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Deaf Theatre as Visual Art: Process Towards Revival

By Aaron Weir Kelstone and Patti Durr

Presented at the World Federation for the Deaf Conference

July 25, 2003

For several centuries Deaf artists have participated actively on an international level in the arts. The visual and performing art have served as the two primary areas of focus, because both involve the use of eyes and hands as the primary tools of expression.  Of the two disciplines, the visual arts have demonstrated the greatest degree of change and these Deaf artists have moved from traditional methodologies of painting to approaches that are inclusive where their paintings fully reflects their Deaf identity. This process can best be demonstrated through the use of Post-Colonial theory as originally proposed by Frantz Fanon and through the Social Sciences from the work of Neil S. Glickman.

Both Fanon, through English Literature theory, and Glickman, through psychology, have proposed that there are several stages that artists or individuals, Deaf or hearing, culturally pass through as they develop their self-identity within their cultural environment. These different stages of development often are not easily separated and frequently will overlap each other. In fact the process can be repetitive in a manner where Glickman suggests, “there is really no end state to this process. Rather, one can “recycle” through these stages at higher levels of sophistication throughout one’s life.”[i]

Fanon’s work was developed early in the 20th-century as a Post-Colonial literary theory to explain political and social events that occurred within specific cultures that had experienced the process of colonization by England, Spain, and France. As these countries gradually withdrew their control over these cultures specific behaviors occurred within these formerly oppressed cultures. Fanon and Glickman, from two distinct vantage points of scholarly study and historical time frames, suggested that there are distinctive patterns of behavior present within a culture emerging from the experience of oppression. These patterns occur after the oppressing culture has ceased, by choice or not, the overt domination of the emerging culture. Both have proposed that these behavioral patterns are based on social, political, economic factors and socialization experiences of these cultural groups.

As these behaviors transform an oppressed culture, Fanon suggested that there will be a distinctive cultural effort to strive towards a social structure where “every culture is first and foremost national…”[ii] If the access to a nationalistic identity is blocked, for whatever reason, Fanon believed that there will be a movement to create linkages such as the “movement toward the Negro-African culture or the Arab-Moslem culture. It is not specifically toward a national culture. ” [iii] Deaf people, according to Glickman, face a “moment of discovery of one’s Deafness…called the identity shattering something.”[iv] Unlike most oppressed cultures, Deaf people cannot make a decision to go home to a specific country or location that consists solely of Deaf people nor can they claim a geographic location as their national boundary. In this case Deaf culture creates a unified social consciousness the essential factor that glues the culture together is ASL. Language, the most personal element of any culture, becomes even more so for Deaf people because it creates a means of “acceptance and recognition of their history and their use of signing as a means of communication”[v].

An example of this can be seen in the Deaf View / Image Art (De’VIA) artistic movement established shortly before the Deaf Way I conference, in Washington, D.C. These artists choose to push for more concrete acknowledgment of their deafness within their works.  The emergence of affirmation and resistance artworks, within De’VIA, can be strongly noted just as it has been noted among other disenfranchised groups’ artworks.  Both are necessary and vital to recording the celebration of validation and achieving a sense of belonging to sign language and Deaf culture. It also becomes a focal point for expressing the outrage against the oppression Deaf people because “language issues are often at the core of struggles by oppressed minorities”[vi].

Since Deaf Way I, some Deaf artists have developed a distinctive style of work that recognizes American Sign Language (ASL) and specific motifs that symbolize the importance and oppression of ASL and Deaf Culture.  This is especially shown in their depiction of hands, eyes, and mouths.  Thus, within Deaf culture, the visual and performing arts is more than just an abstract form of artistic expression. Instead it is used in a way that recognized the validity and struggles of Deaf people, of their language, and of their culture. Glickman proposes that the medical-pathological model encourages mainstream society to interpret the problems they perceive in deaf people as being linked to our experience of deafness and “the result has been a portrait of deaf people as deviant, maladjusted, and incapable of benefiting from insight-oriented therapies.” [vii] Thus for Deaf people the use of ASL, as a creative tool, becomes a means for tearing away from the negative experiences of the past. Fanon acknowledges this as an essential step towards change because

