Late in the spring of 1985, I received an unexpected telephone call from Tim McCarty, director of theatre at the Model Secondary School for the Deaf at Gallaudet University in Washington, D.C. “I understand you sing,” he began, “and that you sign. Any interest in touring Great Britain as a voice interpreter for a deaf production of Godspell?”
To be perfectly frank, I wasn’t sure that I truly met Tim’s qualifications. Yes, I had spent several summers as a cabaret performer and could at least carry a tune, and yes, I had taken enough sign language classes to at least be able to finger spell and conduct the most rudimentary conversation with a limited sign vocabulary. But if a summer in Europe beckoned—a summer including the chance to perform at Covent Garden and Sadler’s Wells—hey, I wasn’t going to undermine Tim’s interest in me.
There were many things I learned that summer. I learned that sign is not an international language—that American and British sign developed independently and, in fact, each sign the alphabet differently: We had to have a sign interpreter to translate American sign into British sign for our deaf audiences. I learned about the passionate divisions within the deaf community—pitched and heated differences of opinion over the merits of signed English versus American Sign Language (ASL) versus lip reading, and the tensions that separate the deaf community from the larger disabled community. I learned about the connection between ASL and literacy rates—of the challenges involved in trying to reconcile two languages with entirely different syntactical structures, and how fluency in one system is no guarantee of fluency in the other.
But most of all, what I learned was a lesson in humility and cultural difference.
For the first time in my life, I experienced what it was like to be not merely different within a familiar culture, but to be a full-fledged outsider in an entirely different culture. The dizzying speed of flying fingers and signs was daunting, and most of the conversations were ones I could not follow. The first phrase I learned and saw most often was “train gone”—the reply to my frequent request that someone slow down or repeat what had been said. “Train gone” was a quick way to say, “Sorry, we’re not going back—we’ve moved on,” a phrase offered most often with a smile and good will, but an insistent one nonetheless. It was a reminder that it was my job to learn to keep up, not theirs to go back to pull me along. There were jokes I couldn’t understand, puns that lived entirely in a visual, rather than a linguistic or aural, domain. There were references to important people whose names meant nothing to me. There were subtle differences in physical personal space, in candor and animation. At various points that summer, my inability to understand or keep up provoked good-natured self-mockery, resignation, impatience, resentment, anger and withdrawal. Every day I was confronted with my difference, and every encounter, no matter how well intentioned, reminded me of my outsider inadequacy.
Many of us have spent time and energy in reaching deaf audiences and physically challenged audiences. I can’t help but wonder, however, how many of those efforts have been self-interested ones, largely market-driven, rather than driven by a desire to understand and connect to other cultures (as opposed to bringing those others into our own cultural fold). Have we approached our efforts, as I approached the summer of 1985, with misplaced missionary zeal? The revelation of this issue of American Theatre lies for me in the invitation to consider every group as a community, or even a culture, unto itself, with unique needs and strengths and challenges. The progress we have made as a society in recognizing issues of race—however incomplete and inadequate that recognition remains—nonetheless outstrips our recognition of differences of physical cultures. As Sharon Jensen suggests in her eloquent introduction to our special section, it is indeed the next frontier for our community.
Last year, Washington, D.C.’s Arena Stage mounted a revival of The Miracle Worker featuring Shira Grabelsky, a deaf performer, as Helen. Audiences who saw the production describe it as revelatory. Hearing actresses, no matter how capable, inevitably (and perhaps even subconsciously) offer some sense of consolation for hearing audiences: No matter how difficult the story, we know that the sweet little girl on stage really can hear, that she will be embraced if only she can make her way to our side of the cultural divide by learning to sign “water.” With a deaf actress portraying Helen, though, the play is transformed, much as the racial power of Othello was amplified when Paul Robeson took on the role. Having eliminated blackface as a practice, we must eliminate its corollary in physical ability; that, at a minimum, is a first step toward true cross-cultural collaboration and partnership.
That effort will require a huge and probably never-ending learning curve. Even with my summer experience, I had never registered the symbolic implications of marginalization that are reinforced by asking interpreters to stand at the edge of the stage. At TCG’s summer conference in San Francisco in 1999, one interpreter helped me make that connection. Asking her to share center stage with me during my closing remarks was a gesture of belated realization—a small step forward that, however inadequate, is forward nonetheless. I can only hope that this issue of American Theatre is another.