Hello there lovely people,
It's impossible to write down a 'history' of deaf theatre just as it is impossible to write a 'history' for all of hearing theatre. Like language the development of deaf theatre is incredibly localised which has led to a number of different styles. In July 1987 Hilary Cohen was priveleged to attend the Tenth Congress of the World Federation of the Deaf in Helsinki. Her article 'Theatre By and For the Deaf' identifies two main differences in the presentation of deaf theatre.
1) The more familiar of these techniques, largely influenced by the U.S. is the interpretation of spoken texts into sign language. The interpretors can be at the side or on stage performing, although this is generally a theatre mainly aimed at hearing audiences.
2) A more deaf-centric set of techniques emphasises the physicalisation of a work. The work will generally be performed by deaf actors and include a kind of 'theatricalised signing'. The intention of these works is to show off the skill of deaf actors to both a hearing and non-hearing audience.
Although both are valid forms of theatre the first is not truly a theatre of the deaf but more like watching a foreign-language film with subtitles, there is no way to fully understand and appreciate the nuances of the language. For example of Cohen notes that 'it is possible to produce Shakespeare in sign language alone, but whereas signing together with speaking expands the work, singing on its own may actually be constricting'.
Willy Conley had a similar experience when he went to see hearing plays in comparison to deaf theatre. He says that
'very few were sign-interpreted; most turned out to be static, with talking heads agains pretty backdrops. I kept thinking how theatrical deaf actors were, naturally filling the stage space with ASL along with their inherent physical and emotional qualities - and how invisible they were as a culture and as theatre artists.'
The discontent within the deaf community to simply be forced to watch hearing plays with an interpreter has led to the development of the second set of techniques to become more prominent in Western theatre.
The enhanced physicalisation that so enhanced Conley has become the key to deaf theatre. The nature of sign-language makes it a highly emotive form as along with hand and body gestures come a number of facial expressions that would be heightened and dramatic for a hearing audience, but which is just a part of communicating in sign-language. At the Congress which Cohen attended there were too many styles of theatre to effectively describe to you in this blog how sign language and the body completely recreated the theatre-going experience, I can only recommend her article to you with the highest of commendations and link this video which I believe shows a combination of artists working together.
I apologise for not being able to put the video on my blog but technology has bested me once again. The thing I would love for you to note in this clip from 'The Maps of Shadows' written by a Bosnian poet, is that despite the fact that you won't be able to understand (unless of course you speak fluent German or that dialect of sign-language) is the interaction between the deaf performers, the speech actors and the puppets. Also note the facial expression and energy of the deaf performers.
Hope you enjoyed that brief not-history lesson,