Deafness On Broadway

Multiple actors on stage
Spring Awakening, Deaf West Theatre, 2015.

The current Broadway production of Spring Awakening is remarkable for many reasons. It is the first Broadway revival of the popular musical, which won eight Tony Awards and ran for over two years during its original run. It is the first commercial transfer of a Deaf West Theatre production under the leadership of DJ Kurs, only the second artistic director in Deaf West’s 24-year history. It is the Broadway directorial debut of Michael Arden. It is the Broadway debut of over twenty actors, including Marlee Matlin, arguably the most popular deaf actor of all time. For all of these firsts, though, it is important to realize that this production is not the first instance of deaf theatre on Broadway. On the contrary, deaf theatre and plays about deafness actually have a rich history with the Great White Way. In this case, Spring Awakening may be looked at not as a commencement but as a culmination and it is through examining this history that we can better understand the significance of this production.

Two actors from the Miracle Worker on stage
The Miracle Worker, Ann Bancroft and Patty Duke, 1959.

The first public performance of a play by deaf actors took place on a Broadway stage. In 1942, in the middle of the premier run of Arsenic and Old Lace, Gallaudet University’s drama club created their own production of the play. Located in Washington DC, Gallaudet was and is the only liberal arts college in the world for the deaf and hard of hearing. The club, which had received special permission to stage the show concurrently with the Broadway production, was invited by the producers and star Boris Karloff to perform it on Broadway. On Sunday, May 10, 1942, an off night for the still-running Broadway production, Gallaudet students gave a performance of Arsenic and Old Lace for the general public. The play was performed entirely in American Sign Language, with two interpreters speaking the dialogue for hearing patrons, of which the audience was almost entirely comprised. Tickets were sold at the standard Broadway prices, ranging from 55 cents to $3.30. This performance, though brief, was a revelation. By all accounts, deaf people had only ever performed theatre in social clubs and deaf schools.

While Arsenic and Old Lace marks the first time deaf theatre was recognized by the theatrical mainstream, William Gibson’s The Miracle Worker revolutionized the use of sign language in theatre performance and, by osmosis, paved the way for the creation of the first professional American deaf theatre company. The play, which dramatizes the meeting and initial relationship between Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan, was the first play on Broadway wherein sign language was a featured, and normalized, mode of communication. Furthermore, it is through learning sign language that the character of Helen is finally able to communicate with the world, to express herself, to truly develop a voice of her own. Sign language had never been portrayed in this way by a “hearing” play. The Miracle Worker opened on Broadway at the Playhouse Theatre on October 19, 1959, and ran for 719 performances, winning four Tony Awards, including Best Play. Director Arthur Penn would go on to make the popular film adaptation in 1962. Furthermore, star Ann Bancroft, who won both a Tony and an Oscar for her portrayal of Annie Sullivan, along with lighting designer David Hays, helped initiate the formation of a national deaf theatre company.

Four actors on stage
Blueprints, National Theatre of the Deaf, 1969.

Having developed knowledge of and appreciation for American Sign Language (ASL) through their experience on The Miracle Worker, Bancroft and Hays began seeing Gallaudet Theatre productions and meeting with leading psychologists and scholars expert in sign language and deafness. Bancroft and Hays eventually came to spearhead the movement toward a deaf repertory company, petitioning the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare to provide funding and resources for the endeavor. In 1966, with the newly established Eugene O’Neill Center as a home base, the petition was granted, $16,500 was earmarked, and the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) was born. Briefly, it is important to note the significance of the company’s name; it is the “National Theatre of the Deaf,” not “for the Deaf.” While this was a deaf theatre company, the work was never intended solely for deaf audiences; from the beginning of the company, the goal was to bridge the gap between hearing and deaf audience members. To this day, many deaf theatre artists prefer not to be described as making “a play for the deaf”; deaf theatre as a form has always been for everyone.

It is the ‘National Theatre of the Deaf,’ not ‘for the Deaf.’ The work was never intended solely for deaf audiences; from the beginning of the company, the goal was to bridge the gap between hearing and deaf audience members.

