Creating an Intersectional Future
The Deaf Theatre Action Planning Session
Thirty Deaf, DeafBlind, and hard of hearing (DDBHH) theatre artists, administrators, and scholars gathered in Boston 15-17 March 2019 for the Deaf Theatre Action Planning Session (DTAPS). The idea for DTAPS, one of four proposed convenings selected as part of the HowlRound Challenge, grew out of the 2016 National Endowment of the Arts (NEA) roundtable Creating Opportunities for Deaf Theatre Artists. The purpose was twofold: to develop a future-focused, action-oriented plan for a national network and to create training-to-production pipelines that will foster the long-term education and advancement of Deaf theatre artists. The Boston convening ended with working groups having been organized to develop projects such as a playwriting retreat, a community database, and a national organization to provide professional development opportunities for DDBHH theatre artists.
In the call for participants, the convening organizers—DJ Kurs, Ethan Sinnott, Rachel Grossman, and Tyrone Giordano—asked: “What if Deaf theatre artists came together with the will to stop waiting for others to mobilize us or accept us, and started creating the conditions for us to self-produce, promote, create, and advance?” To bring these conditions into existence, the organizers (joined by Alexandria Wailes and Patty Liang shortly into the planning process) put together the three-day gathering with an eye towards capacity building through identification and creation of shared resources, networks, and concrete plans. As a Deaf scholar who works on Deaf theatre history and performance, I was honored to participate in and document the convening.
DTAPS kicked off on the Friday afternoon with “Creation of Space & Setting This Moment Apart From the Past.” Each participant shared an object of significance from their journey as theatremakers, producers, and administrators. Artifacts included books on theatre practice, programs, props and costume pieces, and mementos from major life experiences. Participants honored mentors and trailblazers, including Bernard Bragg who passed away in 2018. The organizers’ commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion was demonstrated during this first activity, when DeafBlind participants asked to be able to touch each object and connect it with the person who brought it. Co-organizer Wailes immediately and respectfully incorporated their request. This was an extremely important moment, because the DeafBlind community has historically felt excluded from the majority Deaf community. Wailes demonstrated that inclusion is not just about bringing diverse voices to the table but remaking the table when necessary to allow for full participation by people with diverse communication preferences, identities, and abilities.
The second activity, a panel called “What’s Happening in Deaf / DeafBlind Theatre in the US Today?,” featured Michelle A. Banks, a DC-based theatremaker and writer; Richard Costes, a Chicago-area actor and director; Aaron Kelstone, the performing arts program director at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf; and Nicki Runge, the founder of ImaginASL Performing Arts (formerly Rocky Mountain Deaf Theatre). The discussion was moderated by convening co-organizers Liang and Sinnott. Panelists shared their theatre journeys and touched on inclusion, training opportunities, successes in Deaf theatre over the past twenty years, and areas of challenge.
Reflecting on her work with Onyx Theatre and Deaf West Theatre, Banks commented, “There are so many stories that are not being represented that need to be shown and seen. We need people of color involved in theatre desperately.” Runge shared her experience of coming to the Deaf community from a mainstream background, where she was the only deaf student in hearing schools and using Signed Exact English (a modality of sign language that was developed in the 1970s). Because of this, she felt rejected by members of the community who used ASL and had attended state schools for the deaf. Runge credited summer training programs at the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) and Deaf West Theatre with helping her move past this initial experience of exclusion and to grow as an artist. Kelstone recalled his experience at Kansas School for the Deaf, when theatre was a required part of the curriculum. “This early exposure to the dramatic arts is missing for today’s Deaf youth,” he remarked. “These are the things we have to think about when we talk about exposure early on. To let people know that there is a pathway and a place to achieve your dreams to go where you want to go.” Kelstone also benefited from the training program at NTD, which led to his successful career as artistic director for Cleveland SignStage Theatre. In terms of positive developments of the last twenty years, panelists mentioned the possibilities of connecting with each other and diverse Deaf communities via the internet and the growth of employment opportunities. Challenges included lack of access to networks for hiring Deaf theatre professionals, lack of mentorship opportunities, lack of plays by Deaf authors, and difficulty pulling in younger audiences.
The convening’s first day closed with an asset mapping exercise. Participants brainstormed personal skills and knowledges they could leverage to create opportunities for Deaf theatre, as well as contacts they had with local individuals, theatres, and organizations. Groups were also asked to consider resources and opportunities in their geographical region that could contribute to the growth of Deaf theatremakers and Deaf theatre.
Wailes demonstrated that inclusion is not just about bringing diverse voices to the table but remaking the table when necessary to allow for full participation by people with diverse communication preferences, identities, and abilities.
The second day began with a short presentation by Jasper Norman and Yashaira Romilus, the co-founders of ProTactile Theatre, offering tips for how to interact with DeafBlind individuals, such as ways to initiate or join conversations, appropriate leave-taking techniques, and how to keep DeafBlind people in the loop about visual communication and environmental information. They encouraged participants to approach the DeafBlind conveners and explained how the norms of ProTactile communication differ from sighted conventions.
