The Signs of Music

A deaf theater company sings out.
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Many roles in Deaf West Theatre shows are cast with two actors: one deaf, and one hearing. (Photo: Tate Tuller)

Many roles in Deaf West Theatre shows are cast with two actors: one deaf, and one hearing. (Photo: Tate Tuller)

In 1880, at the Second International Congress on the Education of the Deaf in Milan, a cadre of educators proclaimed that lip-reading and mimicked speech, or what was called oralism, was superior to sign language—or “manualism.” Sign language was banned from schools all over the world, and deaf teachers were replaced by hearing teachers. Of the 164 delegates at the convention, just one was deaf. The president of the congress declared, “Yesterday, we were shouting, ‘Long live Speech!’ Now we will say, ‘Long live Pure Speech!’”

According to Michael Arden, an actor and director who works with the Deaf West Theatre company in Los Angeles, after the proclamation, “Many [deaf children] were put into asylums because they were denied language completely. They weren’t allowed to sign and they couldn’t speak.” He adds, “Their lives and their minds were taken away.”

Late last October, at the Rosenthal Theater in downtown L.A., a cast of hearing and deaf actors warmed up on a sparsely decorated stage in full view of the audience that was slowly filling the seats. The actors were styling one another’s hair; stretching, tuning instruments. Some were talking; others were using American Sign Language. We could hear bursts of laughter and bits of song.

Durant's attempts at speech were agonizing; it was clear that spoken language is a wholly unnatural, and unnecessary, way for him to communicate.

The cast was nearing the end of Deaf West’s first run of Spring Awakening, a musical set in Germany in the 1890s that explores the burgeoning sexuality of youth and ill-fated attempts by conservative adults to control the lives of pubescent teens. (The production was picked up by the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills for another run starting in May.) By the time the audience—a mix of hearing and deaf—filled the small, 100-seat theater, the actors were fully dressed and on their marks.

In silence, a young brunette deaf actress named Sandra Mae Frank began running her hands over her budding body with confusion and interest. Through an empty frame meant to signify a mirror, tall blond Katie Boeck—who can hear—mimicked Frank’s movements. In the audience, we understood that they were the same character. Frank began to sign the first words of the opening number, “Mama Who Bore Me,” her hands, face, and body position all essential to communicate the words. Boeck’s voice, from outside the spotlight, matched Frank’s movements.

Musicals may seem like a counterintuitive choice for a deaf theater company, but they aren’t uncommon for Deaf West, one of the few theater groups in the country led by a deaf artistic director, in its case DJ Kurs. The theater has staged five musicals since its founding in 1991, including a Tony Award-winning adaptation of Big River in 2003. Each show is cast with a mix of deaf and hearing actors; deaf actors are paired with someone who acts as his or her voice—like Frank and Boeck—so most lines are signed and spoken or sung.

Deaf West Theatre's Spring Awakening was picked up for a second run. (Photo: Tate Tuller)

Deaf West Theatre's Spring Awakening was picked up for a second run. (Photo: Tate Tuller)

Spring Awakening became a Broadway favorite because of its pop anthems and racy plotlines, but Kurs chose this show because it is fundamentally about the breakdown of communication. The plot holds a lot of parallels for the deaf community. “Ninety percent of us,” he said, “are born to hearing parents, and we’re dealing with [a cultural] divide from the beginning.”

Harlan Lane, a psychologist and historian of the deaf community, wrote in 1992, “We have come to look at deaf people in a certain way, to use a certain vocabulary of infirmity, and this practice is so widespread among hearing people ... that we imagine we are accurately describing attributes of deaf people.” The deaf community, on the other hand, considers itself a cultural minority with its own language, history, and social norms—disabled only from the point of view of a hearing majority, Lane argued.

Deaf West’s hearing actors simply covered their mouths as they sang. The hearing audience, deprived of one of their most familiar senses, was forced to acknowledge the fragility of spoken words.

One of Spring Awakening’s protagonists, a character named Moritz, is an introverted, repressed, jittery teen. In an early scene, Moritz is singled out in class to recite Latin lines out loud, but can’t because he has been too preoccupied by his new, recurring “mortifying visions”—wet dreams—to study. In Deaf West’s version, his teacher forces him to speak out loud. The deaf actor playing Moritz, Daniel Durant, never uses spoken language. He had agreed, though, to use his voice for this scene. Unlike his sign language, Durant’s attempts at speech were agonizing; it was clear that spoken language is a wholly unnatural, and unnecessary, way for him to communicate.

The brilliance of Deaf West is that it dismantles the notion that deaf culture is a lesser version of hearing culture. Mark Freund, a father of twins—a hearing boy and a deaf girl—and a member of Deaf West’s board, became a supporter because the productions showcase the creative capabilities of deaf language. “We’d occasionally take [our daughter] to shows that had sign language interpreters, but it was not a sharing of cultures. It was seeing a hearing production translated into her language, not a production that speaks to two cultures and adds information to both.”

In a show-stopping number in act 2, Melchior—the leading man—is asked by the headmaster if he had penned a salacious pamphlet detailing the wonders of genitalia for his friend Moritz. As the band begins to kick up, the actor admits he’s backed into a corner: “There’s a moment you know, you’re fucked.” The sign, a raised middle finger on each hand, tapping against his temples, was unmistakable. As the song started to crescendo, the full cast joined in, singing and signing and dancing. In the Broadway version, the actors frantically run their hands around their torsos and legs, as if they are trying to cope with the crawling feeling of society and its pressures. Onstage in Los Angeles, Deaf West’s hearing actors simply covered their mouths as they sang. The hearing audience, deprived of one of their most familiar senses, was forced to acknowledge the fragility of spoken words. Meanwhile, the deaf actors were signing every line from the musical in rapid, dizzying fashion. And it was sensory overload.

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