Deaf Playwriting

A New Art Form

This week on HowlRound, we're discussing Deaf theatre. This series is a result of the NEA Roundtable on "Opportunities for Deaf Theatre Artists" hosted by the Lark Play Development Center in New York City on January 20, 2016.

Being a deaf playwright is funny business. I’m profoundly deaf and I can’t hear people talking, but I still write dialogue as how I imagine it in my head. One piece of advice that is always given to playwrights is to observe one’s surroundings and eavesdrop into others’ conversations so one can learn to write realistic dialogue like how people talk. Well, I can’t eavesdrop and spy on others’ conversations! I just make up something while I watch two strangers in public and then I run with it.

I have written a few plays that received readings and productions in London, UK. These were all plays that featured hearing-abled casts and contain fast dialogue that’s very catchy when spoken, but might come across as strange when read on paper. I don’t think they would translate well to American Sign Language because the meaning would be lost. English and American Sign Language are two very different languages with different grammatical structures.

Despite being deaf and being vocal about looking for more opportunities and better representation of deaf people in the arts (theatre, film, and  television), I have to admit that I’ve developed a habit of writing plays with verbal dialogue for hearing actors. Growing up, I had been so used to watching hearing-abled actors talking and conversing with their voices that it had not occurred to me to write a deaf play. I live in St. Louis at the moment and there is no deaf theatre. There was one in the 1980s and 1990s, but unfortunately it closed down in the 2000s due to a great lack of interest from the deaf community.

Deaf theatres have usually produced plays written by hearing playwrights for deaf audiences by casting ASL-fluent actors, whether deaf or hearing, and pairing them with hearing actors to do voice over so the production would be accessible to both deaf and hearing audiences. But what about plays for or about deaf people? The best-known example is Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff, which was later adapted into a movie in 1986 and earned Marlee Matlin an Oscar for Best Actress. Recently, Nina Raine's Tribes has been a smash hit on Broadway and London’s West End for its story about a deaf Jewish man who discovers sign language after meeting a hearing-abled woman whose parents were deaf. Both Raine and Medoff are hearing and their plays have received critical acclaim. Unfortunately, there aren’t too many deaf playwrights, which means not too many deaf-written plays (whether for deaf people or hearing-abled people!).

I don’t think that we should limit ourselves to a narrow definition of a deaf play or deaf theatre. I believe that we should not have to force ourselves into a little box when writing a deaf play.

There aren’t too many deaf plays, either. But what is a deaf play? A play written by a deaf playwright for deaf actors, but could also be performed by a hearing-abled cast? A play with a storyline about being deaf and/or the deaf experience? A play performed in sign language? A play with a supporting character who is deaf? A play with an all-deaf cast or just one deaf character? I would say it’s all of the above and even more.

I don’t think that we should limit ourselves to a narrow definition of a deaf play or deaf theatre. I believe that we should not have to force ourselves into a little box when writing a deaf play. Why does it have to fit hearing audiences’ idea of “theatre”? Why should deaf theatre fall into the same mold of hearing theatre? It’s a fact that we deaf people perceive the world differently from hearing-abled people. Many of us deafies enjoy over-the-top facial expressions, slapstick/physical comedy, mime, visual storytelling, and pictures. Some of us understand better when we are shown visuals. We can’t hear or enjoy music, vocal dialogue, or sound effects like hearing-abled people can. So why are we still trying to copy the concept of hearing theatre, but employ deaf actors and American Sign Language?

an actress with musicians on stage
Sabina England in a staged performance at the St. Louis Fringe Festival. Photo by Brendan Beavers from Shattered Images Photography.

Maybe we don’t need to think about producing plays written by hearing-abled playwrights for deaf audiences, or even worry about finding plays by deaf playwrights. Instead, we should try to foster, encourage, and create a new form of performance art that’s unique to deaf people. We have ASL poetry and ASL storytelling, which are both exceptional. This kind of poetry and storytelling flows smoothly in American Sign Language, but might not translate well to spoken English. Both poetry and storytelling in ASL sometimes “rhyme” with hand signs that can’t be replicated in spoken English.

Furthermore, we should embrace and incorporate physical aspects of performance and storytelling into our idea of “deaf theatre.” These can include dance, mime, movement, and visuals (including video, lighting, special effects, aesthetics, artworks, and photos). We can use these to our advantage to enhance the viewing experience for a deaf audience.

an actress on stage
Sabina England in a staged performance at the St. Louis Fringe Festival. Photo by Brendan Beavers from Shattered Images Photography.

I’m from Bihar, India and I’m proud of my culture because we have many traditions and art forms that have existed in my culture for thousands of years. There are seven officially recognized classical dances in India alone, which use traditional storytelling through mime, which include mudra (hand movements). To the untrained foreign eye, they would think that classical dancers were using sign language! Mudra has been used in classical Indian dances for thousands of years. Like an ASL sign, each mudra means a word and is used to keep the story moving. Dancers use mudra while moving around onstage, dancing or performing mime to tell ancient Vedic stories. They don't try to adapt or borrow Western concepts of storytelling. They don’t need to imitate Western ballet or use pointe. And why should they?

I’m interested in writing a deaf play for deaf actors and I’ve been thinking how to achieve that goal. I’m not talking about just writing the play in American Sign Language but also to incorporate other aspects of performance art. I would write dialogue that could only be performed in American Sign Language, not spoken in English. However, I want hearing audiences to enjoy it too; I would like for them to perceive the play from a new sensory experience. As a deaf playwright who grew up reading plays and attending a few, I’ve struggled to understand a live stage production. I couldn’t experience watching a live play like hearing-abled people could. I watched plays as a profoundly deaf viewer. This time, I want hearing-abled audiences to watch our own productions as hearing-abled viewers looking onto deaf theatre.

We should strive to expand the definition of deaf theatre and encourage deaf playwrights to think outside the box—not just write a play that’s ASL-friendly that’s performed by a deaf cast, but to create a play that elevates a special part of deaf theatre. Let’s make our plays unique to deaf culture. Why limit ourselves to writing or producing plays when we can also include other forms of performance and storytelling? Deaf playwrights could use the opportunity to write and string together stories and give deaf talent a chance to perform it onstage. We exist, we have stories to tell, we’re hungry to perform, and we’re eager to showcase our #DeafTalent.

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Thoughts from the curator

A series discussing the state of deaf theatre and deaf representation.

Deaf Theatre

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If you write the play, I hope you let us all know about it. It sounds like it would be an invigorating, fun, and constructive project!

Some interesting questions posed-I am glad to see being discussed. You should check out Quest Visual Theatre in Washington, DC/Maryland. They focus on visual theatre with deaf, hard of hearing and hearing actors. They also have a festival and I believe have had pieces that range from no voice or ASL to high levels of one or the other in the past.