Next came the “Imagining the Future and Moving Forward Together” panel focused on equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) led by Deaf and DeafBlind people of color. White participants were asked to sit back, listen, and learn. The panel took the form of a circle to fully include the DeafBlind participants, and people of color in the audience were invited to join the circle if they felt moved to do so. Liang and Wailes began the discussion by asking about intersectionality and experiences of oppression within the Deaf community. Seattle-based theatremaker Monique Holt described how her multiple identities as a Deaf Asian woman are inseparable. “It is a Gordian knot of sorts that cannot be severed, and who would want to do that anyway?” Filmmaker, playwright, and performance artist Sabina England spoke about the stigma she faces as a Muslim in both the broader hearing world and the Deaf community. England noted that positive representations of Muslims are lacking in the Deaf community, and white Deaf people are overly focused on deafness as a primary identity category, effectively erasing other intersectional identities.
In the same discussion, Romilus and Norman shared their experiences as members of DeafBlind and Latinx communities. They stressed language access issues—whether in Spanish, English, ASL, or ProTactile—and how their Latinx identity overlays their DeafBlind identity. Romilus said that Latinx communities sometimes see her as “not Latina enough” because she hasn’t had full access to Spanish. At the same time, she doesn’t have full access to communication in the Deaf community. “That is where my struggle is, trying to be a part of all those worlds pulling me in several different directions,” she said. Norman described his childhood experience of being looked down on by the Deaf community because Spanish was his home language. “When I think about oppression, I think about language oppression and how people have privilege because they have access to the English language.” He also described how Latinx culture shapes his interactions with white Deaf and DeafBlind individuals. “We want to be true to our Hispanic culture, which is very physical; a warm, tactile experience. That is not something that people are accustomed to, usually,” he said. “So, it is a cultural difference. The way we communicate, people can be rubbed the wrong way by it because they just don’t understand that is our norm.”
Others from the audience joined the circle to share their thoughts about intersectional identities in the American Deaf community. New York–based Fred Beam, a noted performer and outreach coordinator for Sunshine 2.0 at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, explained that he identifies as BlackDeaf—Black first, then Deaf. “In the world of theatre, often people only see the Deaf identity on the stage—ASL, ASL, everything is about ASL,” he commented. “And I say, where are the other communities that need to be clearly represented on stage? We have to get out of our bubbles. That includes the Deaf community, which also needs to learn about our intersectional identities.”
Actor and writer Natasha Ofili, whose mother is from Sierra Leone, related her experience as a first generation American:
It is hard as a Black Deaf woman in this world to be an actress. When you have a passion and you want to show what you’ve got and you have talent to share, then you face the same barriers over and over. Because you are different, you don’t fit the norm. It is hard to hit that wall over and over and never give up. It takes a toll, you get tired. And it does make you feel like crying. But you have to be strong, you have to keep going. Not just for yourself, but for other people, too. So how can we change things for people of color who are Deaf performers, Deaf artists? We need to focus on making a space for people where they can be welcomed for sharing their talent.
Maybe we needed to experience that disconnection to better understand how people of color can feel in the predominantly white, Deaf theatre community and the importance of supporting them in creating their own spaces of connection and care.
As a white Deaf participant, I found the literal and metaphorical circle of the panel powerful. The circle created a separate space for people of color to connect through their shared stories and experiences. The physical touch that enabled direct communication with the DeafBlind participants also created an intimate bond between the people of color who joined the group. While the dialogue sparked visible emotions in the audience, one white participant I spoke with afterwards said they felt disengaged during this activity and was bothered by this moment happening during a weekend focused on collaboration. But maybe we needed to experience that disconnection to better understand how people of color can feel in the predominantly white, Deaf theatre community and the importance of supporting them in creating their own spaces of connection and care.
Following lunch, participants broke into groups to brainstorm action plans for the future of Deaf theatre in the next three months, five years, and fifty years. Groups then shared their top ideas for each time frame. Potential three-month projects included establishing a database of performers, writers, directors, and designers; maintaining ongoing discussions on Facebook or other social media platforms; and establishing a network of regional advocacy groups. Suggested five-year projects included creating professional development workshops on a wide variety of topics; starting a foundation or funding pool to support access for Deaf and DeafBlind theatremakers; building toolkits for theatre artists and educators of Deaf children; running more events like the convening to produce tangible results; and producing two or three Broadway productions featuring Deaf theatre artists. Fifty years in the future, participants hoped to see an annual Deaf and DeafBlind festival fully inclusive of all theatrical approaches and communal theatrical spaces accessible for DeafBlind individuals throughout the various regions of the United States and abroad. After sharing their ideas, the groups reorganized themselves around the topics of activism and advocacy, play production and pipeline, and administration, development, and education. Each group picked two ideas and developed a realistic plan for implementation for each.
On the closing morning, the groups finalized their action plans and shared their projects with everyone. Three main initiatives emerged out of this. First, the establishment of a national organization that focuses on advocacy, resource identification, professional development, a theatre festival, and research. Second, a Deaf playwriting retreat. Third, a Deaf-oriented BFA in theatre. After sharing the initiatives, participants were invited to close by naming a commitment they would make towards realizing these initiatives. Convening co-organizer Sinnott, director of the theatre and dance program at Gallaudet University, ended on a hopeful note:
We are on this road together. Looking back at the history of Deaf theatre it has more often than not been an assemblage of individuals. There is nothing in that history of collective and collaborative undertakings, such as this, at a national level. What we have attempted to achieve this past weekend represents an unprecedented, revolutionary shift, one that is nascent. Please be mindful of the inevitability of mistakes and the occasional stumble made along the way, but the absolute worst thing to do would be to give up, because we may, in the future, look back at this weekend as a seminal moment for American Deaf theatre moving forward. Eyes on the prize.
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