Deaf Theater Analysis

Early Origins

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Historically, deaf theater in the United States was little more than signed skits, jokes, and pantomimes until the establishment of the National Theater of the Deaf in 1967. A niche-based or culture-based theater is defined traditionally by its literature, the play script, and its intended audience. Universal cultural themes might then extend to a broader audience. However, these traits played a much lesser role in the development of deaf theater, which is unique because it is usually defined by its physical method of performance. Plays performed in American Sign Language (ASL), regardless of their source, content, or intended audience, are said to delineate deaf theater. Spoken language scripts are translated into ASL, a process the reverse of that found in other niche-based drama. Deaf theater is usually performed simultaneously in two languages, manual ASL and spoken English. The development and proliferation of deaf theater reflects first the joining of spoken and manual languages and then the struggle to separate them. As the twenty-first century dawned, deaf theater began to embody the ASL literature of the deaf culture.

Beginning in the nineteenth century and continuing through the 1960’s, deaf Americans gathered together at deaf clubs to enjoy games, sports, and fellowship. Their activities often included a variety of spontaneously performed skits, deaf folklore, anecdotes, and unique sign language forms such as ABC stories that require the hand...

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The Miracle Worker

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In 1959, the dramatic treatment of deafness received major exposure. William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker was preparing to open on Broadway. Anne Bancroft was cast in the role of Anne Sullivan, who teaches the concept of language to ten-year-old deaf and blind Helen Keller. To prepare for this role, Bancroft began to visit schools for the deaf and then went to Edna S. Levine, a psychologist who worked with deaf clients. Levine had two passions, Broadway theater and the deaf community. She became close friends with Bancroft, who embraced sign language with an enthusiasm that soon carried over to her director, Arthur Penn, and the set designer, David Hays. Seeing their interest, Levine invited the cast and production team to attend a 1959 Gallaudet production of Shakespeare’s Othello, the Moor of Venice (pr. 1604). Their response was so positive that they approached Mary Switzer—the first administrator of the Social and Rehabilitation Service in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare—for a grant to stage a Broadway play in sign language. The grant was rejected, but the group’s enthusiasm for sign language and deaf culture remained strong. After a second grant request was rejected, the theater professionals moved on to other projects.

The National Theatre of the Deaf

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

In 1964, David Hays helped to establish the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center outside New London, Connecticut, on an estate on which Eugene O’Neill had often spent his summers. Hays convinced the O’Neill Foundation to sponsor a professional training center for deaf actors, so he approached Mary Switzer a third time. One of the reasons previous grants had been denied was based on the theory that deaf children were better off being forced to try to speak because sign language was merely an inferior representation of English. However, in 1960, Gallaudet professor William C. Stokoe, Jr., wrote Sign Language Structure which provided the breakthrough recognition of ASL as a language in its own right. Stokoe’s work was supported by deaf educators, and by 1966, it had been accepted by prominent politicians. Congress was also in the process of establishing the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) at the Rochester Institute of Technology and had accepted the notion of adult education programs for a broader spectrum of deaf clientele. The idea of a professional theater training program for deaf actors who used sign language was now credible. Hays received a grant of $16,500 from the Rehabilitation Services Administration of the Department of Health, Education and Welfare to establish the National Theatre of the Deaf.

Hays quickly gathered a group of talented actors, including Phyllis Frelich and Gilbert Eastman, from Gallaudet’s drama...

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Deaf Plays and Playwrights

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Most deaf playwrights have a direct connection to the National Theatre of the Deaf. Eastman’s Sign Me Alice (pr. 1973) tells the story of Alice Gallaudet, whose father founded education for the deaf in the United States. Bragg and Eugene Bergman teamed up in 1980 to create Tales from a Clubroom. Shanny Mow became the first deaf artistic director of a professional theater company in the United States in 1990. At first he adapted classics such as the Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) by Homer, and Gilgamesh, after the Sumerian legend. His first original play to be performed was The Ghost of Chastity Past: Or, The Incident at Sashimi Junction (pr. 1981), which combined his Asian, American, and deaf cultures. The result was a hilarious Western-genre play with Kabuki characters dealing with deaf issues.