The NTD grew quickly, making its name as a touring company and creating eleven productions between 1967 and 1969. Less than one month after consulting on sign language translations for the ill-fated Jerry Herman musical Dear World, The National Theatre of the Deaf had its own production on Broadway at the Longacre Theater. From February 24 to March 8, 1969, the company performed two different evenings of one acts in repertory. The works performed ranged from classical farce (The Critic by Richard Brinsley Sheridan) to adaptations of poetry (Blueprints, based on the work of Rainer Rilke and e.e. cummings). The NTD returned to Broadway one year later, and for eight performances in January 1970, the company performed its acclaimed double bill of Molière’s Sganarelle and Songs From Milk Wood, adapted from the poem “Under Milk Wood” by Dylan Thomas.

Three actors on stage
The Critic, National Theatre of the Deaf, 1969.

Deaf and hearing audiences alike were thrilled by these productions. Deaf theatre was continuing to evolve, from a newly discovered novelty in 1942, to a legitimate theatrical form with its own national company almost thirty years later. It was becoming clearer that deaf people had never been, nor were they ever going to be, outcasts from the world, burdened by a disability. Deaf people had their own culture, their own ways of communicating with the hearing world, their own stories, and theatre was clearly a medium through which these stories could be told. In the 80s, Broadway would see a play, by a hearing playwright, that brought more of these stories to the forefront.

Mark Medoff wrote Children of a Lesser God after meeting NTD company member Phyllis Frelich, with her in mind for the lead role. The play follows the relationship between James, a hearing speech teacher at a deaf school, and Sarah, a former student-turned-janitor, and their struggles to communicate as they begin a student-pupil relationship and then gradually fall in love. The play, originally developed at New Mexico State University, was produced at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1979. The Los Angeles production was so well received that a Broadway production seemed almost inevitable and on March 30, 1980, the play opened at the Longacre Theatre, the same building that had housed the NTD’s Broadway production.

Two actors on stage
Children of a Lesser God, Phyllis Frelich and John Rubinstein, 1980.

Whereas the National Theatre of the Deaf had normalized deaf theatre for the hearing world, Children of a Lesser God brought it into mainstream popular culture. The play ran for 887 performances and won three Tony Awards (Best Play, Best Actor, and Best Actress). The play’s 1981 West End production won Olivier Awards in the same three categories. The 1987 film adaptation was a critical and commercial success, garnering Marlee Matlin an Academy Award for Best Actress. Medoff wrote another play for Phyllis Frelich, Prymate¸ which opened on Broadway in 2000 but was panned by critics and closed after five performances. Children of a Lesser God remains a classic of American drama and a highly significant work of deaf theatre. It was announced in September 2014 that Kenny Leon would direct the first Broadway revival of the play, though no further developments have been shared. If the revival production goes forward, the 2015–2016 season will be the first wherein two deaf theatre productions will have run on Broadway. It would seem, after the wild success of Children of a Lesser God, that deaf theatre might have nothing else to prove. After all, it had been proven that deaf actors were able to stand toe-to-toe with hearing actors in any play, just as it had been proven that deaf theatre breathed new life into established classical works and literary adaptations. What new developments, what new statements could deaf theatre make? Enter Deaf West Theatre and its take on the American musical.

Can a deaf musical become part of the Broadway zeitgeist, fully accepted by the mainstream theatre world, or will it just be another novelty?

Formed in 1991 by Ed Waterstreet, a former company member of the NTD, the Los Angeles-based company had grown remarkably quickly, developing a reputation for creating ambitious productions of works that were not necessarily written about deaf characters (the company’s early productions included The Gin Game, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and ‘night, Mother). This experimental mindset came to an apex in 2000, when Waterstreet and director/choreographer Jeff Calhoun decided to mount a production of the musical Oliver! Though challenging and an entirely new endeavor, Deaf West proved that a deaf production of a musical could work, and the company mounted the musical Big River, which tells the Mark Twain story of Huckleberry Finn, in 2002. The production was remounted at the Mark Taper Forum and opened on Broadway as a revival on July 24, 2003. Though the run only lasted 67 performances, it was acclaimed by critics and won a special Tony Award for Excellence in Theatre. The production went on to tour the United States and abroad but, most importantly, it established Deaf West Theatre as the new generation, the new force in American deaf theatre. Furthermore, because deaf artists had managed to create a compelling, entertaining production of a Broadway musical, it proved that deaf theatre as a theatrical form really could do anything.

