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January 3, 2005

Rep, deaf school partnership opens window to theater

From: Arkansas Democrat Gazette, AR - Jan 3, 2005


Posted on Monday, January 3, 2005


Chris Ragan and Tasia Reynolds understood Romeo and Julietmuch better after they saw the play last season at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. "Before, we had never really heard of the Repertory Theatre," Reynolds said of their trip to see Romeo and Juliet. "The play was awesome and we, as students, became very interested in theater."

This school year the Arkansas School for the Deaf in Little Rock has been part of a yearlong program with the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, learning about all aspects of production as well as the literature portrayed on the stage.

Their teacher, Barbara Northup, said the partnership has increased not only their interest in art but also their interest and ability in academics.

Leslie Golden, director of outreach and touring for the Rep, said this is the fourth year for the program, which is paid for this year through a $13,814 Arkansas Arts Council grant.

The grant pays for artists who perform at the Rep — and for one national guest artist — to visit classrooms, and for tickets for students and teachers to see all the stage productions in a given season, along with various other aspects of the program.

Joseph Graves, who played the part of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady and is artistic director of The Beijing Institute of World Theatre and Film, was one of the actors to visit the school. "My visit with the students and teachers at the School for the Deaf was a grand thing indeed for me and even a bit lifechanging," Graves wrote in an e-mail while working in China.

Graves said interacting through an interpreter with students at the School for the Deaf, most of whom use sign language, enlightened him in his profession. "Because a lot of my theater work in recent years has involved me directing multicultural casts, often speaking different languages and during the same productions, my eyes have been opened a bit to the possibilities of profound theatrical communication, crossing linguistic barriers," Graves wrote. "The School for the Deaf in Arkansas, for there I encountered yet another language, this one, non-verbal, but equally, dare one say, even more, theatrically communicative than spoken languages."

Northup, who interprets for the audience at the Rep on the first Wednesday of every new production and on special occasions, said the Rep provides a study guide for each play. "That helps me as an instructor," she said. "After doing the vocabulary development, learning about the era it was set in, just the culmination of that... to see the play is wonderful. And for deaf kids — well, I think any kids — it's good for them to see it on the stage."

Ragan said he benefited from touring the Rep and talking with Graves and two other actors from My Fair Lady about the backstage preparations that go on before a performance. "[Before] when I saw a play, I didn't really think about how hard it is... I just thought it was something easy for them to do, that they memorized their lines and that was it," Ragan said. "I had no idea the kind of work they did. And it helped me understand what I read."

Golden said that kind of greater understanding is the goal of the partnership. "If you have visual cues to go along with the literature you're exploring, it creates in the mind a basis for you to read other literature and create in your own imagination what the characters and the scenery might be like," she said. "If you have some examples in your mind to start with, then that allows your own imagination to grow."

Seeing the scenery and props used on the stage and learning about the eras and cultures in which the plays were set has been an advantage to Ragan and Reynolds in other classes, the two high school seniors said — not only art classes, but academic ones like history and sociology. "That's great to hear," Golden said. "That means we're doing our job correctly. If they're understanding the connections between art and sociology, i. e. history, they're gaining a larger world view, and we're accomplishing our goal to help them realize that the arts are integral to all our lives in a very formative way. It's not just something you look at and forget."

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