Karen Christie (1994)

Until the LIGHTS ON! production of Trouble’s Just Beginning — A Play of Our Own, I had never had the opportunity to write a theater review and mine turned out to be the first review I had ever read by a Deaf person! Since that time, the Democrat and Chronicle newspaper in Rochester has published a number of reviews of LIGHTS ON! productions written by Deaf people.

By publishing reviews of Deaf theater productions written only by non-Deaf (hearing) people, newspapers and theater companies have traditionally ignored significant audience members — people whose experiences and values are specifically addressed. For many Deaf people, reading reviews by non-Deaf people can be an interesting exercise in learning about how we are viewed by hearing people. It also becomes somewhat annoying to read about the reviewer’s fascination with “flying fingers” and “the range of human emotions that appear on the faces” of Deaf actresses/actors.

Not only does it seem difficult for non-Deaf reviewers to appreciate the difference between simply signing and actually using ASL aesthetically to create characters and tone, they also miss themes related to the Deaf experience and cultural symbols. While Trouble’s Just Beginning comically exploits the concept of cross-cultural relationships many can relate to, Deaf audiences have an intimate knowledge of the trouble in store for the young couple — a Deaf woman and a hearing man — as they prepare to marry at the end of the play.

For Deaf people, our literature in American Sign Language (ASL) has been handed down through generations in a face-to-face manner. ASL literature, whether it be stories, poetry, or drama, is meant to be experienced with others. This heritage is one reason why there is such rapport between actors and audience at a production of a Deaf play. Actors often sign directly to the audience from the stage and their eye contact is important. The house lights are often left on in performance in order to allow Deaf performers to gain visual feedback from the audience as well. Also, the members of the audience sign to each other during the course of the play. There is an implicit understanding that one will share reactions to the on-stage events with other audience members — even if you don’t know them. There is a saying in Deaf theater that if a Deaf audience is “quiet” — that is, not signing to each other during the performance — they are probably very bored!

An outsider, one who is not part of the Deaf community, would be screened out of these critical aspects of the art of Deaf theater. It would be similar to a hearing American watching a play in Japan without any real knowledge of the Japanese language or culture. Would that person be considered competent to review the play? Certainly not. Or if she were, it would be on very different terms than the play itself, it would be a different type of theatrical experience.

For Trouble’s Just Beginning, Democrat and Chronicle‘s theater critic Gene Marino gamely undertook the challenge of describing such a theatrical experience without a voice interpreter. His approach seemed more akin to watching with an anthropologist’s eye rather than that of a reviewer fascinated with flying fingers. His review, which ran side by side with mine, had interesting overlaps and points of differences. Ultimately, what was communicated with this concept of having two reviewers, Deaf and non-Deaf, was a respect for the diversity of cultural perspectives and diversity of audiences.

This recognition of differences in theatrical experiences also extends to the type of experience a Deaf reviewer would have watching a sign-interpreted hearing play. Reviewing such plays would be difficult. Deaf audience members attend sign-interpreted plays with an entirely different set of expectations. We know these plays are not created for our language or our eyes. Comedies and dramas in hearing theater are often too much talk. They can be visually exhausting to follow through interpreters. Also, the visual elements in those plays — sets, costumes, and choreography — are usually quite simple and therefore less interesting for Deaf audience members to watch. Musicals, on the other hand, are more exciting visually; they have more action as a rule and more extravagant settings and costumes. As a result, they are often more popular than other hearing plays. But since music, by its very nature, is inaccessible to Deaf people, watching characters who “talk in songs” can often seem rather silly.

A Deaf reviewer would have to take all of these factors into consideration. Could she comment on the play without commenting as well on the interpreters and the interpretation? Would it be unfairly criticizing the playwright if the interpretation were awkward? Would it be possible to write about the production without explaining the different expectations Deaf people bring to hearing theater, especially to a largely non-Deaf readership? I don’t know how I would answer these questions in practice. Does this mean Deaf audiences do not appreciate interpreted hearing plays? Of course not. It simply means that an interpreted hearing play and a play performed in ASL with Deaf actresses/actors are different experiences. Both experiences can enrich a theater-goer and should be available for Deaf audiences and be available for review by Deaf critics.

LIGHTS ON! Deaf Theatre Company values the opinions of Deaf community members by assertively seeking Deaf reviewers. To have a Deaf theater production reviewed solely by a hearing writer is to alienate the very audience for which the play is created. The Democrat and Chronicle has also acknowledged Deaf people as competent critics and as members of their newspaper audience by including theater reviews from a Deaf perspective. Such a respect has allowed for the unique and empowering experience for Deaf people of being able to both view and review plays of our own.

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