Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Audiences, American Sign Language, and Deafness in Shakespeare Performance

Theater productions incorporating American Sign Language (ASL) and deaf actors have hitherto been only superficially discussed by Shakespeare performance scholars. While the premise that the dynamic co-presence of actors and audience creates the meanings of performance is fundamental to performance studies, this sparse scholarship does not consider how productions might generate different performative meanings and experiences for deaf audiences than for hearing ones. As a result, the key element of accessibility has been overlooked. Through close examination of four North American productions that incorporated ASL-speaking actors into the production, this essay compares the responses of hearing audiences to the author’s own as a deaf spectator, illustrating the different performative meanings generated by the incorporation of ASL and deaf actors. The author also discusses how choices at all levels of the production can be detrimental to accessibility and argues that hearing directors have an ethical responsibility to be inclusive of deaf audiences. This can be accomplished by centering deaf perspectives and experiences both onstage and in front-of-house practices. Scholars who study such performances should also orient themselves in an ethics of care for deaf audiences. Reviews and critical readings focused only on what takes place on stage, ignoring audience composition and accessibility considerations, perpetuate the exclusion of deaf spectators from the performance experience.


Theater productions incorporating American Sign Language (ASL) and deaf actors have been only superficially discussed by Shakespeare performance scholars. And while the premise that the dynamic co-presence of actors and audience creates the meanings of performance is fundamental to performance studies, this sparse scholarship does not consider how productions might generate different performative meanings and experiences for deaf audiences than for hearing ones. As a result, the key element of accessibility has been overlooked. In this essay, I examine four North American productions of Shakespeare combining spoken English/ASL that I attended in 2019.1 Comparing the responses of hearing audiences to my own as a deaf spectator illustrates the different performative meanings that can be generated. Centering my own embodied experience also allows me to show how choices at all levels of the production can be detrimental to accessibility. I argue that hearing directors who work with deaf actors and ASL have an ethical responsibility to be inclusive of deaf audiences. This can be accomplished by centering deaf perspectives and experiences both onstage and in front-of-house practices. Scholars who study such performances should also orient themselves in an ethics of care for deaf audiences. Reviews and critical readings focused only on what takes place on stage, ignoring audience composition and accessibility considerations, perpetuate the exclusion of deaf spectators from the performance experience. [End Page 45]

Critical Perspectives

Attention to the dynamic co-presence of actors and audience is one of the distinctive traits of performance studies. Erika Fischer-Lichte writes that “performance exists in the moment of bodily co-presence of ‘actors’ and ‘spectators,’” (19) while Gay McAuley defines the theatrical event as “a dynamic process of communication in which the spectators are vitally implicated, one that forms part of a series of interconnected processes of socially situated signification and communication” (7). This emphasis on process is central to W. B. Worthen’s definition as well. In Shakespeare Performance Studies he writes: “Performance operates in the mode of behavior—the actors’, the audience’s—intrinsic to theater” (12). For Worthen, the theatrical event is an interaction of agents, objects, and practices in which the spectator is not a passive receiver of messages but “a performer sustaining the signifying structure of the performance event, whose acts—however mute and motionless—frame, like the actors, the event’s significance” (23). This performative meaning is shaped in part by the embodied socio-cultural meanings on stage. “If we accept the premise that each performing body partakes in remaking Shakespeare and that bodies can indeed be ‘read’ as ‘texts,’” Pascale Aebischer and Nigel Wheale write, “then the gender, race and cultural coding of the performers’ bodies become part of the meaning of remade Shakespeare” (7).

Working from this emphasis on the audience’s active role in performance, Shakespeare scholars have examined how spectators produce meaning from stage embodiments of socio-cultural identities. While stage representations of non-dominant languages and cultures by leading performance institutions can lead audiences to question their own presuppositions, they can also reinforce stereotypical and exoticizing perspectives. And even when stage representations are respectful and authentic, audience interactions with them may be inappropriate. Directors’ notes and other guides may help audience members gain access to unfamiliar cultures, languages, and performance traditions, but may also lead them to misinterpret or overestimate their understanding (Cavanagh 196). A little learning can be a dangerous thing. Stage representations of non-dominant cultures by performance institutions primarily representing dominant cultures may also overlook power disparities and tensions between individuals and institutions from dominant and non-dominant cultures. Such tensions frequently take the form of language politics. As Amy Kenny and Michael Pearce show in their separate analyses of the 2012 Globe to Globe Festival, dominant cultural views of what is authentic language use [End Page 46] for a non-dominant culture may differ from those of the non-dominant culture itself (Kenny 35, Pearce 73). Scholarship on intercultural Shakespeare thus highlights the need to interrogate how “other” languages and cultural identities are embodied in Shakespeare performance, as well as the heuristics that audience members bring to these embodiments. These insights are relevant to the study of deaf bodies and ASL on stage.

The scholarship of race and Shakespeare performance is another line of research that yields useful insights into how audiences interpret both the representations of socio-cultural identities and the actual bodies on-stage. In Passing Strange, for example, Ayanna Thompson discusses how audiences may be unsure how to decipher the performative meanings of racialized bodies without clear guidance in the form of directors’ notes (80). Lisa M. Anderson explores how race in performance has different meanings for white audiences than for patrons of color (93), while Antonio Ocampo-Guzman discusses how Latinx audiences engage with Shakespeare differently when Latinx actors perform the main roles (127). More recently, Lauren Eriks Cline has analyzed how audiences use techniques of incoherence, opacity, and indirection to construct racial meaning. “Reading reception alongside critical race theories,” she writes, “we learn that what looks at first like a spectator’s failure to see race might turn out instead to be a strategy for making race invisible” (114–15). While racial and deaf embodiments are not interchangeable, scholarship on Shakespeare and race points to the need for Shakespeare performance studies to consider how the audience member’s own embodiment shapes their interpretation of the bodies on stage.

