Archive for the ‘Deaf Theatre’ Category

Sign language, due to its visual and kinetic qualities, often lends itself to performing arts opportunities. Within the deaf community there were frequently “natural actors” or individuals highly motivated to develop solo or small skit performances that would be performed locally at deaf clubs, school activities, and school or sports events that occurred in each active regional area of the United States. I propose that these artistic performances often were based on visual observations of their private deaf world and the external events that surrounded them. Performances would often reflect the deaf experience within their group and interpret their understanding of the external world using humor, sarcasm, and drama. This is based largely on my personal experiences growing up at the Kansas School for the Deaf which has contributed its share of successful deaf performers in the 20th century such as Patrick Graybill, Chuck Baird, Juliana Fjeld.

A textual approach to developing their material was not likely and more often their performances were created using improvisational skills. If any of the material was written down it most likely was as an outline to help the performers remember the order of events within their performances. These improvisational pieces were then refined over time based on the reaction of deaf audiences and gradually certain types of performance materials, styles, and strategies for using sign language in performance were developed. While we do not have any visual recordings of performances prior to the establishment of literary societies I think we can best discover what these kind of performances might have looked like by looking at a group of performers active later in the 20th century. Examples of work by C.J. Jones, CHALB and other solo performers may shed light on how these performances were conducted.  Using these performance examples and comparing them to the evolution of Deaf Theatre will clarify how deaf performances have changed over time.

An internet search will not easily help you find information about deaf literary societies. As some good links are identified these will be added to the blog site. For now we can simply state that a literary society is a group formed to support literature and often the group will focus on a specific genre as their main interest. Deaf literary societies, generally speaking, were formed within the residential state schools to develop debate and presentation skills by using existing literature from Hearing culture as their main source of information and inspiration.

For Deaf Theatre this was a positive element because it encouraged the development of translation skills among deaf artists. It also provided a stage for deaf performing artists to develop their skills. Finally, it created a body of work based on poems, short stories, and books. Students developed their artistic skills, and their artistic work, at each residential school. Eventually this body of work would converge at Gallaudet College where the best work would be shared and later borrowed by students and introduced back to different parts of the country. This created a national level of traditional performing arts pieces, jokes, and other works that would be handed down to deaf artists in each subsequent generation. This body of work provided a way for each generation of new performing artists to improve the existing canon of performing arts work. These improvements would then be further refined within the literary societies at school, at deaf events, deaf clubs, and conferences across the United States.

There is a negative aspect to the formation of literary societies because the focus of the work was based on textual material, forcing deaf artists to develop translating skills between English and ASL and moving the focus of performances away from a visual observation of the deaf experience and their take on the external Hearing world. In its place began a strong language focus coupled with a growing obligation to provide voice to ASL performances that was absent from performances during the early years of deaf performing arts. As the influence of literary societies and drama clubs increased it expanded the reliance on English text adaptations as  the primary resource for many deaf performances. As a result it would unintentionally create a barrier for the continuance of ASL stories and visual work. Consequently, this would cause a detour in the development of Deaf Theatre and create a new mode of performance called sign language theatre.

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