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February 7, 2003

National Theater of the Deaf comes to Nevada

From: Nevada Daily Mail, MO - 07 Feb 2003

Caroline Dohack

Deaf and hearing audiences alike crowded into the Performing Arts Center at Cottey College Wednesday to watch John Augustine and Willy Conley’s “Oh, Figaro!,” a romantic comedy based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ farces “The Marriage of Figaro” and “The Barber of Seville,” performed by the National Theatre of the Deaf — known for incorporating both spoken word and American Sign Language into performances, which allows audiences to “see and hear every word,” according to the organization’s promotional materials. National Theatre of the Deaf performer Elizabeth Murray, who provided the voice for Suzanna, a character in the play, explained that there are two productions that tour the country at one time. Many of the actors are new to the company — mainly the hearing actors. For performer Stella Antonio-Conley, who played the character Rosa, acting is no harder for a deaf actor than it is for a hearing actor, though she noted there are different methods used in deaf and hearing theaters. For instance, a hearing actor doesn’t have to look at the director to take notes and listen to instruction, whereas the deaf actor must take the notes, read and interpret them and then wait until they can look up again for further instructions. This isn’t necessarily harder, it’s “just another culture... that’s all.” Shanny Mow, who played Basil, has been with National Theatre of the Deaf since 1978. He tells a great story about how it became the only theater company to visit all seven continents — including Antarctica. While they did not actually perform there (Hays took a boat trip to Antarctica), they were greeted by a “very large community” and got to talk about the philosophies and belief systems of the group, and ended up getting support from Antarctica. However, Mow speculates that the penguins probably would have enjoyed the show, had the company performed. One of the challenges with traveling shows is that the company must be flexible with the technical components of their performance. Often, parts of the set will be taken off to accommodate smaller stages. Assistant Technical Director and Master Carpenter Louie Baxter said that, “It’s always a challenge. Every space has a different size limitation for it (the set and equipment.)” An advantage to this unique style is that when the company tours other countries, the language barrier is not as great. While there is not much time to incorporate other languages in the performance (though they may hire actors native to the country they are performing in), because American Sign Language is such a visual language, it’s fairly easy to catch the meanings. Production Manager Pamela Ross explains that, “Basically, you have to remember that sign language is a performance language. Sign language is very natural for the stage.” Those in the audience seemed to agree that this was a very special event. Hazel Reed of Nevada said, “It’s the first time I’ve ever been to a play like this. I am enjoying it. It’s fun, and it’s also different.” James Lutze, Joplin, agreed. About 15 years ago, he attended a National Theatre of the Deaf presentation in Illinois. “It’s a wonderful, wonderful play. I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s really good, and I hope that they have it again because I’ve really enjoyed it.” Jean Sell and her husband drove from Oklahoma to see the uniquely-styled presentation. Sell said, “I wish that I was one of those actors. We’re both from Oklahoma, and we have driven all this way . . . This is the first time in my life that I have had this experience and think that it’s wonderful.” Cottey student Meghan Seamster said, “I think it’s wonderful. (It’s) brilliant. The movements (and) the way it’s incorporated with the voices it’s really touching.” National Theatre of the Deaf was founded in 1967 by David Hays, and since then has won numerous awards, including a Tony Award for theatrical excellence in 1977. It has been on 62 national tours, playing in all 50 states and 30 international tours, and was the first American theatre company to play in The People’s Republic of China. The organization’s mission is to produce high-quality performances from a wide range of work, to combine spoken word with American Sign Language, to train and employ deaf artists and to share their work with a diverse group of people. The theater group’s visit to Nevada offered college theater students many learning opportunities. While she admits that working on the production with a professional theater company was “really intimidating,” Courtney McMeen, a Cottey student who worked on the set of “Oh, Figaro!” said it was nevertheless a valuable learning experience. “Basically, I refined the skills I learned my first semester. This has been a test of what I knew and what I learned (in the past.) I feel my skills have gotten better, but I still need to work at it.” Jenny Kelly, also a Cottey student, said, “It was a great experience because you get to see what it would be like to work in this kind of atmosphere in the professional world and how to figure out what it’s really all about . . . . Things don’t always go right, but you get over it. The show must go on!” Professor of Theatre and Speech Michael Denison said each performance at Cottey’s center for the arts provides a learning experience. “It’s fun when professionals come through, because you always learn some new stuff, new technology and new methods and stuff like that. Plus it’s networking. You meet people from all over the place that you’ll run into again,” he commented.

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