Deaf Theater

In a recent class at American University (Children’s Literature) one of my peers made a presentation on deaf theater, specifically at the Imagination Stage in Bethesda, MD. Having worked in Bethesda for several years, I was aware of the wonderful work that they did with students in the community but I had never heard of their Deaf Access program. Deaf Access at the Imagination Stage is a program that offers drama classes to Montgomery County school students who are deaf, hard of hearing, or Kids of Deaf Adults (KODA) in combination with hearing children. Students work with a variety of coaches, directors, artists, choreographers, and other experts in the area of drama (both hearing and deaf) in order to build a variety of skills from the social to the academic. Another aspect of the Deaf Access program at Imagination Stage is performance oriented. My classmate at American brought in a book, The Garden Wall by Phyllis Limbacher Tildes, a book about friendship between the hearing and the deaf, which was actually published and performed by the Imagination Stage Deaf Access program. As with the Deaf Access workshops and classes, the productions include both hearing and deaf actors and students and they are performed at the Stage itself in addition to touring to area theaters and schools.

When I came to the hearing disability portion of our forums, I was immediately interested in finding an article about deaf theater. I have learned in the past about deaf culture, and it is my understanding that at times it can be purposefully separate from hearing culture. I wondered about deaf theater creating a bridge with the hearing world and whether there was any negative reaction to the inclusion of the hearing in these productions. What I found was a complete lack of press on deaf theater. Well, not a complete lack. My searches produced scattered snippets from Style Section calendar listings and one, very disappointing article from the New York Times (April 2006.) Deaf Theater Troops Reel from Federal Cuts1 describes the precarious situation that many deaf theater groups that function like the Imagination Stage Deaf Access program have found themselves in of late due to the federal government slashing funding. Theaters such as the National Theater of the Deaf in Connecticut and the Deaf West Theater Company in California have had to cut their budgets drastically; directors clean the toilets, actors take on multiple roles in a production, but most discouragingly productions are cut.

Federal funding for these programs and groups was coming from the U.S. Department of Education but the cuts were approved as a part of the 2004 reauthorization of IDEA. What a contradiction! According to this article, neither the affected programs’ directors, nor several interested parties in Washington (for example, Senator Chris Dodd of Conn. attempted to have the funding reinstated) could identify the member or members of Congress who requested that these budget cuts be made. As I read this article, I mused that the frustration that must result from being so disenfranchised might just be one reason why deaf culture is not aligned with the hearing world. Fortunately for students in our area of the nation, Imagination Stage reports on its website (www.imaginationstage.com) that it has recently become one of three organizations in the United States to be awarded a three-year grant to continue and expand the Deaf Access program.

This wikipedian research contributed by Rachel Fries.