Barriers, Needs, and Next Steps: A Convening on the State of Deaf Theatre-Making

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[article originally published at HowlRound April 6, 2016.]

image 1 [DJ Kurs standing far left attendees and interpreters]
DJ Kurs standing at far left, interpreters ring the room, attendees seated. Image by Martha Wade Steketee

Several dozen artists, administrators, academics, funders, and advocates assembled on the afternoon of January 20, 2016 in the BareBones Studio of the Lark Play Development Center, invited by the National Endowment for the Arts, to discuss barriers, needs, and opportunities for American deaf theatre makers. A number of core questions framed the day. Who benefits from the art? Is it truly our art? Where is the “deaf center”? Where is the sustainability and continuity of deaf arts?

Past national conversations hosted by the NEA have addressed opportunities for deaf theatre artists, including National Forum on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities in 1998, and National Summit on Careers in the Arts for People with Disabilities in 2009. National conversations about deaf involvement in mainstream theatre have been inspired by New York transfers of Deaf West productions in 2003 (Big River at the not-for-profit Roundabout) and in 2015 (Spring Awakening in a commercial run at the Brooks Atkinson).

The Lark studio space was animated by the visual and aural dance of conversations signed by participants as well as by expert interpreters from Sign Language Resources, Inc. who lined the room and walked among the attendees. The room was filled to capacity with the physical embodiment of language. This essay provides some of the many themes addressed during the inspiring afternoon.

A report on the convening is in development.

Definitions and Advocacy: Deaf Theatre and #DeafTalent and #POCDeafTalent
Tyrone Giordano of dog & pony dc provided historical context for deaf theatre, including references to Plato, an 18th century poem referencing deaf audience members, the founding of Gallaudet University’s drama department in 1957, and the founding of National Theater of the Deaf in 1967. Formative definitional categories were introduced to inform conversations throughout the day. “Deaf theatre,” attendees agreed, addresses deaf issues and is directly aimed for deaf audiences. “Sign language theatre” could include deaf issues directed toward deaf and hearing audiences. Giordano noted that historically, “deaf in theatre” indicated a play that has been written in English, translated into sign, “putting deaf faces on it.” These “translated works” can involve deaf and hearing actors playing deaf characters. The rapturously-reviewed 2015 Broadway Spring Awakening, noted Giordano, was a more nuanced version of “translation” in which some characters were played in pairs of deaf signing and hearing speaking actors. “They brought in deaf and hearing people for a specific reason and there is dramatic tension between these characters. It’s not just a deaf face layered on a character, but a specific ideological choice.”

The hashtag #DeafTalent, in use since a 2015 casting event in a long history of placing a hearing performer in a deaf role, inspired deaf theatre artists to organize, point out the cultural disconnect, and assemble a resource list of deaf talent available for work in film, TV, and theatre. The hashtag is both celebratory and an admonishment, and has been expanded as #POCDeafTalent to consider deaf talent of color.

Barriers and Needs in the Field
Interpretation for deaf designers, actors, playwrights, directors, and audiences was discussed throughout the day from multiple points of view: barrier, challenge, and opportunity. A young designer in the field described challenges as a deaf lighting designer, working more hours than the actors and needing interpreters whose pay comes out of her stipend. The idea of an interpretation “resource bank” emerged, and the essential notion that interpreting for theatre is a distinct specialty requiring specific training, underscored by Harvey Corson, member of the Board of the National Theatre of the Deaf where the professional school includes training for interpreters for theatre.

Language and cultural barriers add dimensions to the need for interpreters, and deaf artists are weary of carrying the entire burden. “Deaf theatre and hearing theatre function differently,” described actor and playwright Garrett Zuercher. Companies need ways of educating themselves in what deaf actors actually do. “We become the teachers, explaining all the things that we need. For example, if we’re still on book, we can’t necessarily hold the book in our hands while we position them to sign.”

Deaf artists need to be in the design planning and the rehearsal rooms from the beginning, actress Alexandria Wailes reflected. “What is important is to bring the deaf artist in the room at the point of originating the project, as part of the creative process. Invite us into the process at the beginning stages.”

Deaf artists of color can feel isolated from the process at every stage. Diversity needs to be considered, reflected Fred Beam of Invisible Hands, “for any role, in every audition, and not just a role that’s designated for a person of color.”  Michelle Banks noted that audience members need “to have connection and identify with the people on the stage. For black people, if they’re looking at a sea of white faces on the stage, it’s a lot harder to relate. So we need to really think: how are we going to include more deaf actors of color.”

Clubs and informal meeting places serve more than social needs. Deaf artists need to gather to thrive, be trained, be allowed to play and explore instead of work on production logistics. The freedom to experiment and fail, and develop work in trusting companies including actors and directors and dramaturgs is part of the dog & pony company aesthetic, reflected Ty Giordano. “We have people in a room together, and eventually at some point we create a play. It’s not just about it being play-centered; it could be the end result not the beginning. The beginning could be a collaboration.”

The group called for the documentation of lessons learned in supporting and marketing shows developed by deaf artists for deaf and hearing communities. National and regional productions of Big River, Spring Awakening, and Tribes need to be written and shared, reflected Julia Levy, who was at the front lines at Roundabout during the 2003 Big River engagement. Commercial producers for Spring Awakening in 2015 confronted the same challenge: to articulate the meaning of a deaf musical. “What can we do now that it’s fresh in our minds to understand the specific efforts of marketing these shows, so that the next time there is a show, we understand how to attract the same audiences?”

Conditions for Growth and Audience Development Ideas
The conversation on how to grow deaf theatre moved fluidly among the themes of need, reactions, issues, and solutions. What is the right environment for growth, what seeds do we plant, what does our “garden” look like?

