Learning from the Leaders

Deaf Theatre Innovations in the Time of COVID-19

An often-expressed complaint from the Deaf community about COVID-19 restrictions on social gatherings is the added burden of mask use. When individuals cover half of their face, they remove any chance of their lips or facial expression being read, which are key linguistic foundational elements in American Sign Language (ASL). It is oppressive enough to almost be considered cruel. And when it comes to how the pandemic is affecting the Deaf theatre field specifically, the inability for productions to have live audiences has left the Deaf community without their natural forms of theatrical cultural expression. But it should not be a complete surprise that the Deaf community has adapted to performing on screens a little faster than the theatre community in general.

In my experience as a director of Deaf theatre for over thirty years, and as a member of the Deaf community due to having a Deaf grandmother and knowing ASL from a very young age, I have found there to be a unique Deaf approach to getting work done as a group, which I call “collective individualism.” In brief, the person with the skills needed to complete each step of a project steps in when they need to, does their work, and steps out, allowing for the next person to step and out, and so on, until the project reaches completion. So, when it comes to Deaf artists using new technology, there’s a patience with the process and an ability to hand off different parts of the project to whomever is best for the job.

Due to the pandemic, more and more theatres in general are sharing their work publicly on media that the Deaf community has used for decades as communication platforms, like FaceTime and other video calling services, YouTube, and more. There is a special benefit for Deaf artists in using this technology to create new works in ASL. Without the intrusion of hearing producers or directors, Deaf artists can much more easily create culturally “pure” pieces (made by Deaf artists for Deaf audiences); fewer bridge people or situations, like interpreters or hearing-organized events, are needed. Instead, Deaf artists can also connect across the country with other Deaf artists, and they can choose to target the general public as audience members or choose to serve only the Deaf community.

Deaf theatre people have not comfortably had that kind of Deaf-to-Deaf creative process, which employs direct exchange of language, ideas, and theatrical/storytelling play, since the days of residential schooling. As historian Harlan Lane has noted, during the early years of Deaf education, in the 1890s, American residential schools created pockets of Deaf communities. Although the term “residential school” might have an historic negative connotation for many children who were forced into these institutions, there was one positive for the Deaf community: Deaf children could pass their language and culture onto each other. The residential schools built a more cohesive Deaf community simply by bringing these individuals all together, and the strength of Deaf creative artistry was passed between the students leading to artistic, theatrical performances in Deaf clubs and other venues.

It should not be a complete surprise that the Deaf community has adapted to performing on screens a little faster than the theatre community in general.

Christina Marie Cogswell, an actor, playwright, and storyteller, feels these new online performance venues are equivalent to the creation of the millennial version of the social Deaf club, which she sees as a traditional method of developing Deaf performance talent from the residential school era. “Virtual performance allows us the ability to work with Deaf professional actors from anywhere/everywhere,” Cogswell says. “So our ability to share ideas, sign styles and develop relationships as we are working on the production are enhanced.”

Theatrical storytelling provides a cultural bridge that allows Deaf culture to cross over and influence mainstream hearing culture. Both cultures have a tradition of physical storytelling. In hearing culture, it is through theatre. In Deaf culture, it is and has been in any three-dimensional format available—live performance, video projects, film production. As memoir writer Albert Ballin once wrote regarding Hollywood’s habit of hiring Deaf consultants for silent movies, it is a fact that storytelling is a linguistic foundation of ASL and that even mainstream screenwriting choices—close-ups, distance shots, and plot construction—were influenced by ASL linguistic structure. As we all move forward in trying to create theatre in this new world, this fact almost ensures that Deaf artists hold a leadership position in the art being made with these new technologies.

The current artistic blooming of Deaf theatre on social media platforms, including TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube, really allows a new focus to be given to the highly refined visual style of performance that the Deaf performer commands. This type of storytelling can also inform how the hearing population manages their sound-based approaches to theatre: focusing on the beauty of dialogue sounds, adding in music or sound effects, and choosing other storytelling techniques that lean heavily on telling the tale through sound rather than visuals. All this works well in the new online performance environment brought on by the pandemic.