“…this tearing away, painful and difficult though it may be, is however necessary. If it is not accomplished there will be serious psycho-affective injuries and the result will be individuals without an anchor, without a horizon, colorless, stateless, rootless—a race of angels [and] the intellectual who is Arab and French, or Nigerian and English, when he comes up against the need to take on two nationalities, chooses, if he wants to remain true to himself, the negation of one of these determinations.”[viii]

The compelling human need to belong eventually forces individuals to choose one culture over another.  Glickman proposes that, “the realities of being Deaf as Deaf people see it, requires a radical reorganization of meaning.”[ix]  When this pivotal moment arrives Fanon has argued that a specific process occurs that he divided it into several phases and indicates in his theory that

In the first phase, the native intellectual gives proof that he has assimilated the culture of the occupying power. His writings correspond point by point with those of his opposite numbers in the mother country. His inspiration is European…this is the period of unqualified assimilation…[x]

For Glickman, the process is one of definition and how Deaf people find a way to create cultural boundaries for themselves. A life spent surrounded by the hearing world creates a situation where “Deaf people, then, have a psychological image of what it means to be hearing, and they define themselves partially in relationship to this image.”[xi] This process of assimilation or of becoming as Glickman choose to label it, “culturally hearing,” can clearly be seen in the early work of Deaf artists in both art forms.  These works of visual and performing artists demonstrated their proficiency and talent, but at the same time offered no indication of their deafness within the work itself.

It is in the second phase, as proposed by Fanon and Glickman, that the culture as a whole becomes conscious of its relationship to the world as a whole.  As this awareness intensifies it promotes a process of change that permits the Deaf artist to reveal more of their deafness within their actual artistic work. This second stage begins to emerge in the latter part of the 20th century and it should be noted at this point that these changes are more evident in the visual arts than in the performing arts. Fanon proposed that in this second phase

…we find the native is disturbed: he decides to remember what he is. “This is the period of creative work…old legends will be reinterpreted in the light of a borrowed aestheticism and of a conception of the world which was discovered under other skies.[xii]

Glickman identifies this phase as one where the Deaf person feels culturally marginal. It is at this point that Deaf people begin to define the actions of hearing society as having a primary focus to “inculcate hearing identities. What it generally produces is marginal identities. What it should be producing is bicultural identities.” [xiii] This concept of bicultural identity is one that Glickman uses to define the fourth stage of development of a Deaf identity and this will be explored later in this paper. The consequences for Deaf people who become aware of this sense of marginality generally creates certain traits that are manifested psychologically by Deaf people and these traits “include ambivalence, excessive self and race consciousness, inferiority complexes, hypersensitivity to perceived injustice, and compensatory reactions such as egocentrism and aggression.”[xiv]

It is in this phase that culturally we become aware of the effects that the dominant culture has had on us as individuals and we begin to respond to that awareness by defining how we relate, as Deaf individuals, to the world surrounding us. This sense of awareness leads to a third phase, which Glickman identifies as immersion and is

…characterized chiefly by anger, especially toward the dominant groups in society; an comprising rejection of everything pertaining to the majority society; an exuberant love affair with everything pertaining to the minority culture even while sharp distinctions are made as to what does, and does not, represent the minority viewpoint; dichotomous thinking (“You are one of us or one of them, good or bad”); and politically militancy. [xv]

This phase according to Fanon is the final phase, which he calls the “fighting phase where “the native, after having tried to lose himself in the people and with the people, will on the contrary shake the people.” [xvi]  It was during this fighting phase that several Deaf-focused original plays were created in the 1970s, which are now often viewed as our Deaf classics such as: My Third Eye by the NTD ensemble, Troubles Just Beginning – A Play of Our Own by Dorothy Miles, Sign Me Alice by Gil Eastman, and Tales from a Clubroom by Bernard Bragg.  These plays began to gaze at the relationship that Deaf people experienced within the general context of the hearing world. Visual artists provided similar artistic perceptions with works such as Leon Lim’s “Killing My Deafness” or Susan Dupor’s “ Family Dog.”  Other artists called attention through various paintings to the Milan 1880 event to shake Deaf culture into a renewed awareness of our past history as it pertains to the hearing world.