Actors from Big River on stage
Big River, Deaf West Theatre, 2003.

Deaf West has returned to Broadway with a vengeance, as the company’s revival of Spring Awakening opened at the Brooks Atkinson Theater on September 27. Originally announced for a limited run of eighteen weeks, the production was quickly extended and is set to close on January 24, 2016. With a cast comprised of mostly young newcomers, a new director at the helm, and a musical that is beloved by a generation, this production will bring a theatrical form to a largely new audience; a high school senior who sees this show will have been in kindergarten when deaf theatre was last on Broadway. There are some who have expressed concerns that such an experimental production concept will sully the popular songs by Duncan Shiek and Steven Sater. And this production does not have the uniqueness of a new experience that came with Big River. This is Deaf West’s sophomore Broadway offering, which means that there’s more riding on this production: can a deaf musical become part of the Broadway zeitgeist, fully accepted by the mainstream theatre world, or will it just be another novelty?

Ultimately, this production has a lot to prove. However, deaf theatre (and deaf theatre artists) have always had a lot to prove. In the 73 years since deaf theatre was first performed for the public, deaf artists have had to prove that they could act, ASL has had to prove itself as a legitimate language, deaf culture has had to prove that deaf people had their own stories, and Deaf Theatre has had to prove that those stories are worth telling. Furthermore, though there are a lot of “firsts” involved in the upcoming revival of Spring Awakening, this is not nearly the first time that Deaf Theatre has had to prove itself a theatrical form that could also be used to tell stories created by the hearing world. Indeed, Spring Awakening is a monumental moment in the history of the American theatre and of deaf culture. It’s a big deal, and the many people involved in the production who are making their Broadway debut might be a little nervous. However, Deaf Theatre as a form, as a medium, as a movement, is not phased. Deaf Theatre knows Broadway well. After all, Broadway helped create Deaf Theatre in the first place.

For Further Reading
Children of a Lesser God by Mark Medoff
Open Your Eyes: Deaf Studies Talking by H-Dirksen L. Bauman
Pictures in the Air: The Story of the National Theatre of the Deaf by Stephen Baldwin
Signs of Silence: Bernard Bragg and the National Theatre of the Deaf by Helen Powers
The Miracle Worker by William Gibson

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excellent article!! as the former manager of actors with disabilities, I had the privilege of tapping into the NTD talent pool on numerous occasions for various commercial and legit projects as far back as the 80's and I can say with all sincerity that the actors I dealt with were TERRIFIC by any acting standards! I'm thrilled to see their evolution continues...

Wonderful to put the excitement of the current Spring Awakening in a historical context and celebrate all of these incredible productions. Of course, I knew of some of these previous productions, but not all. These stories lift me up!

Thanks for this very detailed history of Deaf theater. It's great to see the chronology and how exciting at what's happening right now. I wanted to add that as Spring Awakening continues to garnish a lot of accolades, and rightfully so, there is a small, but active theater group in NYC - NY Deaf Theater that is also actively promoting and producing Deaf theater. Albeit a small, community theater, they have a current production coming, Captive Audience, with some very talented Deaf actors. Their performances start Nov 7 - Nov. 22 and you can get more information at http://www.newyorkdeaftheat.... It's a very exciting time in NYC for Deaf theater. The spotlight on Spring Awakening is opening up a whole new dialogue on access and inclusion in the arts and I'm thrilled that I'm around for it.Beth PrevorHands On

Hi Beth! Thanks for the add! I wanted the article to focus specifically on Broadway, but NY Deaf Theater does really great work! I wish I could be in town to see Captive Audience! And I'm with you, it's a very exciting time and a lot of progress is being made! I'm happy to contribute to the conversation!