Examples of Deaf-Generated Performances Online

Many Facebook groups that focus on visual/physical storytelling have cropped up or adjusted their offerings in response to the pandemic. One is called the ASL Deaf Coffee Chat, organized by Antonietta Alfano, who is a Deaf ballerina. Prior to the pandemic, Alfano had been motivated to host in-person and Facebook events so that people could connect, learn, and practice ASL. “The group grew from simple ASL lessons and Deaf cultural exposure to creating Deaf jokes, storytelling, and, finally performance pieces,” Alfano states. Because of these creative gatherings, people have met from all over the United States and Canada to make a connection through ASL. In her Facebook ASL chats, Alfano offered her own livestreamed performances for people to view in their very own living room! This inspired others to share as well. Consequently, when the world stopped in its tracks and seemed to be at a standstill, Alfano encouraged her fan base to also stop, breathe, accept, and be. Doing this has helped several of her Deaf followers to think imaginatively and incorporate alternatives for their talents.

One innovative approach to capturing these new creative theatre pieces done by Deaf artists is an adaption of the film style of cinéma vérité. The artists use iPhones and Androids in a style now called “vertical cinema.” The phone is held vertically and the goal is to have the theatre piece captured with a naturalistic or spontaneous look. It makes using editing and movie-making apps, which can be found for free, easier when combining video files from different sources.

Deaf theatre people have not comfortably had that kind of Deaf-to-Deaf creative process, which employs direct exchange of language, ideas, and theatrical/storytelling play, since the days of residential schooling.

DEAFversity is another online theatrical creative space led by Matthew Schwartz’s company JPosh Productions. In this group, Schwartz, a talented theatrical Deaf ASL consultant and competition ice skater, gathers an ethnically and gender-diverse group of Deaf artists who perform ice skating, hip hop, ASL music translation, and storytelling, and together everyone creates variety shows. Each artist creates their own act or performance and sends the materials in whatever form to an editor. Everyone’s videos are then stitched together to create one long video. The artists use platforms like Google Drive and Dropbox to upload videos of themselves so that others can download and/or watch, and there are also livestreamed events offered on the Facebook page.

These performers all have an extraordinary comfort with the various ways to share their online performances—Google Drive, Dropbox, YouTube, WeTransfer, and Facebook Messenger—which stems from the baseline need to have access. In my experience, Deaf artists are more comfortable using whatever means they have at their disposal to create. The technologies of Facetime, Facebook Messenger, and Google Messenger used to be used primarily for real-time sign language conversations, as they provided the ability for Deaf individuals to have a video call and communicate directly to each other in ASL. Now, though, they are being repurposed by artists to create new physical and visually dynamic performances that are drawing in viewers in larger numbers than anyone expected.

six performers on a stage with watery blue silks

Sofia Decredico, Serena Rush, Danielle Wegman, Marirose Fernandez, Yolanda Ford, Elisaul Lugo, and Danyell Monk in Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters at National Technical Institute for the Deaf in 2020. Additional original monologues and music: Susan Murphy. Choreographer: Marc Holland. Director: Dr. Luane Davis Haggerty. Lighting designer: Nic Minetor. Photo by Nic Minetor.

But What Happened to Live Deaf Performance?

Live theatre experiments have also found a place in the community in this COVID world. In my position as a director and principal lecturer for the Performing Arts department at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID), I directed Dial M for Murder in spring 2020, NTID’s last live performance before going completely online with classes and events. During this production, new stage technology in digital imaging was used to create the setting, which was projected on a video wall. With it, the old concept of a static backdrop advanced to one where the sun could rise and fall, rain and thunder appeared real, and fireplaces had the appearance of actual flames. Another technological enhancement included cutting-edge closed-captioning technology using smartglasses developed by Vuzix Corp. Little did we know that those innovations would help expand the opportunities for doing performance when COVID restrictions were in full swing.

