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December 22, 2005

Festival Brings Deaf Theatre, Culture to Current and Future Generations

From: A Show of Hands - Dec 22, 2005

Festival Brings Deaf Theatre, Culture to Current and Future Generations
By Trudy Suggs

BOSTON – With two weeks to go, tickets to the A Show of Hands: CELEBRATION OF DEAF THEATRE were sold out. Completely.

“We got so many calls from people wanting to buy tickets, and we had to tell them that there weren’t any,” festival co-chair Bonnie Kaplan said. “That was frustrating, but at the same time, it’s proof of how wonderfully beneficial and well-attended the festival was.”

A Show of Hands: CELEBRATION OF DEAF THEATRE was a three-day event celebrating the work of Deaf theatre, co-presented by VSA arts of Massachusetts and A Show of Hands Theatre Company. The performances, held Nov. 17-19, featured a dazzling line-up of stars and actors, including award-winning actors Phyllis Frelich and Bernard Bragg as the prestigious Guest Presenters, Terrylene, Peter Cook, CJ Jones, Rosa Lee Gallimore, The Wings Company from Moscow, The Last Con (Howie Seago and Nat Wilson) and Theatre of the Silence from Hong Kong. In addition, students from the Scranton State School for the Deaf in Pennsylvania and A Show of Hands Theatre Company performed.

“I was impressed by the coordination of the events and diversity of the performances,” said executive director of the Massachusetts State Association of the Deaf (MSAD) John Pirone, who also worked as a volunteer for the weekend. “Some performances, in particular the Russian play, truly inspired me because their artistic symbols of Deaf culture was so powerful. I was proud to be a part of the team that organized what seems to be the first theatre festival in the world and we have received praises from celebrated and international artists who attended.”

How it all started

As anyone knows, planning a performance or event takes a lot of time. A lot. Multiply that by several performances provided by actors coming from all over the world, then you have a pretty good idea of what type of work faced Kaplan and festival co-chair Janis Cole. “Oh, it was crazy!” Kaplan chuckled. “If I had known how much time and work it was going to take, I’d still have done it, anyway!”

The idea for the festival first came about when A Show of Hands Theatre Company (SOHTC) discussed doing a fundraiser to bring The Wings Company to Boston. “The more Janis and I talked about it, it didn’t make sense to do a fundraiser around just one performer, so we thought, why not bring in other performers and do a mini-festival similar to Deaf Way II but on a smaller scale?” Deaf Way II, an international festival held in Washington, D.C., during the summer of 2002, attracted thousands of people from around the world.

Cole added, “The arts are a necessity. One of the things about theatre is that it empowers performers and audiences with a sense of centeredness, with dignity and integrity.”

Kaplan and Cole, who both have been involved in theatre for many years and are part of SOHTC, decided to pursue the idea of having a festival. Kaplan works with VSA of Massachusetts (VSAM), and she, along with Cole, arranged to have the festival be a joint effort between SOHTC and VSAM. “We were able to get sponsorships from some amazingly generous folks, including a $10,000 sponsorship from the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing,” Kaplan said. “That was the start of what turned into an amazing show of support from different companies, such as Sorenson VRS, Sprint, MassRelay, and so many others. Without them, this festival definitely wouldn’t have happened.”

“This festival was a Cultural treasure; every performance was signed from the heart and full of truth about the warmth, humor, sorrow, and controversy that come with being Deaf,” said Heidi Reed, commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing. “This festival deserves wider sponsorship and ought to be discovered by the uninitiated!”

Although local media coverage was minimal, Kaplan and Cole persisted. They knew that they had a gem on their hands, and didn’t want to give up on the reality of having such a historical festival. They continued working, selling tickets at various events and talking to people, putting information up on the festival’s web site, and making sure performers were confirmed.

Finally, the big weekend arrived. Kaplan and Cole and their committee members constantly ran from one place to another, making sure that each and every performer had the red carpet treatment. Finally, the first event was held: a panel discussing where deaf theatre should go from that point. The next day, the dazzling and diverse performances began. Workshops were provided. People mingled and looked at various exhibitions.

