WHEN DEAF WEST revived Spring Awakening on Broadway in 2015, each scene made greater impact by the fact that some actors performed entirely in ASL, with doubles in the background speaking and singing. Deaf audience members could better appreciate the dialogue and lyrics, while hearing audience members were struck by the cast members’ evocative performances. This marked a rare example of a Broadway show that made every effort to be accessible, with ASL incorporated even into Spencer Liff’s choreography.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders estimates that around five percent of Americans have disabling hearing loss and an additional 15 percent report trouble hearing. These individuals are too often limited in their options when they want to see (and fully enjoy) a theatre performance. Aside from companies aimed at deaf audiences — such as National Theatre of the Deaf, Deaf West Theatre, and New York Deaf Theatre — most professional, community, and school theatre companies limit accessible performances to one specific date, either with open captioning or ASL interpreters, if they do them at all.

The app GalaPro, which offers closed captioning on mobile devices, is starting to even the playing field a bit, as theatres begin using it, but not all theatregoers (or theatre-makers) are satisfied with this solution.

Dramatics reached out to playwrights interested in moving beyond captions and ASL interpreters on conventional plays to create new theatre experiences fully accessible to both deaf and hearing audiences.


“Theatres assume the deaf audience is getting a ‘total theatre experience’ by providing ASL interpreters or captioning,” said award-winning deaf playwright Willy Conley. “As a deaf audience member, my eyes have to constantly dart back and forth between the stage and where the interpreters are seated, or where the captioning board is set, to read the signs or text of the spoken dialogue. Meanwhile, all a hearing audience member has to do is sit back, relax, watch, and hear their native language come directly from the actors. I am constantly inventing ways in my scripts to offer a total theatre experience for both deaf and hearing audiences.”

One way Conley does this is by integrating physical elements into his work. In his early play Broken Spokes, originally produced by New York Deaf Theatre in 1990, he incorporated Visual Vernacular (or sign mime). This combination of mime and sign language is purely visual and requires no narration. In his script, Conley outlines what happens in the story, such as “Captain gapes as the bomb descends toward the boat.” Onstage, the actor silently and animatedly tells a story of World War II using his body alone.

Another of Conley’s plays, Goya: En la quinta del sordo (In the House of the Deaf Man), produced in 2002 for Deaf Way II at Gallaudet University, also avoids both vocal and sign language. The actors perform entirely in universal gestures, pantomime, masquerade, and dance, so that any audience can understand.

Even when his plays use ASL, whatever is signed onstage is voiced by a speaking actor offstage or character onstage. “The hearing audience always has access during every show,” Conley said.

Willy Conley's Goya: En la quinta del sordo (In the House of the Deaf Man) features pantomime and dance in place of spoken or signed language.
Willy Conley's Goya: En la quinta del sordo (In the House of the Deaf Man) features pantomime and dance in place of spoken or signed language. Photo by Willy Conley.

Some works that Conley finds most accessible weren’t written for deaf audiences. For example, he names Cirque du Soleil’s clown acts, anything by Blue Man Group, and Bill Irwin and David Shiner’s Fool Moon. These shows replace dialogue with a universally intelligible visual storytelling that Conley strives for in his work.

When Conley was with the National Theatre of the Deaf, they did a two-week summer workshop collaboration with Pilobolus Dance Theatre. “Two of their top dance performers [Robby Barnett and Felix Blaska] did a 15-minute nonverbal, physical, visual performance of a condensed variation of Waiting for Godot. It was one of the best staged and most accessible performances I have ever seen in my life, and it was merely a bare-bones showcase,” he said.

Sabina England, another deaf artist, is also forging new ground in theatre for the deaf. Her solo show Allah Earth: The Cycle of Life, performed at the New York International Fringe Festival 2018, incorporates movement, mime, video, sign language, tai chi, and classical Indian dance.

In addition to being a playwright, England is a filmmaker, poet, and performance artist. She is currently writing a play that has dialogue but is also visual and physical. The dialogue works with both voice and sign language, and she wants to workshop the play with a cast of deaf and hearing actors and dancers.

“I think ‘deaf theatre’ needs redefined,” England said. “Deaf theatre should go beyond the ideas of traditional theatre normally used by hearing-abled people. We don’t need to just use hearing-written plays and perform them in American Sign Language. I honestly find that uninspiring. I want to see plays with sign language, dance, physical movements, lighting changes, video — anything that’s visually and physically appealing to deaf tastes but would also amaze hearing-abled audiences.”


Some hearing playwrights strive to create opportunities for deaf actors by incorporating deaf characters into their plays. Perhaps the most famous is Mark Medoff’s Children of a Lesser God, about the relationship between a deaf student and a hearing teacher, adapted for a 1986 film that won Marlee Matlin an Oscar.

The 2018 Broadway revival incorporated supertitles directly into the scenic design, with closed captioning available through GalaPro and ASL interpreters at certain performances. Even with these additions, the play remained inherently accessible to a hearing audience and mediated for deaf theatregoers through technology that required them to dart their eyes back and forth from captions or interpreters to the stage.

Another hearing playwright, Craig Lucas, wanted his play I Was Most Alive with You, which includes parts for deaf actors, to be fully accessible at every performance, with captioning and ASL interpretation done on set as close as possible to the action. It was originally staged in 2016 at Huntington Theatre in Boston and then last year at Playwrights Horizons in New York City.

