Disabilities in the Fine Arts: Deaf West Theater Revolutionizes Communication

By Rosie Alger

Elm Staff Writer

In January I was lucky enough to see one of “Spring Awakening’s” last performances on Broadway, before the end of its run. Getting to see any show on Broadway is a treat, and “Spring Awakening” is an incredible show that was overdue to be revived, but this was not just any production. The show, which was put on by a Los Angeles production company called Deaf West Theatre, is extraordinary in that half of its production team, artistic staff, and cast is deaf or hearing impaired. Their shows incorporate American Sign Language (ASL) in a way that is inexplicably beautiful. It is not merely a translation but an integral part of the performance, and their production of “Spring Awakening” was so beautiful and transformative that it landed itself a coveted spot on the Broadway stage.

The show is more than beautiful. It is also a bold statement about the treatment of those with disabilities in the arts. Never before have deaf actors and artists gotten so much media attention and recognition for their work. The show also featured Ali Stroker, the first person in a wheelchair to perform on a Broadway stage, making history in more ways than one. Sandra Mae Frank, leading as the main character Wendla and also an activist for the deaf community in the arts, talked about how important it is for directors to start seeing actors for more than just their disability in an Op-Ed that she wrote for The Washington Post. She said, “#DeafTalent, the official hashtag to promote deaf artists and spread awareness about oppression in the theater, has had a big impact on the deaf community, but the story of its creation is an ugly one. The community has stood by and watched in frustration for years as roles for deaf characters have been filled by hearing actors: ‘Medeas,’ ‘Listen to Your Heart,’ ‘After the Silence’ and ‘The Secret Life of Words,’ to name a few.

In my career, I have started attending auditions for characters who are not written to be deaf. Does it change the story to cast a deaf person in a hearing role? Not necessarily. It’s about the director’s vision. That’s the beauty of interpretation.

Plenty of casting directors don’t have open minds or the imagination to make it work, but that’s where it becomes my job, as a deaf actor, to educate them. The hearing community can do its part too. One of the hearing cast members in ‘Spring Awakening’ was offered an audition for a hard of hearing role recently. He politely turned it down, and explained that he works with amazing deaf actors who should be considered. That took tons of willpower. But we need more.

There are many deaf actors just like me, working hard to be seen. It fills my heart to see how we are finally being recognized. We are here to stay, and people should get ready to see us at auditions everywhere. We will show how we can bring the beauty of deaf culture to a character, but more importantly, how we can bring our abilities as actors. We are actors; we just happen to be deaf.”

“Spring Awakening” in itself is an incredible show that talks about a lot of important issues, including poor sex education and negativity, sexual and child abuse, mental health issues, and LGBTQ+ awareness and struggles. The show is about communication. This is where Deaf West’s production is so revolutionary, interweaving the barriers put up in front of the deaf community as well as the barriers that prevent young people from learning about their sexuality in a safe and healthy way. There were so many layers to the story that Deaf West created, and they certainly didn’t limit themselves to the literal confines of the script. Deaf actors and hearing actors shared roles, with one person playing the “voice” of the character, but the two artists seamlessly melded into one character, one heart on stage. A character’s voice often acted as a personification of their conscience or who they internally saw themselves as, and little things throughout the show made the two inseparable. One instance of this is when Moritz is introduced, a character whose parents have put an enormous amount of pressure on and who is shy, awkward, and struggles with mental illness. When we first see his “voice,” it emerges dressed as a modern day rock star, complete with grungy hair and leather jacket. In this unique and powerful way, the audience understands that Moritz doesn’t see himself as the person who is constantly put down, but rather he sees his own internal power.

The story takes place in 1891 Germany, but the issues it addresses are all the more present today. The production company is very aware of this, and even though they were going to miss the official Kid’s Night event on Broadway, they went out of their way to have a teen night. For this event, they not only had buy one/get one free ticket pricing for teens and their parents, but Vice President of Education at Planned Parenthood Federation of America Leslie Kantor, PhD, MPH, hosted a talkback after the show, according to an article by Playbill News. This is exactly the kind of relevant outreach and activism that the arts should wholeheartedly embrace, and I could not think of a better response to the emotional turbidity and substantial subject matter of this show than to bring in a sex education event. This is the kind of life changing material that all artists strive to achieve, and Deaf West’s Spring Awakening is embracing it in the most raw, engaging, and powerful way yet.

Unfortunately, the show has closed its run on Broadway, but if you are interested in seeing it, the company will be touring, so keep an out for possible upcoming performances at a theater in your area. It is very possible that they may find themselves at The Kennedy Center in D.C. or the Hippodrome in Baltimore, so although not much word is out officially just yet, I maintain hope that I may be able to see it again. If you are interested in learning more about deaf culture and ASL in general, there is a new Deaf Culture Awareness/ Learning ASL club this semester right here on the Washington College campus that plans to meet in William Smith starting next Wednesday at 7pm. Who knows, it could be an incredible opportunity to do a little bit of breaking down communication barriers in your own life.

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