Theatre can be a world of fun and imagination, but only if it’s accessible to be enjoyed. I recently spoke with Garrett Zuercher, Co-founder, Producer, and Director of Artistic Sign Language (DASL), of the new theatre company Deaf Broadway about what they are doing to provide access to theatre in a new way. Deaf Broadway was created with the goal of creating theatre that is a “truly full visual entertainment for the Deaf, by the Deaf” with new levels of accessibility, and inclusion into the world of theatre.
Zuercher, along with his co-founders, Miriam Rochford, and Kim Hale, has embraced creativity, technical challenges, and performers from all over to bring fully realized and clear performances to those in the Deaf community. Deaf Broadway performs shows and provides exposure not seen in any other theatrical venue with 10 to 20 native ASL language models, and every performer is Deaf and a native user of American Sign Language. In between coordinating rehearsals, and planning new performances, Zuercher was able to talk with me about this new theatre company.
As a newer company, and Deaf Broadway claims initial inspiration from Sondheim’s birthday celebration in March!
On Sondheim’s 90th Birthday a group of friends including myself had a watch party of the original stage version of SWEENEY TODD. Since most of us are performers, we were singing and signing along to the show.
However, we realized how much of it we actually didn’t understand, partially because it wasn’t always clear who was saying what. Sondheim is famous for overlapping, rapid-fire lyrics, which can make captioning incredibly difficult, if not impossible; we get the bare bones with captioning, so to speak.
We ended up asking our hearing friends for clarification and a lot of comments ensued, like: “Oh, I always thought the other character said that!”, or “I never knew that.”
The captioning that was being done for accommodation in the past was actually not doing justice to either the show or the Deaf viewers who depended upon the interpreting to know what people were saying or singing.
Captioning is flat with very little to no indication of emotional affect, so we were also often signing lines the wrong way when the characters were delivering them another way.
After our hearing friends painstakingly explained, a whole new understanding blossomed. It became clear that the best way to make shows accessible to the Deaf community is by having one Deaf person for each character, signing EVERYTHING in ASL, omitting nothing, so that it’s always visually clear who is saying what and when and why and how (ASL harmony, so to speak) and the full nuance intended by the original creators is finally there for the Deaf community to enjoy and appreciate.
With plenty of quarantine time to fill and lots of creative and talented people to perform, they decided to put on a show themselves for others to enjoy.
Incredibly excited about our new understanding of the show, we had a fun, one time reading of SWEENEY TODD over Zoom. Once we did this, we realized how incredibly special this was and how perfect a form of access is for the Deaf community.
Deaf people finally had full, visual access to musical theater on their own terms. It’s incredibly rare for Deaf people to be able to tell a story on our own, in our own language, without influence from, or control by, hearing people. Our hands were free for the first time and it was life-changing.
Another show quickly followed and the results were just as enthusiastically positive. Zuercher says this proved without a doubt that what they were doing was reaching those that needed them most.
We heard from families with Deaf children stuck alone at home with no language access during this quarantine thanking us for making ASL content for Deaf people.
Statistically, 90% of Deaf children are born into hearing families, most of whom do not sign. Language deprivation is a very real problem in our community, and the lack of exposure to ASL is a primary cause. Our videos became a window to a world that had suddenly been closed to them.
One mother messaged us saying that her hearing children loved the feature film of INTO THE WOODS, but her Deaf child was not able to enjoy it the same way as her brothers and sisters until now, so she was overjoyed.
Deaf schools and teachers of the Deaf started messaging us, asking if they could send our videos to their students. We realized how intense a need there is for this sort of access, especially for Deaf children and people who can’t even communicate with their families.
All theatre is a complex undertaking and this new world of virtual theatre is no different. Every show requires the rights to perform the show, but adding in the video of the performance is another layer of permissions and access to navigate.
Since we are providing visual access, we need to have a video version of a show to provide visual information such as characters, blocking, sets, props, and so on, side by side with our language access. Thus, we are limited to those productions that were preserved on video.
This makes obtaining permission extremely complex since we can’t just get the rights to a show but must also get permission from the producers and owners of the video, which is separate from the show material itself.
After Deaf Broadway started to gain traction, we had a meeting with MTI (Music Theatre International) and were blessed with their full support and assistance, something for which we are incredibly grateful.
We started with musicals because of Sondheim, so that is what we are currently doing. It has been less than two months now, but we would love to explore branching out into other options.
Musical theater, in general, has been wildly inaccessible for the Deaf community, so that is why we are continuing to focus on those works for now. They are far more complex, sound-wise, than a straight play, which is why we want to provide more access.
Our ultimate dream is to get permission to provide ASL access for PBS’ Great Performances series, particularly the gorgeous musicals at Lincoln Center. Growing up, I always wanted to watch these but they were rarely accessible to me as a Deaf person.
Like any show, the performers are key to the storytelling. Every performer is Deaf and a native user of American Sign Language. Zuercher says their performances and analysis are just as impactful as the audible vibrato a singer may add to make each performance so unique.
We have a director who gives feedback for clarity and continuity but, for the most part, all performers are left to their own interpretation, which we love because everyone brings something different to the table.
As the director for the first few shows, I made the decision not to have everyone sign the same way because I wanted to create visual ASL harmony as well as show how one thing can be translated in a myriad of different ways.
One translation is not the be-all and end-all and we, as Deaf people, learn so much more by watching different approaches. Often, I watch a Deaf performer sign a line and think to myself, “I would never have translated it that way myself, but that is a brilliant take on it.”
It adds nuance, it adds depth, and as Deaf performers, it’s an opportunity like no other to learn from each other.
Often, when hearing singers sing over each other, it creates jumbled harmony. I wanted to create jumbled VISUAL harmony. We’re all signing something different, but it all works together cohesively. It’s a beautiful thing.
Since this is a visual, virtual representation there is an additional technical challenge on how they keep the audience’s focus where it needs to be and this is where the Stage Manager becomes the Screen Manager to help manage what is seen and when.
Miriam Rochford, another of the co-founders, broke ground by basically teaching herself how to do Screen Management, and she has become a master at the craft. She will call the show as it happens in real-time, just a stage manager does in a theater.
As a director, I discuss with her who should pop up and when, and she will make it happen.
Kim Hale, the third and final founder, serves as umbrella producer and our resident musical theater encyclopedia since she knows basically EVERYTHING there is to know, and often serves as assistant director. She is also responsible for the final look of the films because she takes care of all the editing.
Teamwork of the best kind – just three friends from New York City, working out of our homes during this quarantine.
The success of Deaf Broadway shows that this is an audience that loves its theatre. When the quarantine is over, they hope that this encourages theatres to better accommodate those who communicate through ASL.
Let us enjoy your brilliant works the way you intended for them to be enjoyed, not just through a watered-down, edited version. We want the show, not the cliff notes. We’re not asking for you to change anything, we just want full access to what you created.
Check out their LEGALLY BLONDE this week Wednesday, May 13th – Friday, May 15th
If you want to follow the work of Deaf Broadway you can find them at any of their social media platforms or their website!
Looking for ideas of what to do during this time of quarantine? Click here for more suggestions