“It was a thrill to have so many of the international Deaf Community’s truly gifted performers with us for an entire weekend.  We had a very fulfilling package – stories within performances, real and imagined role models, visually dramatic stage settings, dialogue with artists, and honest career advice shared by seasoned performers,” said Reed.

Bernard Bragg of Los Angeles, one of two Guest Presenters along with Phyllis Frelich, found the weekend memorable as well. “Some of the highlights were frequent standing ovations given to both the shows from Russia and Hong Kong – and also to diverse American individual and ensemble performances. Such enthusiasm, camaraderie and appreciation were evident throughout the event.”

Impact of Deaf theatre

Bragg, a seasoned veteran of Deaf theatre, knows all too well how important Deaf theatre is and what impact the weekend had on its attendees. “Judging from what I saw and how the audience responded, I envision a greater future for this kind of festival in our country – more of which is bound to result in a growing number of Deaf actors, directors, costume/set designers and producers.  Also, it is bound to result in a wider public recognition and acknowledgement of Deaf talent and their creativeness and skills in the theatre arts.”

Another performer, Howie Seago of Seattle, agrees with Bragg. “Deaf theatre, like regular theatre, reaches out and connects strongly with live audiences and provides mental stimulation for us to chew on. It provides the Deaf community an avenue through which to communicate its thoughts on issues related to being Deaf, and also opportunities to experience life in general with ‘hearing’ plays.”

Bragg added, “We do not use theatre to bring about social change.  Presenting Deaf theatre as an art form is our primary intent, although it may secondarily play a critical part in helping enhance the image of Deaf people. By exposing their work to others as well as being exposed to others' work, Deaf theatre people are thus able to see where they stand and how they can improve their theatres.  Through their dedication, Deaf theatre groups around the country can continue to make significant and impressive contributions not only to their own Deaf communities but also to the general cultural life of the societies in which they live.”

The festival had an impact not only on its performers, but also on audience members. Arthur Moore, of Bloomfield, Conn., said, “Deaf theatre is invaluable as it is able to capture and convey the emotions, beliefs, cultural traits, pride and many other parameters seen within the Deaf culture. As a Deaf viewer, I was able to relate to the experiences of those performers. In addition, Deaf theatre can be used as a vehicle to educate the general audience about the norms of Deaf culture and their people.”

The future of Deaf theatre

“One of the focuses of this festival was to educate and empower future generations who can also enjoy Deaf theatre,” said Kaplan. “And I think we did achieve that with the festival, especially with the workshops by performers for young theatre-goers.” The Wings Company provided a workshop on Friday afternoon, along with a matinee performance. SOHTC also provided a slapstick comedy show for children, and the show provided by the Scranton students was ideal for children as well.

“We had a couple of kids in our Deaf Youth Drama Program at the Seattle Children’s Theatre who have gone on to perform professional and return home to continue the opportunities for later generations,” Seago said. “It was quite obvious that the Boston festival really impacted younger children in the audience. Plus the festival made people realize the value of live theatre, and appreciate the performance quality that Deaf artists are bringing to the stage.”

Pirone also felt that the impact was experienced not only locally, but also regionally. “I believe that the festival brought together a community to celebrate its precious culture, and also to recognize the importance of American Sign Language being used on stage as opposed to using theatre interpreters. This festival hopefully will inspire local and regional Deaf artists to create plays that reflect their cultural and linguistic perspectives, something that I feel is significant.”

The co-chairs of the festival have big dreams of hosting such a monumental event again. “We’ve had so many people ask us if and when this will happen again,” Kaplan said. “We say absolutely, but we also have to be realistic. We need to determine if we can get more sponsorship in the future, because even though we received generous donations and sponsorships, it barely covered the expenses.” She also pointed out that this festival attracted people from as far away as Texas and California, which showed how far-reaching the festival’s success and experiences were. “So if we can generate enough sponsorship next time, then absolutely, we’ll host it again. I’d hate to see this festival not happen again simply because of money; it’s too important of an event to not be experienced again.

Cole summed the weekend up, saying, “Acting is a powerful form of art that creates social change. It’s about the mindsets that lend human beings an opportunity of being mindful that they can influence changes in the way we think and therefore the way we live. And I think the festival accomplished that for people of all ages and experiences.”

For more information about the festival, please visit