For only the second time, a Broadway musical will be performed in both English and American Sign Language (ASL). “Spring Awakening,” a coming-of-age story about a group of teenagers exploring their morality and sexuality within the repressive culture of late 19th century Germany, begins previews tonight at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre in New York City.
An increasing number of Broadway shows now offer sign-language-interpreted performances or assisted-listening devices, but it has been 12 years since the Roundabout Theatre Co. and Deaf West Theatre staged a production of “Big River” with a cast featuring deaf actors.
“Spring Awakening,” also a Deaf West production, tackles tough subjects like rape, suicide and abortion and weaves in themes of self-discovery and societal change that critics say are relevant today, nearly 125 years after the play was written.
In a blog post, producer Ken Davenport said the themes expressed in the show were made richer by the use of both ASL and English. “I’ve always thought that “Spring” was about a group of kids who no one would listen to … as is if they had no voice. No matter what they said or did, they just weren’t heard. By anyone,” Davenport said. “Now … for a moment, imagine that story told through song and sign … by a cast that includes deaf and hard of hearing performers.”
In the production, the actors who are deaf rely on choreographed cues — sometimes as small as leaning forward or a head nod — that have been rehearsed hundreds of times. Actors also have cue lights in their dressing rooms to keep them up to date on what’s happening onstage when they’re not performing. Six ASL masters help during rehearsals, breaks and press events.
While the original 2007 Broadway musical was not connected to deaf culture, director Michael Arden has found ways to connect it and deaf history to the setting of the story. In a pivotal classroom scene, a deaf student is chastised for signing Latin and is instead forced to speak Latin aloud, making it harder to communicate. Oralism, insisting on lip reading and speaking aloud rather than using sign language, was the norm in schools at the time the play was set and later proved damaging in deaf education. “Setting this production in that time period during the rise of oralism and banning of sign language is a reminder of the perils of miscommunication,” Arden said.
The producers hope the musical will help break the barriers that have at times made it hard for deaf actors in the entertainment industry.
Very few deaf actors become leading or featured cast members on Broadway. According to the Internet Broadway Database (IBDB) and Playbill Vault, there have been as few as four Broadway productions that have used sign language as a central part of the production.
Inclusion in the Arts, an advocacy organization for diversity in theater, film and television, maintains a database of professional actors with disabilities. About 80 performers in its database of 650 people identify as deaf or hard of hearing.
Some deaf actors have taken advantage of social media to support one another and raise awareness. Earlier this year, they started using the hashtag #DeafTalent to promote themselves and find allies in the industry.
“Theater by and for deaf actors hasn't changed by much, really, but the level of exposure and attention we are getting has increased dramatically, thanks to a younger, plugged-in generation,” said Tyrone Giordano, who played Huck, the lead role, in “Big River.” “We are now able to critique the critics and artistic products put forth by the mainstream. We’re more involved in helping shape and define our public image, and this is a very good thing.”
Davenport is hoping to shine a spotlight on deaf culture through the production. “I’d love audiences to take away that you don’t need to speak and you don’t need to hear in order to communicate,” Davenport said. “There are all sorts of languages out there. Yes, there’s the language of speech, there’s the language of touch, there’s the language of hearing, and there’s the language of movement, and all of them can be international languages.”
Ethan Sinnott — the chairman of the department of theater arts at Gallaudet University, which offers a B.A. theater program for deaf or hard-of-hearing students — is thinking about how to maintain momentum after “Spring Awakening,” which will run on Broadway for 18 weeks. “[The show’s] phenomenal journey will end eventually, and what happens after that? What comes out of that? How will it translate into the sustained expansion of career opportunities for deaf people with career aspirations in the field — not only as actors but as directors, designers, producers — now that we know what deaf people are capable of? Those are the questions we should be asking,” he said. “We, as deaf theater/film artists, cannot afford to be complacent.”