The group noted early in the day that “deaf theatre” is driven by deaf people and might be written by deaf people, while all agreed on the need for more theatre created by deaf artists and directed by deaf individuals. The conversation moved to ways that deaf artists could collaborate with hearing artists. How could Playwrights Horizons and the Lark Play Development Center, with representatives in the room, support deaf artists? How can deaf authors collaborate directly with one another? How could two languages and cultures be merged in a single production? Additional areas for growth discussed included access (eg, captioning, enforcing the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act), and specific existing funding possibilities with foundations and state and federal agencies.

Playwright Garrett Zuercher asked for regular convenings. “We need a core group of deaf theatre people who once or twice a month, or once every three months, get together and create a new work, look at it, talk about it, and move on and do something else. It’s how we can learn and grow and develop our skills together.” Alexandria Wailes spoke of the need to protect and incorporate ASL, using it to give opportunities. “If you look at a script and you have to think about translating it into ASL, we need creative license, but at the same time, we need to protect the authenticity of American Sign Language.”

Bill O’Brien, NEA Senior Advisor, reflected on the risks of single source funding dependence. “One of the biggest problems for deaf theatre right now is that it was so dependent on one source of funding and then it just went away.” A change in mindset from ask to opportunity is important when approaching funders, he argued. Make them think you’re providing them an opportunity to succeed with their existing commitments and carrying out their mission rather than seeing yourself as asking for something from them. Participants identified funding streams that could be explored by deaf theatre groups, eg, NEA interpreter funding for particular projects and convenings, and National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) funds to preserve endangered languages that could apply to ASL preservation.

John Eisner of the Lark noted that sustainability doesn’t happen with a particular play, but through long-term solutions, building collaborations where organizations can use the resources of larger groups. For example, The New Black Fest has found an organizational home at the Lark. “We’ve had a set of serious complicated conversations over the last couple of years about what it means for that voice and that culture to have its own leadership in the resources we can provide.”

Playwright Tsehaye Geralyn Hébert noted that a play’s creation takes the long view and upfront community. “There is nothing that substitutes for being able to sit at a table with actors, with dramaturgs, with a director and interpreters. When you’re sitting there with them in the development process, you are literally crafting a double script. The product is so much richer with interpreter voices at every step of the development process.”

Apothetae, a company dedicated to exploring and illuminating the disabled experience, has a playwriting fellowship to support a disabled writer in creating a new work over several years. Playwright and actor Gregg Mozgala asked, “Where are the disabled writers? We need to find them, we need to develop them, we need to support them.” Mozgala reported that Apothetae is in conversation with the Lark to develop fellowships and convenings. “We want to create a writer’s group where the great writers that we have found will be supported, will be given the infrastructure and the space at the Lark to develop their work, to learn how to become writers.”

Building audiences is an ongoing and not symbolic effort, reflected JW Guido of New York Deaf Theatre. Theatres need deaf people involved in developing sales strategies and to give the community a reason to come and support a theatre and its productions. “It’s mutual recognition and relationship. It’s not just enough to advertise to say you should come to us. There has to be a reason.”

Next Steps and Action Items
How can we achieve what we’ve identified and want? What can we immediately do? What are our action items that are going to be the result of this dialogue? Themes of collaboration, accountability, leadership building, documentation of lessons learned, and building connection ruled the day.

John Eisner suggested convening representatives from graduate actor and theatre programs to develop a national leadership training strategy. “What does it take to get ten leaders of those programs together to figure out how they can be funded in big universities to actively engage in this community, this conversation, early enough in their training that they will continue the work in their professional lives?”

Beth Prevor of Hands On interpretation was exhausted yet committed. “We all recognize that it’s our place within the deaf community to give back to the community.” She was concerned with the question of how to expand the pool and train people beyond the small number of highly skilled interpreters who now work with the productions that want to hire deaf performers “If every theatre in New York, if every nonprofit theatre company, kicked in 100 bucks or 1,000 bucks into a pot, that would enable theatres to hire a deaf performer, to hire interpreters, and we in the interpreting field could do training because we know what we’re talking about. So we work with the theatres and the deaf performers and interpreters and we try to increase the pool.” Christine Bruno of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts added to the sense of urgency. “We get the question of interpreters every day all day: I can’t afford interpreters; will they be willing to work for free? Will they be willing to work for less?”

Case studies and documentation of ideas for lessons in past productions were discussed. La Jolla’s Shirley Fishman described how they enhanced programming, providing ASL training to staff, and utilized dedicated interpreters used during their Tribes production. Studio Theatre DC relied on prior productions for advice and Gallaudet resources to assist with their Tribesengagement recalled Lorna Mulavey, now of Mosaic Theater Company in DC. “It was really a group effort and it took many dedicated generous people looking at that production, a generosity of spirit for hearing theatres.”

The day concluded with a wide range of possible action ideas for investing in careers and building community from many participants including Spring Awakening producer Ken Davenport and artistic director Jack Reuler of Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis:

  1. Join the Dramatists Guild to bridge the hearing and deaf playwriting worlds.
  2. Hold a contest for the best play by a deaf or hard-of-hearing playwright, with a public reading as part of the prize. “The more people are writing plays, the quicker all of the larger goals are achieved.”
  3. Create a scale of interpreters, incorporating interpreting interns, set up students to study with master interpreters who could then assist smaller companies.
  4. Provide slots to plays by deaf playwrights in the annual National New Play Network showcase.
  5. Discuss admission policies with MFA programs to address barriers to deaf applicants.
  6. Gather artistic directors willing to mentor aspiring deaf artistic directors to change the leadership decisions makers in the field.

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