We should be aspiring to make theatre as accessible as possible
As diversity in film and television has increasingly become a point of interest and concern for myself—I’m always trying to search for representation—so too has diversity and inclusivity in the theatre.
I was pleased to notice that many of the audition calls for this year’s UofT Drama Festival were seeking people of colour and non-binary actors. These castings allow many communities’ experiences to be expressed both in writing and performance through the far-reaching and deeply affecting medium of theatre. In one of my classes this semester, I had the opportunity to explore another community’s experience, expressed in theatre, through my research of Deaf West Theatre Company’s Broadway revival of Spring Awakening. A theatre company for the deaf is not a difficult idea to understand, but involving deaf actors in musical theatre is harder to imagine, as music is often thought of as only auditory. In this revival of Spring Awakening, music is still fundamental and made accessible to the deaf community through the creativity and hard work of the director, translators, actors, and others involved in the process. Researching this show’s work opened my mind to another type of inclusivity in the theatre to which I had, previously, not been exposed.
To understand the effects of this collaborative project, it’s necessary to understand the process and concepts involved in this particular production. Spring Awakening is a musical set in Germany in the late 19th century, dealing with topics such as sexuality, ignorance, and the difficulty of communication between adults and young people. Deaf West’s revival involved a cast of both hearing and deaf actors, casting some of the deaf actors in lead roles. In making these critical characters deaf, the theme of miscommunication is further reinforced and explored. However, the production does not exclude the deaf actors—and deaf audience members—from the words and music of the show. The entire production is signed in American Sign Language (ASL), with hearing actors singing the songs and delivering lines out loud while signing as well. The lead deaf characters each have a vocal counterpart who plays an instrument in the band; the hearing counterpart sings the character’s songs while the deaf actor signs their lines and plays the role. Evidently, this requires extensive rehearsal to ensure synchronicity between all the actors and musicians onstage. The production then relies heavily on physical and visual cues, establishing these performances as inherently collaborative. It also creates a reciprocal and mutually beneficial relationship between deaf and hearing actors and audiences; the use of ASL is both accessible and adds a visual tool to the story.
The ASL translation of the show in this production is equally as valuable as the original book and lyrics. ASL is incorporated into the choreography not only to provide translations for the lyrics, but to convey the rhythm, emotion, and language of the songs. I did not realize previously that there are not always word-for-word translations from English into ASL—it is its own, completely separate language. The translators must match elements such as rhythm and emotion in the English lyrics. The translators focus on translating concepts and feelings into signing and movements. One example provided by a cast member in an American Theatre Wing YouTube interview was the lyric, “Who can say what dreams are?…Who can say what we are?” The sign translation for this production would be directly translated as: “Dreams in a jar…can’t…Us in a jar…can’t.” The concept conveyed is that the idea of our dreams and who we are is too big to be confined to a jar, to be easily pinned down and explained. The concept conveyed in the English lyrics is translated into ASL in a way that ensures it is visually and rhythmically appropriate to match the music that is heard.
As the ASL translation of the lyrics must be visually connected to music and spatially incorporated into choreography, it also exists in time. The translation must be able to match the rhythm and tempo of the music. This is where cues are a key element of this production. Certain cues include lighting effects, and movements such as standing up, leaning forward, or interactions with the deaf actor. Particularly for deaf actors who have hearing actors playing their singing and speaking voice, there is a high degree of collaboration required to ensure synchronicity. The deaf actor must be alert for cues, other actors must perform these cues, and the hearing actor watches the deaf actor’s signs so that the vocal lyrics are synchronized with the signed lyrics. Visual effects outside of the sign language are also used to convey the feeling and tone of music. Director Michael Arden discussed in a YouTube interview that his focus on making purely instrumental segments of the music accessible to deaf actors and audiences, providing the example of an instrumental piece involving a harp. He expressed the sound of this instrument in the flickering of candles and soft lighting on stage.
In this production, one method of communication is not privileged over the other. Everyone in the cast signs, whether they are deaf or hearing, and the music, both auditorily and through physicality, is made accessible to each member. The different abilities of both deaf and hearing actors are valued. The success of this revival of Spring Awakening, highlighted in its moving to Broadway, demonstrates that deaf and disabled actors are equally capable of performing. As both hearing and deaf communities benefit from bringing sign language to musical theatre, these theatres become inclusive spaces within and beyond the production. Within the productions, deaf and hearing actors are joined in their collaboration during the rehearsal process and onstage, facilitating an introduction of hearing people to a culture that may have been previously unknown to them. Outside the company, the production can serve as a source of inspiration for members of any community to learn sign language and approach the deaf community. This production reinforces the significance of the movement of deaf listening, and shows that these elements add depth and meaning for hearing listeners as well.
The inclusivity of the deaf community in musical theatre has exposed me to a new way of reflecting upon how music can be understood; how the visual, tactile, and kinesthetic are important in making sense of music. I believe it is crucial to understand how these listening elements are also involved in the hearing community’s understanding of music, and not to privilege one way of listening over another. Exposing the inclusivity of Deaf West’s production to smaller theatre communities such as the drama societies at UofT further opens the discussion of diversity and accessibility in the theatre and our society. With conscious effort, desire, and collaboration between the deaf community and the hearing community, music can be reconciled. With large-scale productions such as Broadway revivals, the public nature of performance allows this inclusivity, collaboration, and open-mindedness to be spread to large audiences. In a community such as the University of Toronto, a production comprised of deaf actors may not be possible simply because of its demographic of students. However, with the inclusivity I have witnessed so far within the drama communities here, I am inspired by the opening of doors for people whose voices are not always given a platform in media such as film and even the stage.
I hope that keeping in mind the inclusivity of Deaf West’s Spring Awakening and its success, will continue to inspire people in smaller-scale theatre communities to write and perform pieces that amplify and spread the voices of those who are stifled by the hierarchies of society, and for those, who are not directly involved in theatre, to support these inclusive projects.