There are many forms of non-mainstream theatrical arts that are specialized. Theater for the deaf is one of these. It uses many imaginative techniques to entertain both hearing and deaf audiences.
Theater for deaf audiences, mostly out of community centers and schools, has been around for well over a hundred years. Deaf actors first were noticed by the wider public when Anne Bancroft began studying it for her role as Anne Sullivan in the Miracle Worker. In the 1960’s with a governmental grant, the National Theater of the Deaf was formed, a company devoted to the employment of Deaf artists, and the linking of the culture of American Sign Language with mainstream American audiences. While NTD is the largest, the traveling group was later joined by other companies such as the Los Angeles-based Deaf Theater West.
Techniques used in the presentation are widely varied. Most productions are bilingual, preformed in both sign language and English. Usually this is achieved by either having the actors speak simultaneously as they sign, or by having voice overs. Occasionally, some companies will use a variant of the subtitle idea to translate the production. Even if certain things get lost in the language barrier, hearing audiences usually do not have difficulty following the story, as the wide use of miming and facial expressions convey a great deal of meaning.
While it is still mostly a fringe movement, some productions have gained notoriety. Deaf Theater West’s production of the musical Big River, based on Mark Twain’s classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, toured nationally, won several awards, and gained much critical acclaim for its imaginative techniques and story telling aspects.
Most deaf theater companies also have other types of activities to educate their communities about sign language and deaf culture. These range from educational programs and ASL storytelling to volunteer opportunities open to all ages and skill ranges who wish to learn a new language and a little about a new culture.
While many companies have seen hits due to recent federal cuts, they are trumping along and will continue to produce productions for their audiences, often on the donations of willing contributors.