Eugene Marino (1994)

Few journalists ever have reason for thanking a public relations person for suggesting something exciting and innovative. But I have reason.

In October, 1992, I received a call from Dennis Smith, the publicist for a six-month-old theater group called LIGHTS ON! Founded and managed by Deaf people living in Rochester, LIGHTS ON! was — and is — devoted exclusively to staging plays written by Deaf authors about issues growing out of the Deaf experience. It aims to shine a light on Deaf culture for both Deaf and hearing audiences.

The group’s next production was to be a comedy called Trouble’s Just Beginning, a sort of Deaf Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Smith, the publicist, asked me to write a feature about it. But he also had something else in mind.

He suggested that my newspaper hire a Deaf person to review the show, and that I — a hearing person innocent of American Sign Language — also review the premiere, which would be performed in ASL and, unlike two other performances, have no offstage voicing. Smith wanted to immerse me as fully as possible in Deaf culture.

His suggestions struck me as both just and challenging. My editor, Sebby Wilson Jacobson, enthusiastically agreed and lent her support.

The unusual, perhaps unique, mission of LIGHTS ON!, we thought, justified the unusual step of publishing side-by-side reviews. The reviews, we hoped, would complement one another, with the Deaf reviewer giving both Deaf and hearing readers insight into the experience that I — the differently-abled outsider — could not.

The results fulfilled our hopes. The review by Karen Christie, an English professor at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, a college of Rochester Institute of Technology, was well-written and theatrically savvy, and it showed a depth of understanding and sympathy for the characters on stage that, I thought, overshadowed my own.

Encouraged, we sought to take things further. Why ghettoize such a reviewer? Why not have her review sign-interpreted performances at other theaters? Might that not lead to a greater interest in theater in the Deaf community, and to a demand for more and better interpreted performances? Wouldn’t her insights into Guys and Dolls or Of Mice and Men or whatever be a valuable complement to those of another reviewer — valuable and valid for both Deaf and hearing people?

For reasons I don’t yet fully understand, the answers to those questions were not as simple as I thought they would be. For one thing, I did not understand how alien some Deaf people apparently find musical theater, because it is so much a part of hearing culture.

We still hope to make such reviews possible. But, with Christie and others in the Deaf and theater communities, we need to discuss in much more depth the surrounding practical and philosophical issues.

Meantime, LIGHTS ON! has prospered. In addition to its public performances, it is now giving theater workshops and storytelling sessions for mixed groups of Deaf and hearing children in the local schools.

We have used two other Deaf reviewers for LIGHTS ON! productions. (Christie hasn’t been available.) We let those reviews stand on their own, thinking that an accompanying review by me would suggest that we didn’t fully trust the Deaf reviewer. But we also want readers to understand that LIGHTS ON! is not intended solely for Deaf audiences. So I or a hearing freelancer will probably review one of their upcoming shows.

How relevant is this experience for other newspapers in other communities? I’m not sure. Rochester is unique in that it has 50,000 or so Deaf or hard-of-hearing persons, out of a population of nearly 1,000,000. That gives it, supposedly, the largest per capita Deaf population anywhere. They are a prominent and articulate community, and giving them a voice in the newspaper seems only natural. Aren’t there similar minority communities in other cities.

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