by Julia Kitonis
Julia Kitonis is a Junior Theatre Major with Holocaust Studies and Musical Theatre Double-Minor at the University of Vermont. She has appeared in numerous productions around New England including Oklahoma as Laurey Williams and Macbeth as Third Witch.
Accessibility and representation are two key discussion points in contemporary theatre. I find, however, that they are not often enough connected to one another. When we think about accessibility, we often think about cost, physical accessibility (such as ramps and elevators), and assisted listening devices or closed captions. When we think about representation, the discussion tends to focus on actors of color and queer narratives. Of course, all of these things are inarguably important, and we should continue to pursue excellence in them. One avenue, however, that is not explored enough is finding how the two interact.
In November 2016, I was a senior at Champlain Valley Union High School in Hinesburg, Vermont. I was involved in a program called Nexus which, based on Vermont’s proficiency-based graduation standards, allowed students to pursue independent study projects for credit. At the time, I was studying American Sign Language and the d/Deaf* community in the United States. I met one of my closest friends in a production of Chicago my junior year. She is Deaf, which I didn’t realize until she began signing her lines on-stage. (They were read aloud by an interpreter offstage). The following discussions I had with her opened my eyes to so much I had never considered. I had been in theatre most of my life and had never considered that this art form that meant so much to me could be so inaccessible. That’s when I decided what my Nexus project would be. It would combine a passion I had pursued since grade school with one that was new to me: American Sign Language.
It is not uncommon to find closed-captioning systems or designated performances with American Sign Language (ASL) Interpreters at most theaters. While these options are better than nothing, I quickly found out how incomplete they are. Theatre is an innately human art form because it allows us as audience members to experience the journey of characters on stage in real time. We empathize with their experiences. We see ourselves in the stories. How could a Deaf person see themselves represented in these characters when every line on stage is translated and delivered by one interpreter seated offstage or projected through a closed-captioning device? They have every right to see themselves on stage in the same way that a hearing person can.
It is here that I have to point out the incredible work of American Deaf West Theatre. Based in Los Angeles, California, they are a company that integrates Deaf and hearing performers in their performances. Most famously, they produced the most recent Broadway revival of Spring Awakening. Historically, though, Deaf theatre is nothing new. The National Theatre of the Deaf has been producing theatre with Deaf actors for Deaf audiences since 1967. Many of their productions went on to tour the country or play on Broadway.
In discovering the incredibly rich artistic history of the American Deaf Community, I knew I wanted to see that on stage in my own community. What followed was a herculean task that, with the assistance of innumerable people, became the greatest theatrical experience of my life.
After three months of pre-production and fundraising, I, alongside my stage manager, also a student, decided on Jason Robert Brown’s Songs For A New World. I chose a musical because I wanted to showcase the beauty of ASL as used to interpret the emotion and physicality of music. I chose this piece because I felt it had room for flexible casting and different interpretations. In the end, I had eight incredible actors of all ages and experiences on board. Each of the four characters had two actors: one who sang the songs and one who signed them. I wanted each pair of actors to find their own connection – what story did they want to tell together? Each par was incredibly different. The two girls who played Woman Two were both students who knew each other well. The singer hadn’t been on stage in years due to anxiety. The signer was born deaf but had cochlear implants and as such had never learned sign language, but she decided to learn for the production. They played their character(s) as old friends who knew seemingly everything about one another. Of the two men who played Man One, one was born profoundly deaf, so his first language was ASL. The other was a hearing performer who didn’t know any ASL at all. While we had interpreters at early rehearsals to help everyone feel comfortable and get to know each other, the two of them eventually had to find a way to communicate and play one character together. To this day, I cannot explain how amazing it was to watch that process unfold. Without a common language, they found their way through the story so beautifully. They played Man Two as mirrors of each other, sometimes signing the same words in harmony, sometimes playing two sides of the same coin, so to speak.
