Who Tells Our Story? Presenting the Deaf Experience Onstage through Deaf Eyes
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.
We have stories, and we have voices. Our experiences are shared by an estimated seventy million people worldwide: roughly equivalent to the twentieth most-populous nation. We are Deaf. Our sign language is the backbone of our community and culture. We prefer to show. The body and all of its intricate movements becomes our voice. And that is the "voice" that our stories deserve.
2015 to the present has been an unprecedented period for diversity in theatre. On stages across the country, but especially in New York City, one can see a wide variety of performers of race, gender, age, and ability. The Deaf community has also seen themselves represented on stage more in recent years, which is something we can all celebrate and be proud of. However, the question we must ask is: who are the people telling these stories? It is important to think beyond the performances on stage, and remember that theatre counts. More than just an evening of entertainment, it is an industry that supports many and acts as a voice for many more. Theatre has the power and ability to mimic and change the world at large.
A French book translated into English still tells a French story and a hearing play performed in ASL still tells the story of the hearing world. We must nurture, support, and encourage the burgeoning Deaf voice.
The struggle for Deaf Theatre is real and it is urgent. And at a time when the battle cry #DeafTalent has ignited the community, we believe that this struggle—this fight—is possibly more important than ever. The fight to get the work of all Deaf artists produced—not only the actors on the stage, but producers, directors, writers, designers, and all the technicians and crew behind, above, below, and all around the stage. At New York Deaf Theatre (NYDT) we make it our mission to see that #DeafTalent in all of these capacities have the opportunity to tell their own story, not to mention the chance to earn a living wage in the field of their choice. There is a severe lack of opportunities for Deaf theatre artists, without which these artists cannot grow their talent, which means their voices will continue to be unheard.
We believe it is crucial for all members of the Deaf community and the theatre community as a whole to support #DeafTalent. We welcome all, hearing and deaf, to be a part of supporting #DeafTalent but we, the Deaf community, need to take ownership of our own movement. We need to nurture and build upon the passions of all our allies if we want to see true change. The #DeafTalent movement was originally created/inspired by Deaf filmmaker Jules Dameron, and she lays out this groundwork with a few key points:
- Deaf people cannot continue to be barred from opportunities to work in the industry.
- It is crucial for the d/Deaf community to be able to look up to their own history to be represented in an authentic way.
- Hearing people should not own the decisions that revolve around representing d/Deaf people.
But what is our direction? Where do we want to go? We like to sum it up with the phrase Deaf for Deaf by Deaf. The Deaf story told by Deaf artists for the Deaf community.
The Deaf for Deaf by Deaf approach is not a new concept. It’s practiced not only by NYDT, but other companies, including National Theatre for the Deaf, Gallaudet University Theatre Arts Department, Rochester Institute of Technology, and Deaf West. It is just now we are recognizing its importance and putting a name to this art form.
Deaf for Deaf by Deaf was discussed by many at the NEA Roundtable on "Opportunities for Deaf Theatre Artists” in January. NYDT was thrilled to be a part of this discussion, as it has always been one of the main goals of the company to provide an artistic home for Deaf artists in NYC to create art and tell their stories.
But what exactly does Deaf for Deaf by Deaf mean? The idea varies but this is the overall concept:
- The Deaf story. The d/Deaf experience and the struggles and joys that are shared by those in all and any level of the community. The knowledge that these experiences are shared. A legacy for the d/Deaf children of tomorrow so that they never, for a single day, forget that they grow out of a rich and passionate culture and community and that what they are and what they, in turn, pass along matters uniquely, not in spite of, but, because it is Deaf.
- For Deaf. That can’t be forgotten. The context of the Deaf community within the larger world is of utmost importance, but let us not forget that there is a place for us. Audiences full of Deaf eyes and Deaf hearts. A space where things are available and accessible to all because any piece of theatre that limits accessibility to exclude those whose story it purports to tell belies the best intentions and loses all credibility. Lights, sightlines, staging, costumes, stage movements, and actor placements that are all made for the Deaf audience due to the fact that they were all designed and directed by #DeafTalent. We deserve that. And we deserve the opportunity to have a place to share with all the hearing and deaf people we love. But may it ever be a Deaf place.
- Built and maintained by Deaf people who also see the world through these eyes. The perspective always honest and the portrayal ever true. This requires a Deaf voice. A French book translated into English still tells a French story and a hearing play performed in ASL still tells the story of the hearing world. We must nurture, support, and encourage the burgeoning Deaf voice.
This third element is one that NYDT has become acutely aware of and has decided focus on recently: finding and nurturing Deaf playwrights to tell their own story. By Deaf. Often Deaf stories are told and viewed through the hearing lens, distorting them, sometimes, out of recognition. Deaf playwrights seldom get the same opportunities as Hearing playwrights to work on their scripts, especially those that feature Deaf characters. This happens because of a lack of interest, lack of potential casting, lack of funding, communication barriers, etc. Due to the lack of opportunity, such talent is demotivated from continuing to work on such important and necessary material.
As members of the Deaf community, we support and encourage Deaf by Deaf for Deaf work, and the unique stories that they have to tell—stories that would certainly leave something to be desired if told by anyone else. We implore members of the community to continue strengthening our culture and presence by contributing to this movement. We have a voice, a visual voice, and we must use it to tell such stories. The Deaf story needs the Deaf voice in every aspect of its creation. It is our duty to tell our own stories. If we don’t, who will?