Working in the Theatre: Sign Language Theatre

"If we close out ears as hearing people, what can we do to, sort of, enhance the rest?"

-Michael Arden

This video is another from the series of the American Theatre Wing, which I talked about in a previous post. Its was actually the first video from the series that I saw and it really opened my eyes not only to the Deaf community, but also how art and design could come together to change the world we live in. Following the creation of the production of the revival of Spring Awakening, it shows how the director Michael Arden was able to give a voice to the deaf actors and bring a whole new layer to the musical by adding the American Sign Language (ASL).

The first thought that came to my mind while watching this was, as musical director for the Deaf West Theatre, DJ Kurs, points out, musicals and deaf people seem to be almost contradictory. Nevertheless, as he points out, they are actually extremely related since choreography can be paired with ASL to create a whole new dimension of interpretation to a production. To the hearing audience member, the play is beautiful dance that happens before them, and the expressions of the actors become more intense, only to help transmit the emotion of the play even further. More importantly, for the deaf audience member this play opens up theatre to them. They can now be represented on a industry that seems to forget about minorities a little too often. They can now relate to the characters on stage and identify with what it is they are going through.

From a designer's point of view a production like this brings a whole set of challenges that help create a more unique form of theatre. When one of the senses is removed, specially being hearing in a musical setting, we have to find a way to make musical elements come to life visually so that all of the audience can be equally engaged in the play. The moments when this is specially challenging is when the music starts but theres no singing or ASL yet. How can it be shown visually, not only that the song has started, but also how the music feels and the emotion that it carries. It also presents the challenge of how can enough space be provided for there to be both, space for both, the singing and the deaf actor; and space for every character to be able to sign. Is by creating these design choices that we are able to include an audience that had been forgotten due to its apparent disconnection with musicals.

Its with productions like this that I'm really able to see that driving power that art and theatre have. By choosing the right production, and by the telling the right stories, we can help everyone find a place on stage. We can create a world where everyone can identify with a character and see how the character goes through the struggles that they been through. Theatre is place to give a voice to those whose voice isn't heard. Once theatre acknowledges the voice of people around it's when its true driving power of change is started.

So now I challenge myself and any other artist to always seek to involve as much diversity as possible as they can in any of our productions. It is easy sometimes to take the easy path and follow the status quo; but once we decide to step over that line we open a whole new universe of opportunity. We now have a more layered and powerful piece, but also we have shine a light on someone who had thought the world had forgotten about them.

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