The process was not without its challenges. The entire show had to be interpreted into ASL which, unbeknownst to me at the start, was likely even more difficult than translating the text into another spoken language. Contrary to the belief of many, ASL is not really “English with your hands.” It is its own language entirely, and the grammatical structure differs greatly from that of spoken English. Not only did we as a team of interpreters, cast, and crew have to find the right way to sign the sentiments expressed in the text, we had to find a way to convey the same feeling and musicality the hearing audience could get from the songs in sign language. Ultimately, this meant many dedicated signing rehearsals in which we all sat in a circle and experimented. For solo numbers, people’s individual signing styles could come out, but for group numbers, we needed harmony.
Other factors that needed to be considered for a show that would be accessible and representative to a Deaf audience arose over the course of the process. Lighting needed to be designed in such a way that signers were always visible. The choreography had to allow signing actors to be seen as they moved. Out of all this, my favorite moment became the very end of the show. The musical phrase “a new world calls across the ocean” returns several times throughout the show, and to drive home the unity of English and ASL being used on stage, I decided to leave the last line in ASL only, with the piano underneath. I wasn’t sure it would read. I thought maybe it would make the final moment of the show feel too quiet. But it didn’t. The intensity drove through, and reminded me why I did the show in the first place – this kind of art is not only more accessible and more representative, it is deeper. Songs For A New World is a show that, I think, can feel disjointed. But with the effort of eight incredible performers and countless hours of interpreting and design work, a through line emerged: the human experience. Regardless of age, sex, ability, hearing, we have all felt the underlying emotions present in these songs: love, joy, fear, anger, confusion. Seeing such conflicts played out by two people as one gives inexplicable depth. I was proud of the show we built.
The question was, would people come see it? Songs For A New World is not a well-known musical. Furthermore, we were not sure how a show advertised as accessible to Deaf and hearing audiences and featuring English and ASL would sell. Would it intrigue people, or turn them away? The show opened Friday, May 26th, 2017 and ran through the weekend to two sold-out houses and a third nearly sold-out house. From the booth, we could see half the house clapping and the other half applauding in ASL. In the past decade, for many reasons, not the least of which is the state’s rural landscape, the Deaf population of Vermont has been declining. There is an interpreter shortage and a general lack of accessibility, especially for art. Seeing an audience comprised of hearing and Deaf people alike, both of which could experience the show completely, made the entire eight-month process worth it. In the end, our ticket sales were donated to Vermont Special Arts, which promotes are for people of all abilities, Vermont Deaf Advocacy Services, and funded a trust for diverse arts at an area high school. It was more than I could have ever dreamed it would be.
The thing I want everyone reading this to take away is that bringing inclusive art to your community is not as impossible as it may seem. Two high school seniors and a community of rural Vermonters from all walks of life came together to make a show in which everyone could see themselves represented. Theatre takes a village, but if you build a good village, you can accomplish anything. To this day, nearly two years after the show closed, I receive messages from hearing and Deaf audience members telling me how profoundly the show affected them. At least five people approached me after the show to tell me they were inspired to learn sign language. Many more approached me to tell me it was the first show they were able to see in their own city in over a year. Art matters. It is a cultural force. Therefore, I believe we all have a responsibility to ensure it represents everyone in our communities. I implore artists everywhere to consider how representation and accessibility can work together to create works that resonate with everyone. I can promise the outcome is inexplicably beautiful.
*A note on d/Deaf: deaf (with a lowercase “d”) is used to denote any person with hearing loss,
while Deaf (with a capital “D”) refers to a person who is part of the Deaf culture and community
and, typically, who considers themselves as such.
I highly recommend looking more into d/Deaf culture in the U.S. and the history of Deaf
theatre if you are interested. Below, I have listed some links and books for further
Deaf Like Me by Thomas S. Spradley
Pictures in the Air: The Story of the National Theatre of the Deaf by Stephen C. Baldwin
Deaf in America: Voices from a Culture edited by Carol Padden and Tom Humphries
El Deafo by Cece Bell
Photo by Amira Silverman.