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Chapter 6 Deaf American Theater ! In 1993, Institution Blues enjoyed full houses during its twoday run at a Deaf community theater in Washington, D.C.1 The three-hour play about the imminent closing of a state residential school struck very close to home, for at the time increasing numbers of deaf schools were shutting down across the nation. Outside the Deaf family, the school for the deaf is the primary breeding ground of Deaf culture and thus its closure is tantamount to gutting the Deaf community. Theatergoers were immediately drawn into this dramatic production; indeed, as the lights dimmed and actors/protesters entered from the back, marched down the aisles waving their placards, and ascended the stage, many viewers joined in the protest. They left their seats and, with arms and hands pumping, signed “Keep the institution open! Keep the institution open!” They stopped only when one of the protest rally leaders moved to the front of the stage and began speaking passionately and eloquently to the energized house. DEAF AMERICANS stage numerous productions every year, ranging from mainstream plays, such as Gallaudet University’s fall 1997 production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to vaudeville-like produc96 975 Gup DAL Chap 06 7/17/00 7:45 PM Page 96 tions, such as the National Theatre of the Deaf’s My Third Eye and Parade.2 In between are both original but conventional plays focusing on Deaf culture, such as Sign Me Alice, Tales from a Clubroom , and A Deaf Family Diary,3 and hybrid productions that mix classical and indigenous theater, such as Institution Blues. Most are mainstream plays or faithful adaptations; only a handful of original Deaf productions see the light of day. In the 1990s playgoers could see Willy Conley’s The Water Falls, The Hearing Test, and Falling on Hearing Eyes; Bob Daniels’s I Didn’t Hear That Color and Hand in Hand, Foot in Mouth: An Unmusical; Michele Verhoosky ’s Middle of Nowhere and I See the Moon; and Shanny Mow’s Counterfeits, Cat Spanking Machine, and Letters from Heaven. Deafywood, compiled by John Maucere, toured the country for three years in the late 1990s.4 A few other original productions have been written and produced by theater departments at Gallaudet University, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, and California State University at Northridge over the past few years. Undoubtedly many unstaged scripts are composed by would-be playwrights working on their own or in creative writing classes or workshops.5 Despite their diversity, original scripts by Deaf American playwrights share some general characteristics. Like minority drama in general, these plays draw in varying degrees both on indigenous (i.e., unique to Deaf culture) and conventional (i.e., mainstream) elements. Because of this dual nature, each counters mainstream literary and dramatic conventions in one way or another. In many instances, plays (like Alice) are conventional in form, but original in subject. Modern Conventional Theater as High Art Michael Bristol, a drama historian, argues that today’s conventional mainstream theater as a whole is a fairly formal affair that helps support the status quo.6 Most municipalities of any size have at least one separate building—the “theater”—just for dramatic productions . On the infrequent occasions that the building is in use, theatergoers make dinner reservations, dress up, and head out for a Deaf American Theater 97 975 Gup DAL Chap 06 7/17/00 7:45 PM Page 97 night on the town. Once they arrive and get ensconced in their plush seats, the lights dim and the action begins, apart from and above them on a raised stage. Theatergoers stay in their seats, players stay on the stage, and the two groups interact very little. The audience, mostly upper class and college educated, has come to see what the playwright and director have crafted and how the stars interpret what has been given them. The theatergoers have come to be passively entertained, and the privilege rarely comes cheaply. Manifesting the alienation and differentiation of social structure that Henri Lefebvre finds characteristic of modernity, mainstream theater often has the quality of a high art.7 Rather than being engaged with everyday life, it usually aims at the transcendent and serious; even its comedy is of a sophisticated sort. As an artistic enterprise, it is carefully crafted and orchestrated for aesthetic ends.8 Most plays observe the conventional (neoclassical) unities of time, place, and action; in three to five acts, replete with...


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