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Deaf Culture - Deaf Theatre

Entertaining and Educating Deaf and Hearing

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Updated October 30, 2011

Deaf Theatre has been around for generations, and serves a dual purpose: deaf culture entertainment for deaf audiences, and education about deafness and sign language for hearing people. When deaf theatre began, it was deaf people performing for deaf audiences; today it is deaf and hearing together.

My first exposure to deaf theatre was as a preteen, when I saw the original Children of a Lesser God on Broadway. After all these years, I still remember how impressed I was at seeing a deaf actress (Phyllis Frelich) on the stage. Years later, I enjoyed plays presented at the National Technical Institute of the Deaf and Gallaudet University (then College).

History of Deaf Theatre

The National Theatre of the Deaf, which has been instrumental in the founding of many deaf theater groups, led the way for modern deaf theatre beginning in 1967, but deaf theatre's history goes back much further. It has its roots in drama presented at deaf schools and colleges such as Gallaudet as far back as the 1860s.

The National Technical Institute for the Deaf produced its own well-known deaf theatre group, Sunshine Too. From the early '80s through the late '90s, Sunshine Too had traveled around the country, educating hearing audiences and amusing deaf children.

Video Recordings

Few of Gallaudet University's early plays are preserved on video (viewing limited to people on campus). One that is available in Gallaudet University library archives is The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark presented by The Gallaudet College Dramatic Club, Washington, D.C., March 26-29, 1951. There are selections from My Third Eye, a National Theater of the Deaf 1973 presentation, and a low-quality recording of Sign Me Alice, a 1973 Gallaudet play.

Archival Deaf Theatre Items

The Gallaudet Library Archives is also home to many theatre-related items:

  • News clippings on the National Theatre of the Deaf
  • An extensive selection of news clippings on defunct deaf theatre groups such as:
    • Chicago Theatre for the Deaf
    • Children's Theatre of the Deaf
    • Circuit Playhouse Theatre of the Deaf
    • Dayton Community Theatre of the Deaf
    • Lights On Deaf Theatre (Rochester, NY)
    • Minnesota Theatre of the Deaf
    • Musign Theatre Company
    • New Dominion Theatre of the Deaf
    • North Carolina Theatre of Gesture
    • Quiet Zone Theatre
    • Readers Theatre for the Deaf
    • Sign of the Times Community Theatre Group (Springfield, Massachusetts)
    • Spectrum Deaf Theatre
    • Sunshine Too
    (If any of these theatre groups still exist, please let me know so that I can remove them from this listing of defunct theatre groups)
  • World Theatre Festival for the Deaf (I do not know when this was)
  • A collection of theatre materials (1959-1986) from the Hughes Memorial Theatre, a theater group that had entertained audiences in Washington, DC.
  • Rare posters of deaf theatre performances, most from the Hughes Memorial Theatre.
In addition, in the 1990s there was a black deaf theatre group, Onyx Theatre Company of New York, founded by Michelle Banks. It appears that this company no longer exists.

Deaf Playwrights

One of the best known deaf playrights is Willy Conley. Some of his works have been published in a deaf literary anthology, The Tactile Mind magazine. At the time this article was written, one of his plays had appeared in the Autumn 2002 issue. Another is Raymond Luczak, whose websites includes a list of his plays. Yet another is Bernard Bragg, who through his estate has supported the Bernard Bragg '52, Endowed Chair: Deaf People in the Theater Arts endowment at Gallaudet University. According to a report in the newsletter On The Green (November 11, 1998) this Chair will not be filled until the endowment reaches $1 million.

In the 1990s, there was an American Deaf Play Creators festival held in Rochester, New York. Held at least twice, this event offered deaf playwrights the chance to practice their craft. Deaf playwrights such as Shanny Mow and Chuck Baird participated.

Deaf Theatre Bibliography

Willy Conley has a short bibliography of deaf theatre on his website at Gallaudet University.

More books

In addition to the books, articles, and theses included in Conley's bibliography, Gallaudet University Press published "Deaf Side Story," a book that examines the production of a deaf/hearing version of "West Side Story" at a small college in Illinois. Another book is Signs of silence : Bernard Bragg and the National Theatre of the Deaf by Helen Powers (1972, out of print). Another out of print book is The National Theater of the Deaf : flying fingers and terrific talent, by Patricia Bosworth (1973). Sign-language theatre and deaf theatre : new definitions and directions by Dorothy S. Miles and Louie J. Fant (mid '70s) is another book. In the early '90s, the National Theatre of the Deaf published The National Theatre of the Deaf : twenty-five years.

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