After the appearance of these works it appears that visual artists continued to evolve their work towards what Glickman identifies as the “bicultural” phase. It is in this phase that he perceives as the final phase “a person affirms Deafness as a cultural difference and feels a profound connection with other Deaf people. At the same time, the strengths and weaknesses of both Deaf and hearing people are recognized, and the person has a personal and balanced perspective on what it means to be Deaf.” [xvii]  This process can be seen in the recent works of Chuck Baird where traditional painting techniques are demonstrated with a high degree of proficiency and a sub-theme related to Deafness is integrated into the paintings.  As a result his paintings can be readily appreciated by both Deaf and hearing individuals however, the hearing person may or may not be aware of the sub-theme within the painting. They may only become aware of this sub-theme if they are culturally aware or it is pointed out to them by Deaf individuals.

Unfortunately Deaf theater did not maintain the degree of change that visual Deaf artists have achieved and apparently returned, to some degree, to the first phase involving assimilation. For the most part their productions remain adaptations of works created by hearing playwrights. Since the late 1980s’, Deaf theatre has generally remained within the confines of these adapted works and there appears to have been limited efforts to create a Deaf literature, through the use of performance, compared to what happened, for example, within ASL poetry. This is true even though the performing arts represent a powerful means of cultural and social expression that can effectively represent the common experiences of Deaf people throughout the world.

There are exceptions to this observation and one example, within the performing arts, that retains a Deaf theme and relies on an ASL oriented format is the one-person show genre.  This can be noted in the work of Terrylene, Patrick Graybill, Bernard Bragg, Julianna Fjeld, and ASL poets who often create their work as an ASL solo performance. These solo performances start from the basis of the hand and eye and contain powerful examples of the expressive capabilities of ASL. In these works the process is reversed and instead of translating from English into sign language, their work is normally transferred from sign language to a written format. This is often accomplished through the use of several techniques such as:  glossing, a “press secretary” system, or videotaping. However, beyond solo performances there appear to be an absence of accessible ways for Deaf performing artists to work collaboratively. This potentially prevents opportunities for Deaf playwrights and actors to generate original scripts reflecting the deaf experience. Consequently, this lack of exposure to Deaf themed theater reduces Deaf culture’s capability to envision or aspire to the creation of such works.

Another apparent roadblock is the perceived need by Deaf theatres to generate adequate revenue and their fear that original works, by Deaf artists, will not appeal to mainstream hearing society which is considered vital because hearing people remain the largest audience segment for Deaf theatres.  Even when a Deaf theatre is willing to produce a Deaf playwright’s work they often ask the playwright to submit their scripts in written English. Then, during the rehearsal phase, the script is transferred back into sign language.  This convoluted process, heavily dependent on the written text, may suggest one reason why the migration, beyond the first phase, has not been effectively achieved by Deaf theatre as effectively as it has in the visual arts. Instead, we may have, as individuals and as a culture, internalized our experience of oppression on the living stage.

Recently, at the Deaf Way II conference, some theatrical performances appeared to have addressed several of the issues mentioned above and a few original Deaf plays were presented during the conference such as: Hannah by the French Deaf Theatre and Falling on Hearing Eyes by Willy Conley from the US.  For the most part, however, the performances presented at the conference involved adapted scripts or pantomime work that did not appear to relate to Deaf culture or a country’s native sign language in any way.

