It was two decades ago, in a small theatre in a downscale, Hollywood-adjacent neighborhood in L.A., that I first saw the work of Deaf West Theatre. It was a straightforward, and straightforwardly shattering, production of Marsha Norman’s ’Night, Mother, performed in what even then I understood was a well-worn, even tired convention: Deaf performers acted in American Sign Language onstage, while speaking actors in a sealed booth behind us quietly piped the dialogue into headsets for the hearing among us. Still, I was transfixed; as I wrote in a review at the time, Deaf West’s ’Night, Mother was “more beautifully crafted and moving than most hearing productions” of the play.
It was when Deaf West began to work outside that tidy theatre-in-translation formula and do something that at first sounds unthinkable—produce “Deaf musicals”—that the small company broke through to a new level of artistry and influence. I was lucky enough to see the big-hearted Big River in their tiny 65-seat North Hollywood space in 2001, at the larger Mark Taper Forum a year later—and once more when it triumphantly returned from its Broadway run to L.A.’s cavernous Ahmanson Theatre in 2005, all without losing an iota of its charm or heartache. I haven’t seen that ebullient Roger Miller musical any other way, and I’m not sure I want to.
Now Deaf West is back on Broadway with another transformed and transformative Deaf musical, Spring Awakening, a production that first came to our attention when freelancer Linda Buchwald covered it in our November 2014 issue. In addition to giving a fresh airing to this controversial adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s classic, Spring Awakening is also giving richly deserved exposure to a number of amazing Deaf actors, and—I was shocked to learn—Broadway’s first wheelchair-using disabled actor, Ali Stroker.
I learned this from Allison Considine’s report on the state of disabled roles and performers in the American theatre, access for whom clearly remains a too-often-neglected front in the struggle for more diverse representation onstage. Considine reports on some serious and sincere efforts to redress that oversight—but are they too little, too late? Brad Rothbart says yes, in a fiercely argued call to arms for disabled theatre artists and leaders, rounding out this issue’s “ability and access” theme.
After last month’s special issue on the persistent gender disparity in theatrical programming, you may be forgiven for wondering why we’re so focused on areas where the American theatre seems to be falling short; you may even feel scolded or attacked. That’s certainly not our intention. We don’t see efforts to shine the spotlight more widely and fairly, in areas where it has failed to shine brightly before, as moralizing or scolding, but instead as essential diagnoses of the theatre’s health.
Materially, the American theatre is actually doing quite well, as seen in this month’s Theatre Facts report. But the theatre is not the stock market, and its true health isn’t measured in numbers; yes, paying our bills (often to each other) and being good fiscal stewards are ethical imperatives, but they are not ends in themselves. We are keeping the lights on and making payroll for one reason, and one reason only—to create as many moments as possible in which a young person (or really, any sort of person) can have an epiphanic moment of recognition, of piercing empathy, of soul-shaking laughter. And why would we want to withhold those moments, or the chance to create them, from any person who walks, wheels, sings, or signs on God’s green earth?