Theatrical, Social, Educational
By Mack Scism
The National Theatre of the Deaf speaks with two voices, one for the ear and one for the eye. By combining the Spoken Word with Sign Language, NTD created a new theatre form, a dual language theatre. In magnifying the visual imagery inherent in Sign Language, the effect was also to magnify the Spoken Word. The English language was suddenly expanded to include the visible shapes of the ideas being verbally expressed.
This was a new theatrical idea, and for the past forty-plus years, NTD has developed, and continues to develop, this concept. In the process, the theatre has garnered worldwide acclaim:
- A Wonder To Behold
- A National Treasure
- Theatre at its Best
- Stunning, Joyous, Funny, and Total
Are typical NTD review headlines.
Audiences watching an NTD performance for the first time are astonished by the power and beauty of the dual language style. They are surprised to find deaf actors performing at the peak of professionalism, and by the unexpected experience of seeing as well as hearing every word of the play. No literary style lies beyond the NTD’s dramatic range; the actors have performed everything from bedroom farce to Greek tragedy. In addition to adapting plays, epic poetry, and novels, the Theatre has become adept at creating original works. For the audience, the NTD poses no language or communication barrier. It is a professional theatre just like other professional theatres – but with a difference.
The difference is found in the NTD’s singular method, and in the interdependence of its deaf and hearing actors that is best mirrored by the daring young man on the flying trapeze and his catcher.
When the Big Top comes to town, when The National Theatre of the Deaf performs, everyone is under the spell of wonders that are many and the artists do things that were never believed possible.
Nowhere is the power of art to bring about change more apparent than in the work of The National Theatre of the Deaf.
During 1966 and 1967, working in concert with the visionary leaders of Gallaudet College and the former US Office for Education of the Handicapped, David Hays founded the National Theatre of the Deaf. With its inception, a new way to see and think about deafness was invented, and a reversal in the way many hearing people regard the deaf began.
Coming for the first time to see the NTD perform, theatergoers were startled to find a combination of deaf and hearing performers capable of enthralling an audience. The power and grace of the Company’s theatrical style is still astonishing audiences with the capacity of the deaf to entertain and enrapture.
Fortunately, theatregoers are often influential and public-spirited citizens. By affecting them, the NTD proved and is still proving its ability to be a catalyst for social change.
Through the power of its example, The National Theatre of the Deaf has been instrumental in fostering the following changes pertaining to the social growth of the deaf:
- Removing the stigma from Sign Language
- Legitimizing the use of Sign Language on television
- Popularizing the study of Sign Language
- Hiring deaf actors (90% of whom are trained by the NTD) to perform deaf roles in professional stage and television plays
- By creating a climate hospitable to changing views of the deaf, the NTD has influenced the following phenomena:
- Establishment of amateur, semi-professional and professional theatres of the deaf all over America
- Job placement in positions that were rarely deemed possible for the deaf
- Widening social interaction between the deaf and hearing populations
- Installation of telecommunication devices for the deaf in banks, police stations, government offices, etc.
For almost 200 years, the deaf were America’s invisible minority, millions of people living in the shadows on the side roads of society. Gravitating to the large cities where services and interpreters for the deaf were more apt to exist, the deaf found jobs as printers, pressmen, bakers, linotype operators, or in some cases, as counselors in state and municipal vocational rehabilitation programs.
Apart from their immediate neighbors and co-workers, America’s deaf lived in a separate, unequal, silent community. When the NTD coupled Sign Language with speech, began its public performances, and appeared triumphantly on Broadway and network television, Sign Language began to come front and center. In a surprisingly short time, the stigma of Sign Language began to fade. Seeing talented deaf people on the stage bathed in theatrical glamour, displaying wit and grace, prompted audiences everywhere to want to meet these extraordinary people.
There have been incredible strides in our 40-plus years. And looking back it is hard to believe that so much has changed in the social situation of the deaf. Somewhere along the line, someone coined the phrase, “Deaf Awareness.”
In the early days, initial encounters were often heartbreakingly funny. “Oh, you can’t be deaf; you’re so pretty.” “How do you answer the phone?” “Does it hurt?” “I had always placed the deaf on a pedestal, thought of them as silent angels. After seeing your performance I now know that deaf people can be just as immoral as everyone else.”
Through its extensive touring (all fifty states, all seven continents) the NTD has brought to hundreds of thousands of people all over the world a new awareness of the deaf, a new understanding of their capabilities, a new sensitivity to their situation. By stressing artistic achievement, the NTD has forcefully demonstrated the power of art to bring about social change.
When NTD was founded in 1967, there was a corps of twelve deaf adults. The original twelve were exceptionally talented people by any standard, but only one of them had had any professional stage training. From the outset, the NTD faced the necessity of training its own actors. Top professionals from the Broadway and London stage headed the first session of the NTD’s Professional School. The educational activity of the theatre preceded all else.
Along with the NTD Acting Company, students from around the country, as well as many foreign countries have joined in professional theatre training. Many of the attendees returned home to serve as resource people in their own communities. These are the people who become leaders in local deaf advocacy efforts and establish theatres of the deaf throughout the country and world. The NTD is constantly training and equipping students with new skills and leadership training, moving them toward higher opportunities.
The National Theatre of the Deaf, sharing its knowledge and expertise through its training school, workshops and performances, shares everything from visual theatre techniques to the dynamics of communication. NTD informs as it entertains. The NTD’s master actors are also their master teachers.