The history of American Sign Language (ASL) in the United States is uniquely bound up with the history of performance. In the 1960s, as hearing educators and researchers were finally beginning to acknowledge ASL as a legitimate language after a century of denying its validity and inhibiting deaf children from learning or communicating in sign language, the National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) helped spread awareness of ASL among hearing individuals. Producing mainly classic plays using a cast of Deaf and hearing performers, NTD developed its own adapted form of ASL, known as “theatrical sign,” which involves heightened or expanded signs, sometimes made with multiple performers and often incorporating elements of pantomime in addition to ASL. This controversial development of an “artistic” form of ASL was in part a result of NTD’s interest in experimenting with visual communication and at the same time a response to the fact that 90 percent of NTD audiences are hearing. As a commercially and critically successful company that has toured all 50 states and spawned multiple regional Deaf theatres, NTD revolutionized mainstream acting by providing opportunities for professional Deaf actors as well as bringing awareness of the Deaf community to a wide variety of American audiences.
However, as Hilary Cohen notes, much of NTD’s work is ultimately produced with a hearing audience in mind, and features classic English works performed using ASL in combination with spoken language in such a way that, “the signing becomes an added dimension to a text that is heard—hearing being the form for which it was conceived“ (Cohen 71). Former NTD member Dorothy Miles distinguishes the company’s “sign language theatre” from Deaf theatre by noting that, while sign language theatre uses sign as an evocative visual medium used to enhance “hearing” theatre and hearing audience members’ experiences, Deaf theatre is concerned with “realistic portrayals of the lives of deaf persons, or with real or imaginary representations drawn from the deaf person’s unique perception of the world” (Miles 6). Thus, according to Miles, while sign language theatre treats ASL less as a language and more as an aesthetic medium, Deaf theatre “uses sign language as a means of communication first, and as an art form second” (Miles 6).
It is this second form of ASL in performance that most directly informs Across a Distance. While playwright Nick Lantz has written the script in English, Mr. Schleifer has continually translated his character’s dialogue and stories into ASL. However, since this project involves not the staging of an English classic but rather the construction of a new text written expressly for ASL performance, the actor, playwright, and director have collaborated to ensure the character’s speech works organically within ASL syntax. Thus this performance does not view ASL primarily as an added visual element for hearing audiences, but rather as a language that, like all languages, is deeply connected to a culture and forms an integral part of the character of the man who uses it.
Citations: Cohen, Hilary U. “Theatre by and for the Deaf.” Theatre and Drama Review 33.1 (1989): 68-78. JSTOR. 29 Sept. 2006 <http://www.jstor.org>.
Miles, Dorothy and Lou Fant Jr. Sign Language Theatre and Deaf Theatre: New Definitions and Directions. Ed. Harry Murphy. Center on Deafness Publication Series, 2. California State University, Northridge: Center on Deafness, 1976.