With these thoughts in mind how then, do we revitalize Deaf theatre? One approach is to reassess the processes utilized and the content of the performances. We may need to reverse the traditional approach for creating performances by changing the starting point. Instead of working from the written word, it may be more realistic to rely on a visual perspective that encourages improvisation, internalization and revision work based on visual technologies such as digital video or film. Deaf playwrights and actors, working from this visual position, may find the necessary freedom needed to think, react, and create in ASL. This can allow performing artists a more fluid incorporation of the rules, norms, and values of ASL and traditions of Deaf culture into their performance work.

Recently we both worked on a project, ME TOO, that encouraged this process and we found it to be a rewarding experience. Several steps were encouraged to create specific monologues by the actors. First, we provided a written text for the actor to review. This was followed by a rehearsal time that provided the actor an opportunity to discuss the meaning, intent and purpose of the monologue. During the directing process we both encouraged the actors not to memorize the text but to internalize the meanings of the text into their preparation process. We discouraged them from attempting to create a “word for word” rendition of the text and nurtured a process where the actors expressed the monologue fully within the confines of an ASL perspective. This process, we believe, freed the actors to fully express themselves, using facial features, body indicators along with ASL to express the monologue in its entirety.

After a period of time the work was moved into the video recording studio where the monologues were taped and later edited into a unified, sequential format. Eventually the monologues developed during this process will be transferred back into to text format and the playwright now has an opportunity to work with a visual text that is readily accessible and not bound to a strict adherence to written text.  As the playwright works through these recorded monologues, she can begin to reformulate how she wants the play to evolve into a live performance.  The monologues can be linked and expanded into scenes supported later by further filming. This visual process, divorced from the use of text as a starting point, allows the play, for a Deaf playwright, to develop towards a completed form. When the story has been fully developed then a reverse translation process can be implemented where the ASL performance is then translated into a written text rather than the historical norm of translating a written text into ASL.

This process liberates the Deaf artist to convey stories about Deaf culture through their eyes and hands rather than through a written text. This process can encourage the rapid expansion of stories by Deaf people because they can freely express their cultural experiences using their native language, in a relevant form, which will enable Deaf audiences to gain a satisfactory or challenging theatrical experience. This could revitalize the audience dynamics of Deaf theatre and effectively allow the performing arts to become a powerful means of expression for Deaf culture on an international scale. It effectively creates, through theatrical performances, a means of generating a larger body of Deaf literature than has been historically achieved. This in turn will allow us, as a cultural group and as individuals, to move on to other positive changes within our culture. These changes in turn will support a more positive identity for Deaf people and their culture because “identity change occurs through the attribution of positive meaning to one’s membership in a minority community.”[xviii]  This sense of community through identification with our sign language enables us to potentially let go of the past and strive towards a national culture where ”the whole body of efforts made by a people in the sphere of thought to describe, justify, and praise the action through which that people has created itself and keeps itself in existence.” [xix] Let us hope that we will be able to achieve this form of discovery and move towards a revitalization of theatre that provides an active living stage where our existence as Deaf people and our cultures are fairly represented to the world at large.

[i] Neil S. Glickman, Culturally Affirmative Psychotherapy with Deaf Persons (Mahwah, New Jersey: LEA, Publishers, 1996) 128.

[ii]Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 1961) 216.

[iii] Fanon, 217.

[iv] Glickman, 138.

[v] Glickman, 124.

[vi] Glickman, 125.

[vii] Glickman, 135.

[viii] Fanon, 218.

[ix] Glickman, 133.

[x] Fanon, 222.

[xi] Glickman, 132.

[xii] Fanon, 222.

[xiii] Glickman, 133.

[xiv] Glickman,134.

[xv] Glickman, 139.

[xvi] Fanon, 222.

[xvii] Glickman, 141.

[xviii] Glickman, 145.

[xix] Fanon, 233.

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