Lucas’ play is based on the Book of Job. Knox is gay, deaf, and a recovering addict and grateful for all those things, but then tragedy happens. Lucas wrote the character of Knox for Russell Harvard, known for starring in Tribes, another play about the deaf experience written by a hearing playwright. Lucas credits Sabrina Dennison, ASL director for the show, for teaching him about accessibility and how it might work for this play. “We decided to try to make it fully accessible at every performance. Like all privileged people, I needed to be told. I needed to have it explained to me,” Lucas said.

The Huntington performance featured some deaf actors as shadow doubles for some hearing characters in the play, including Knox’s parents. At Playwrights Horizons, the production took the idea further, using a complete shadow cast of deaf actors, each hearing actor having a corresponding shadow double. The shadow cast performed on the top level of a two-tiered set.

It was an ambitious and expensive undertaking, and Lucas admits it may not have been the best solution. “When we went looking for funding, they said to find the other people who have done fully accessible performances where hearing or deaf people aren’t privileged, where everybody is privileged, and there were no prototypes,” he said.

Their intentions were good, but deaf audience members later told Lucas the production was difficult to follow. He thinks part of the problem was that his dialogue is dense and people talk over each other. “My characters are like a lot of Americans. They were not listening to each other. And I think that was hard. Deaf people wait for the other person to finish. You can’t follow two conversations in ASL,” Lucas said.

Lucas added a note to the script that reads, “All future productions must provide full access for hearing and deaf audiences at all performances by whatever means chosen. A director of artistic sign language must be employed. Any production attempting to forego these conditions will be in violation of the author’s wishes as well as the licensing agreement. All questions about production matters and permissions should be forwarded to the author’s representatives.”

“I’m reliant upon deaf people to tell me how to do it better — or to not do it and let deaf artists do it and do it their way, which I think is equally important. Probably most important is to see theatre funding start going to deaf artists and let them show the way,” said Lucas, who acknowledges there are many roadblocks for deaf playwrights at the Off-Broadway, Broadway, and regional levels, mostly monetary, due to the added costs of hiring interpreters.

Shadow doubles of hearing actors provide ASL interpretation on the top level of a two-tiered set with supertitles in Craig Lucas’ I Was Most Alive With You.
Shadow doubles of hearing actors provide ASL interpretation on the top level of a two-tiered set with supertitles in Craig Lucas’ I Was Most Alive with You. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Lucas wants to continue writing for deaf audiences and performers. He hopes to develop a television series for a primarily deaf cast and is working on a two-character musical to be performed entirely in ASL with no spoken or sung dialogue. At the same time, he is trying to help deaf playwrights by reading their work and submitting it to his literary manager friends.

“Everybody turned down The Normal Heart,” Lucas said, referring to the 1985 play that was probably the first about the AIDS crisis in the gay community. “That play was crossing every desk in New York, and everybody said no. So Larry [Kramer] and a bunch of other people had to make a lot of noise and scream and kick, until somebody said, ‘I’ll do it,’ and that’s what will have to happen for deaf writers. They’ll have to scream and kick and threaten to go public — and produce work that cannot be argued with because it is good storytelling.”

In March, HowlRound Theatre Commons organized their first Deaf Theatre Action Planning Session in Boston, where deaf theatre-makers convened to talk about the future. England participated and said that most people in attendance were actors, directors, or producers — very few playwrights. “Funding is a huge issue. However, at the theatre conference, we came away with an agreement to try to create a writing retreat for deaf playwrights.” She added that a few theatre producers and grant writers have pledged to get more funding and produce more new plays written by deaf playwrights.

“It’s an ongoing process,” said England, referring to both fund- and awareness-raising efforts and to the overall evolution of theatre that tells stories fully accessible to all. “Deaf artists and deaf playwrights need to be given opportunities to create beautiful, amazing works for both deaf and hearing audiences. We don’t just want accessibility in theatre, we also want our stories to be seen and told.”

Tips for Accessible Performances

WHILE TRADITIONAL approaches to accessibility, like captioning and ASL interpretation, have their limitations, these can be good places to start when trying to make your theatre performance accessible to everyone.

ASL interpreters
American Sign Language interpretation for theatre is a fine art. Interpreters must prepare in advance to determine how best to tell the story while keeping up with the pace of each scene. They study scripts and attend rehearsals, and they seek to convey appropriate emotion through posturing or facial expressions while never stealing the show. Interpreters typically charge by the hour and can be found through agencies in your state or region or through the Registry of Interpreters for the Deaf, a national organization that maintains a directory of individual freelancers and member agencies. Learn more at rid.org.

Some theatres display supertitles (also known as surtitles) somewhere on the set. This is an example of open captioning, which cannot be turned on and off by individual viewers. This technique is common in opera for translating foreign languages. Supertitles should be developed in advance to best aid the understanding of each scene’s dialogue and any other audio or subtext not visually apparent. Supertitles are commonly projected onto the proscenium arch or across a plasma or LED screen on or above the stage.

GalaPro is an Israeli tech company whose app uses vocal recognition software designed for musical and theatrical performances. Audience members can download the app for free and use it at participating theatres. A representative from GalaPro said that, while the company partners with a majority of Broadway theatres and a growing number of Off-Broadway and regional companies, their capacity and pricing limits participation at most community and school theatres.

This story appeared in the August 2019 print issue of Dramatics. Learn about the print magazine and other Thespian benefits on the International Thespian Society website.

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