The Deaf, the Hearing,
and the NTID Performing Arts
Most students will be surprised
to hear that RIT has a nationally
recognized theater program.
NTID Performing Arts has placed 95 students in professional theater, and
approximately half (between 500 and 600 students) of all NTID students
take classes in the department every year. However, about 20% of the
students involved are hearing.
Last week, I sat down with three people from the NTID Performing Arts
department in the green room of the Lyndon Baines Johnson building.
The walls were covered with posters of their past performances which
included Shakespearean plays like Romeo and Juliet, horror classics such
as Dracula, and even musicals like West Side Story. The three long-standing
members of the department I met with were: Aaron Kelstone, a deaf
professor in the department, Luane Haggerty, a hearing professor in the
department, and Jim Orr, the department’s Outreach Coordinator.
Kelstone told me of the department’s 37-year-old history. “It has been a
philosophy of Vice Presidents of NTID that performing arts are important,”
he said. “It encourages self esteem and presentation skills. There’s a longterm
philosophy of encouraging theater arts. RIT is unique because of
the strong mix of deaf and hearing. Our philosophy has always been that
we’re all in this together.”
Haggerty, who at various times has acted in, directed, and produced plays,
said, “I believe our department does the best theatrical work I’ve seen.
Really, my heart is in deaf and hearing theater. It’s in deaf and hearing
working together.” Speaking of her students’ success, Haggerty mentioned,
“I’m taking a group of students down to New York City this summer to
participate in the New York City Deaf Theater Festival. We’ll be doing the
same production of ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ that we did here in the winter.”
Last year, some of her students were on
the television show Law & Order.
Since the department provides opportunities
for deaf and hearing actors and crew
members, plays are drawn from both deaf
and mainstream culture. “There’s been a
long history of deaf performances being adaptations of hearing plays,”
stated Kelstone. However, Deaf literature also exists, and Kelstone has a
library containing approximately 40 deaf playwrights with over 200 plays.
According to Kelstone, “This department has a long history of doing the
classics, but it’s become a desire of the department to reflect the deaf experience
because we’re here.”
Other members of the department identified several reasons to perform Deaf
literature. “We’re first and foremost about education...We want to be very supportive
of deaf authors, and it’s important for students from mainstreamed environments
to know that there are successful deaf authors,” explained Orr.
The department is currently preparing for its spring production, “Bell in
Hell,” which will open on May 1st to coincide with the RIT Innovation Festival.
Kelstone, who is directing the show, stated, “Every director thinks
about certain plays that they’d like to do. This play I’ve been thinking
about for two years. It was written as one act but was then rewritten as a
full two act play…[It] is about A[lexander] G[raham] Bell and his relationship
[with] the Deaf community.” The play takes a comedic approach in
addressing Bell and his impact on deaf people over the years. “We didn’t
want it to be a preachy thing. We wanted people to laugh and enjoy it and
take away the defensive mode.”
“There’s a long history of two ways to teach deaf people. One way is to
use sign language. The other is not to use sign language and focus on
using voice. Right now, this [speaking] is a political act,” said Kelstone.
He spoke to me in clear, enunciated English throughout the interview,
although he could not make out what I was saying without an interpreter.
“There’s a segment of the Deaf community that will condemn
me for doing that, even though I’m as deaf as deaf can be,” he said.
“Each deaf person has to decide
where their identity is
and how they choose to communicate.
I spent 20 years directing
hearing plays, so now
that I’m here, I’m focusing on
the Deaf and
It is challenging for deaf and
hearing people who cannot communicate with each other to perform theater,
but there are other, less obvious challenges as well.
Shakespeare’s plays, for example, include numerous sword fights, which
may hinder a character from signing in ASL while wielding a sword. There
are, however, ways to do it. “You just adapt. In some ways, the sword fights
become better, because you can have the actors step back and taunt each
other, and almost dare their opponent to hit them while they’re talking,”
explained Orr. Another method involves choreographing one fighter
knocking the sword out of the other’s hands. The actor can then sign
something before they pick their sword up again.
Additionally, the Bard’s plays are also heavy on soliloquies, in which characters
talk to themselves and reveal their thoughts to the audience, but
not to the other characters in the play. Kelstone said, “[Soliloquy] is done
in sign language and there’s another actor who’s voicing it. So you get a
[hybrid] experience. It happens simultaneously. There’s different syntax
and rhythm that has to be worked out between the director and the two
actors. That’s a little work.”
Orr also gave an example from the play “The Foreigner.” At one point,
the characters are inside a house waiting for a car to pull up outside. The
original script called for the sound of a car to signal its arrival to the actors
and audience. “Some of our audience isn’t going to hear that,” said
Orr. Instead, they shone lights in a window on the set to simulate the car’s
In fact, some of the actors would actually be unable to react to the sound
of the car approaching. This is why, Orr said, “All the cues are visual.” In
a mainstream production, the crew would be in contact via radio; however,
the NTID Performing Arts group uses television monitors to signal
between the crew and even to cue the cast. Sometimes a door has a blinking
light that changes color above it to cue the actor. Other times the set
may be built from a translucent material that allows the cast to see from
behind without revealing the backstage area to the audience. This method
is effective because of how the stage is lit.
Deaf plays often have less going on in the background, because people
can only watch one thing at a time. “You want to guide the eye to exactly
where it needs to be for the story to make sense,” explained Haggerty.
In order to accomplish this, actors are often placed on different levels to
give the audience an unobstructed view. Voice actors may also be placed
away from the stage.
Costume design is also a concern. A costume or prop that obscures an
actor’s hand will make it more difficult to see what the character is signing.
Orr explained that period costumes are often altered. For example, a
costume with frills or other decorations near the wrist may be adjusted to
make the actor’s hands more visible. “There’s never less, it’s just different,”
Orr said. “It’s like Piccasso during his Blue Period. Those works weren’t less
of masterpieces. They were just done
with a different palette.”
Adapting the Script
ASL does not translate directly into
English. Since an exact translation
from a script written for mainstream theater is not possible, “We have to
adapt shows so both deaf and hearing [audiences] can fully enjoy them,”
explained Orr. The story, he said, must also be from a “culturally friendly”
translation of the script. “You have to consider jargon and accent.”
A playwright may characterize someone as being from the South by giving
them a southern drawl. Someone from Boston would talk differently from
New York or South Jersey. These differences have to be changed for a deaf
audience to be able to understand them. The change can be as simple as
having a character state where they are from, or as complex as changing
their costume to something that identifies where they are from.
Older classical plays, such as those by Shakespeare, may use words that
are no longer common in the language. In a Deaf play, such signs are often
printed as a part of the program and are distributed to the audience to
prevent the word from needing to be finger spelled every time
it is used.
The same treatment is given to names.
According to Orr, not all plays in ASL are written, per se. “There’s also a
lot [of playwrights], who don’t write, but create. There’s no written form
of ASL. We didn’t want to limit people’s creativity because they couldn’t
write in English. Some scripts are developed completely visually. Some
scripts are put on videotape, and others are more in a storytelling tradition.”
“The thing we would like to change and improve is on the hearing side. We
would like to have more experienced hearing actors come in,” said Orr. “I
think that a lot of the hearing people on campus just aren’t aware of what
we do here. They think it’s a Deaf thing.” Agreeing with the sentiment, Haggerty
added, “A lot of RIT students have never set foot in the building. They
think ‘Look what they have’ as opposed to ‘Look what we have.’”