Last fall, NTID switched our chosen season and moved to a creative approach to a production of Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, which seemed ideal for physical distancing since it is made up of monologues. We began with the goal of performing parts of the show live, on stage, with projected video images, but by opening night, due to evolving COVID guidelines, it was clear we would be fully online. In this production, all of the characters were played by two actors, one performing in ASL and one performing in spoken word: the Deaf actors portrayed their characters as if they were from 1918 and living through the Spanish Flu epidemic, while the hearing actor portrayed their characters as modern and influenced by our current situation. Finding acting partners from both cultures that could match the timing and subtext of each monologue caused us to broaden our talent pool to nationwide. Wanting both actors to appear on stage together led to us using green-screen technology and a broadening of the digital imagery we had toyed with in Dial M. We may have started with the basic Zoom technology of altering backgrounds, but by the time we were into production Deaf team members had lifted technology from basic Photoshop uses into backgrounds that were interactive.

So we continued. Not in a typical structured, mainstream, hearing approach but in a Deaf-structured format, being innovative and improvising with the technology.

Because we had to shift the production to being fully online, all of the actors needed to work in video format. This had the potential to be rather daunting, as the Deaf actor might physically be in Rochester, New York while their hearing partner might be in Hawaii. Combining these two video performances into a single video clip, which showed the signing 1918 character at the same time as the modern-day speaking actor, was challenging. Since we began by hoping to have some live component to the production, half the cast was on the RIT campus. The Deaf actors who were not on campus used some of the more creative technologies, including video clips with homemade green screens (painted walls or plastic green table cloths from party stores), shot on iPhones, Androids, or proper video cameras, and the use of multiple sharing platforms.

With Spoon River, we learned how to work with the technology on the fly, as we created the show. When we questioned if we should continue (a refrain echoed by my hearing professional friends as they were making their own pandemic theatre productions), the Deaf artists always pushed for trying a different way, saying, “Whatever this turns into will be something worth seeing.” So we continued. Not in a typical structured, mainstream, hearing approach but in a Deaf-structured format, being innovative and improvising with the technology.

Adjusting Live Performance to a Physically Distanced Platform

Deaf theatre companies are adapting and trying new things similar to how many other theatre companies are trying new things in a bid to adapt to the pandemic’s realities. One example is New York Deaf Theatre, which has moved its improvisational performances, fundraising events, and cabaret-style performances to video, YouTube, and TikTok. IRT, also a small New York City–based company that often produces Deaf/hearing theatre projects, debuted its recent avant-garde performance Yovo, performed in Spanish and ASL, and allowed the public access to the videotaped document of the live performance; the video presentation added a livestreamed Zoom panel of the actors and creators discussing the process. IRT also created a production called, Please UNtranslate Me, written by Deaf playwright Monique Holt, which was developed, rehearsed, and presented via Zoom and Vimeo. This production stood out for its expression of direct communication from Deaf artists using the technological benefits of captioning without needing hearing interpreters to assist with access.

A third very notable Deaf company adapting to online performance is Deaf Broadway, started by Garrett Zuercher, which uses the editing technology, meant for TV, that adds in the small image of an ASL interpreter in a frame within a frame during the news (as many people have seen in New York State Governor Cuomo’s COVID reports). Deaf Broadway shows videotaped Broadway productions side by side with Deaf actors signing the roles in real time.

Malik C. Paris, a professional stage and film actor who worked on Spoon River and with Deaf Broadway, feels each project offered something different: Spoon River being a hybrid of Deaf and hearing artists, as well as a mix of live stage work edited with green screen, structured and designed as live theatre, while Deaf Broadway was a purely virtual theatrical project and a fully Deaf experience. Paris finds the process of creating a recorded performance comfortable: “In all of the projects I have done, I see the Deaf actors often jump in with our own backgrounds, costumes, and improvisation,” he says. “Either way, artistically, the focus can be on the work itself in the way that Deaf storytelling and theatre seemed to have the freedom to grow in the days of Deaf social clubs, without the worry of physical logistics like housing and travel.”

For fresh ideas on how we can all connect and create theatre in this newly isolating world, let’s turn to the Deaf theatrical community. Their approach to the work, style of leadership, and ability to create using ASL foundational structures are the hallmarks of a community that has always risen above and found community against all odds. As we approach the next level of theatrical innovation with perhaps more theatres opening or new ideas for live performance developing, let’s keep an awareness and an eye on what the Deaf theatrical community is bringing to the table.

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