The National Theatre of the Deaf founded a conference for deaf playwrights in 1977 to train deaf writers in the art of play creation. After five years, the program was discontinued for lack of funds. The conference was revived twice during the 1990’s by the Performing Arts Department of the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, which also gave winning scripts professional workshop productions. By 2000, over one hundred scripts were developed by deaf playwrights, many of which have been performed for deaf audiences around the world.

As of early 2002, only hearing playwrights had been successful in bringing commercial plays on deaf themes to production. The first of these was Mark Medoff, a playwright and college educator, whose Children of a Lesser God appeared on Broadway in 1980. The play was based on the life of actress Phyllis Frelich and was infused with political issues relevant to deaf individuals. The play ran for two years on Broadway, earning a 1980 Tony Award, and was turned into a successful motion picture version, earning deaf actress Marlee Matlin the Academy Award for best actress in 1987.

Deaf West Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

A new professional deaf theater was established in 1991 when National Theatre of the Deaf alumnus Edward Waterstreet and his wife, Linda Bove, moved to California and opened Deaf West Theatre in North Hollywood. Waterstreet starred in the National Broadcasting Company Hallmark movie Love Is Never Silent (1985), and Bove became arguably the most recognized deaf actor in the United States, having spent nearly two decades as a permanent resident on Sesame Street. Using grants provided by the U.S. Department of Education, Deaf West Theatre produces three plays annually in its own theater. The Deaf West Theatre Children’s Theater provides twelve-week workshops in elementary schools and regular ASL storytelling workshops. The Deaf West Theatre Performing Arts Center for Deaf and Hard of Hearing Artists sponsors a four-week summer school taught by working professionals.

The Future of Deaf Theater

(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Competition in the performing arts has always been formidable, even for talented individuals with no obstacle greater than chance. However, for deaf theater artists, doors that were once closed have opened wide. There are ever increasing opportunities because of university degrees and professional training programs for deaf artists. Many of the communication barriers that once existed have been eliminated by telecommunication devices for the deaf: the Internet, e-mail, Palm Pilots, and computer conferencing. Freelance deaf artists are earning a living in all aspects of the professional and academic theater.

The time may also be ripe for successful commercial productions by deaf artists, on deaf themes, for the deaf audience. The proliferation of inexpensive video and digital recording equipment has led to the establishment of a new literary genre. The literature of American Sign Language, including stories, poetry, and plays, created in sign language and stored as performance media rather than print media, is a viable outlet for deaf theater. Publication companies, such as DawnSignPress in San Diego, California, market home videos and DVDs (digital video disks) to the deaf market. Deaf theater has been established not only as a method of presentation but also as a literary art form of a unique culture. It will continue to grow in popularity and influence until it is no longer possible to say there has never been a commercial production on a deaf theme by deaf artists.


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Baldwin, Stephen C. Pictures in the Air: The Story of the National Theatre of the Deaf. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1993. This is the most complete history of deaf theater in America. It also describes the National Theatre of the Deaf’s unique style of sign language and provides a listing of all of its productions, company listings, and a bibliography of plays by deaf playwrights.

Bragg, Bernard. Lessons in Laughter: The Autobiography of a Deaf Actor. As signed to Eugene Bergman. Washington, D.C.: Gallaudet University Press, 1989. An anecdotal memoir by an actor who was involved in all aspects of deaf theater.

Conley, Willy. “From Lip-Reading Ants to Flying over the Cuckoo Nests.” American Theater 18, no. 4 (April, 2001): 34-37, 60-61. Updates deaf theater history and describes the state of professional theater opportunities for deaf actors in the new millennium.

Stratton, Jean. “The ‘Eye-Music’ of Deaf Actors Fills Stage Eloquently.” Smithsonian 6, no. 12 (March, 1976): 67-72. Provides a brief history of the origins of the National Theatre of the Deaf and an examination of its production of Parade.