September 2008 - November 2008: Issue 28
A Special Issue On Deaf Performing Arts


Deaf Theatre Departments in American Universities

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Gallaudet University Theatre Arts, Washington, DC
(written by Ethan Sinnott, Assistant Professor and Production Manager)

Sky view for the main campus of Gallaudet University Theatre Arts.

American Deaf theatre is in a precarious state today, and Gallaudet, as the only Deaf liberal-arts university in the world, has an obligation and responsibility to set the standard in the Deaf world. The arts demand no less. We are committed to the cultivation and empowerment of our majors as the next generation of Deaf theatre artists, educators, thinkers, and leaders.

In 1957, the Dean of Students at the former Gallaudet College—Dr. George E. Detmold—asked Gilbert C. Eastman to pioneer the theatre department at Gallaudet. At the time it was a revolutionary, forward-thinking idea, one which would ultimately sow the seeds of the National Theatre of the Deaf's creation ten years later, but it was a logical reaction to, and necessary evolution of, the deep popularity of the college's student dramatics club, born in relative obscurity roughly thirty years earlier.

The theatre department at Gallaudet University offers specialty-customizable BA degrees in Performance/Production and Educational Drama. We hold a student playwriting competition every two years and will be launching our inaugural student-directed one-act festival next March. Last year, our visual-physical production of Goya: en la Quinta del Sordo (in the House of the Deaf Man) was invited to Region II of the American College Theatre Festival in Pittsburgh and nominated to represent the region at the national level.

Gallaudet is located in a city with over 50 active non-profit theatre companies within its radius—a truly competitive, diverse scene enhanced by the presence and quality of local college and university theatres. Our program markets itself, not only as an artistic and entertainment experience, but also as a cultural opportunity to view theatre in a completely new, non-traditional light. We present unique niches: original Deaf and ASL theatre, ASL and Deaf adaptations and/or reinterpretations of existing works, and experimental visual-physical theatre.

The department presents four productions a year, as well as occasional turns by guest artists and hosts performances by national and international companies. We now have shifted away from the Elstad Auditorium—which was originally designed and built without regard to innate Deaf sensibilities—and emphasized the more Deaf-friendly 94-seat Gilbert C. Eastman Studio Theatre as our primary playing space.

Accessibility for broader hearing—and generally non-signing—audiences is stressed, but exactly how it is defined is entirely up to each director per production—voice interpretation, closed captions, or in the case of physical-visual theatre, neither.

Our team includes two Deaf SAG-AEA actors, one of which is also an internationally-recognized Deaf playwright; the first and only Deaf set designer working professionally; a Deaf stage manager from the Seattle Children's Theatre; our technical director is formerly of the Imago Theatre in Portland, Oregon. It's a faculty and staff keenly conscious of itself as a group of strong, can-do Deaf role models rooted in the theatre world.

The department's position on having hearing actors play deaf characters is that casting a hearing actor in a Deaf role runs the risk of creating and reinforcing the negative perception that Deaf actors are somehow lesser, unequal even to the task of portraying with authenticity a character they would innately identify with. For every Deaf role taken by a hearing actor, that's one less opportunity for a Deaf actor in a field where Deaf people are vastly underrepresented.


National Technical Institute Of The Deaf, Rochester Institute Of Technology
(written by Jim Orr, Director of Community Relations for NTID Performing Arts)

Smiling head shot of Jim Orr, Director of Community Relations for NTID Performing Arts.

NTID Performing Arts began in 1969 as the Masquers Drama Club, founded by Dr. Robert F. Panara. With the opening of NTID's buildings in 1974, a bona fide theatre department with a state of the art theatre was created. This new department was called "The EET" or Experimental, Educational Theatre, and, as such, was responsible for producing innovative works in a wide variety of theatre styles based on both scripted and original works. The EET continued until 1988, when, with the re-naming of the theatre to the Robert F. Panara Theatre, the department's name was changed to NTID Performing Arts. While the name may have changed, the commitment to producing high-quality educational entertainment in American Sign Language by Deaf actors has not.

Each year a total of six productions are produced by the department, as well as several offerings by guest artists--workshop, performance or both. All NTID Performing Arts and guest artists' productions are accessible to Deaf, hard of hearing and hearing audience members. Deaf actors perform in ASL on stage, while a hearing actor presents their character's voice, most often, but not always, off-stage. Hard of hearing actors are eligible to perform in either signed or voicing roles--hearing actors may not portray deaf characters, but in very limited situations might sign a very short, "walk-on" kind of line (e.g. "Yes sir" signed to a police officer). The department produces plays in every form of theatre from contemporary to classic, cultural (e.g. Kabuki) to ethnic, drama to comedy, and so on. It is our strong desire to expose our student actors and technicians, as well as our audiences, to the wide spectrum of human experience the theatre arts have to offer.

I think the main thing that makes us different from other Deaf theatre arts departments is the fact that we do not have a theatre major at NTID. We do offer a state-approved certificate to those students who take a series of our courses, but for the most part the students involved in our productions are doing so for the love of being in a play. We are very proud of their accomplishments: many of them have gone on to work professionally in theatre as members of the National Theatre of the Deaf, Deaf West, Cleveland Sign Stage, Broadway, television, independent films and Hollywood movies.

Our emphasis on visually accessible theatre goes beyond on-stage activities and extends to all backstage and technical aspects of a production as well. We have adapted backstage communication so that it can take place entirely through video cameras and monitors-- including backstage proper, the light booth, dressing rooms, the green room, and the wood and costume shops. Our productions are almost always stage managed and assistant directed by Deaf students (we have, on rare occasion, used interpreting or graduate students who sign). Crew members are Deaf, including light and sound board operators, and we hire at least one ASL Master for each production. The ASL Master is responsible for script translations as needed, overall sign clarity, cultural and conceptual adaptations and the like.