and provides them insight to a culture of which most hearing people are unaware. Additionally, many theatres incorporate spoken language to serve to the hearing audiences their productions attract. For example, hearing actors speaking backstage are broadcast via receiver headsets to those who want it at the Deaf West theatre company (Lane 147).

            One theatre company that was particularly crucial to this movement was the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD). Founded in 1967, NTD aims to use Deaf actors to bring theatre to both Deaf and hearing audiences. The NTD has put on over 6,000 productions and is responsible for starting similar programs in other countries, including the International Visual Theatre (IVT). The NTD also created the first television program featuring Deaf performers to be nationally broadcasted in 1967, which was protested by the Alexander Graham Bell Association for promoting ASL (Lane 148). The NTD continued to work for the acceptance of ASL as a language through its performances, despite resistance from those opposing the language.

Deaf theatre companies face other challenges in addition to resistance against ASL. Deaf theatre productions are costly, requiring small theatres because of the importance of visual presentation (Lane 149). Deaf playwrights also deal with the challenges of ASL and its many dialects, in addition to signed English and other signing systems. Furthermore, there is no universal written form of ASL, making it difficult for playwrights to physically write scripts and near impossible for hearing readers to understand them. (Bragg 147).

While Deaf playwrights face unique challenges, Deaf actors benefit from unique advantages.  Deaf people are adept at reading human relationships and emotions based on facial expressions and body language because of the incorporation of these elements in ASL (Bragg 52). As observed by scientists Gremion and McClelland, “Deaf children can do more precise imitations of people they meet briefly than most trained mimes” (Bragg 51). Deaf Actors also have a great special awareness, a very important quality to have in the performing arts.

Along with acting, Deaf performers have found ways to perform musical numbers through rhythmic, repetitive signing. In these songs, performers sign in unison for each beat. The usual rhythm for these songs is a “one, two, one-two-three” rhythm. Although these songs have declined in popularity, the Gallaudet College fight song, which uses this rhythm, is still widely recited (Padden 78).

            Deaf theatre is a unique art form that continues to achieve great successes, despite the many challenges that the industry faces. Certainly, Deaf artists will continue to be successful in the future and this art form can become very prevalent in both hearing and Deaf cultures.


 

 

Works Cited

Bragg, Lois. Deaf World: A Historical Reader and Primary Sourcebook. New York: New York UP, 2001. Print.

Lane, Harlan, Robert Hoffmeister, and Benjamin J. Bahan. A Journey into the Deaf-world. San Diego, CA: Dawn Sign Press, 1996. Print.

Padden, Carol, and Tom Humphries. Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture. Cambridge (Massachusetts): Harvard UP, 1988. Print.


 


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