Linda Bove (1992)
In the recent debates over multiculturalism, Deaf people have often been neglected, lumped together with persons with disabilities. Yet, Deaf people do not view themselves as disabled. Rather, we consider ourselves a distinct cultural group, with our own language, history, and ways of interacting. The language we use, American Sign Language (ASL), is not English. English is my second language.
As a result, we are extremely sensitive about how we are portrayed in theater, film, and television. Putting hearing actors in Deaf roles is nothing less than a denial of our culture. Being Deaf is not simply a matter of putting your fingers in your ears or turning off the TV set. Nor is sign language a kind of secret code to be learned for fun and that’s it. This ignores the complexity of our experience.
Our most pressing need remains getting cast in Deaf roles. We must get directors, producers, and other decision-makers to recognize that those roles must go to Deaf actors — period. Once we get over that hurdle — and we have a long way to go — we can begin to fight for other roles, for non-traditional casting. Right now, Deaf actors are only thought of for Deaf roles, when we are thought of at all. This is frustrating for many of us. I consider myself an actor first.
There has been some change, though. We are seeing more of ourselves and less of the stereotypes. I’ve been struck by the example set by young African-American filmmakers. They’ve taken complete control of projects about themselves. The Deaf community has to take on creating images of ourselves in the same way.
A year ago, some of us in Los Angeles started DeafWest, the first theater company run by and for people who are Deaf. This is a real breakthrough for us. There has never been a theater presenting work completely from a Deaf-cultural point-of-view. At DeafWest, we are creating a place for the development and artistic expression of actors and other artists, both Deaf and hearing, who are committed to this goal; a place to provide Deaf individuals the opportunity to express themselves without restriction on stage in sign language; a place to serve the social, cultural, educational, and employment needs of our community.
There has been so little place for the Deaf in the theater, in all the arts. Until very recently, most of the performing arts were not a part of our lives, because of their reliance on sound and the spoken word. Even places like museums were relatively closed to us without interpretation. When interpreted performances in theaters began that was helpful, but now it’s no longer enough. We’re tired of having access only under special circumstances. At DeafWest, we put hearing people in the role of needing interpretation, providing them with infrared hearing devices.
So far, we have presented two plays, The Gin Game and Shirley Valentine. These have been translated into ASL and interpreted through a Deaf sensibility. For instance, the two characters in The Gin Game knock on the table to get each other’s attention, rather than calling, as is written. For our next production, we hope to do One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with a multiracial cast of Deaf inmates and a hospital staff of hearing actors to show the segregation of Deaf people in society. In the longer term, we want to go beyond plays written for hearing people to draw directly upon the richness of our culture and language to create our own, unique stage literature.
We’re only scratching the surface. We need to develop our own playwrights, directors, producers, casting directors. If there were Deaf casting directors, it would be much harder for hearing actors to seem convincing in non-hearing roles.
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