Shakespeare performance scholars also need to attend to their own bodies. As Colette Conroy writes, “there is a huge difference between talking about ‘the body’ and its experience of a theatre performance and talking about ‘bodies’ and their experiences” (55). When scholars assume an objective critical perspective, they risk naturalizing a particular embodied experience of theater. But, as Kirsty Johnston argues, critical and aesthetic judgements are framed by multiple assumptions about bodies: “who gets to attend the theatre or not, whose sensory experiences are privileged in the theatre or not, who has been able to receive theatre training to take on professional roles or not, who is cast or not, who finds their bodily experiences shared on stage or not, who finds such stage offerings resonant with their own bodily experience or not, and who finds beauty in the theatre or not” (2). Disability studies scholars have made important contributions to analyzing how audience members’ embodiment shapes the interpretation of bodies on stage. Drawing on Rosemarie Garland [End Page 47] Thompson’s Staring: How We Look, Ann M. Fox and Carrie Sandahl describe how somatic art forms invite “spectators to stare and in so doing, rewrite old assumptions about the disabled body while discovering new aspects of disability aesthetics and disability gain” (121). They suggest that theater in particular offers a “unique opportunity for carefully shaped narratives to intersect with embodied performance.” On the other hand, Petra Kuppers underscores the difficulty disabled performers have in disrupting negative cultural narratives, of getting audiences to see non-normative embodiments as anything but “naturally about disability” (26). In other words, audiences struggle to see the difference between bodily impairments and the social structures that create or exacerbate the experience of impairments. For Sandahl, this inability to separate disability embodiment from the construction of social narratives about such embodiments leads critics to ignore the dramaturgical meanings of disability in performance in favor of “focusing on biographical information about the artist’s impairment, reducing complex works to a discussion of stereotypes, or using the unfamiliarity of being in the presence of disabled people performing as an occasion to work out their own anxieties about the nature of disability and thereby the nature of art itself ” (129). Ato Quayson suggests the term “aesthetic nervousness” to describe these moments when disability representation creates anxieties on the part of normatively embodied readers. For Quayson, such anxiety is generated in part by the ethical dimension of disability, “the nervousness regarding the disabled in the real world” (19). Able-bodied and able-minded people are often unsure how to behave in the presence of disability or how to interact with disabled people. Disability, especially visible disability, also violates cultural standards of what “natural” bodies look like, invoking deeply ingrained judgements about physical form and beauty. The “efficaciousness” of disability, its inescapable material circumstances and conditions, thus injects an ethical dimension into the domain of the aesthetic that provokes unease in readers (19–24). Although Quayson focuses primarily on the interpretation of texts, his insights can be applied to how audiences interpret disability in performance. His linking of ethics and aesthetics is particularly useful in understanding certain negative audience responses to representations of deafness in the Shakespeare productions I discuss below.

Recently, Shakespeare and disability scholars have turned to disability care work to model ethical relations between characters and readers, actors and audiences. Eva Feder Kittay defines care as “a labor, an attitude, and a virtue. As labor, it is the work of maintaining ourselves and others when we are in a condition of need. [. . .] As an attitude, caring denotes [End Page 48] a positive, affective bond and investment in another’s well-being” (560). Jenny Morris calls for an “ethics of care which aims to enable people to participate in decisions which affect them, and to be involved in the life of their community” (5). Such an ethics carries obligations of mutual support and advocacy.2 Justin Shaw draws on this discourse of care work, especially the writings of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, to analyze the intersectionality of race and disability in the “care webs” of Othello. Shaw begins his article with a paragraph on Eric Garner’s murder by New York City police to show “the often deadly outcomes that portend when the possibilities for ethical care fail in both the imagined worlds of the early modern theatre and the realities of our own time” (172). As readers, Shaw asserts, we must develop a sense of ethical care that advocates for “people under constant threat of erasure and death by systems of anti-blackness and ableism” (181).

From performance studies to disability care work, these critical discourses frame my analysis in this article. If the meanings of performance are generated by the bodily co-presence of actors and spectators, then deaf audiences are essential to scholarship on Shakespeare productions incorporating ASL and deaf actors. To exclude them perpetuates the domination of normative embodiment in theatrical institutions and conventions. Because embodiments shape interpretations of bodies on stage, scholars should also examine their own embodiments and potential anxieties about disability representation. Furthermore, I argue, scholars should approach Shakespeare productions incorporating ASL and deaf actors from the perspective of an ethics of care. This means considering whether (and to what extent) productions center deaf perspectives in artistic and house management practices.

Critical Embodiment

Having laid out my critical perspective, I now turn to my own critical embodiment. I am a white, cis-gendered woman who identifies as culturally deaf. It is a longstanding (though much debated) convention to use Deaf (with emphasis on the capital D) to refer to people who use ASL and consider themselves part of a minority language community, and deaf for people who tend to use spoken English and identify with the hearing world (see, for example, Brueggerman 177–80). As someone who grew up oral (speaking and using assistive listening devices) but is now fluent in ASL and immersed in the deaf community professionally and personally, I find this nomenclature reductive and exclusionary in its [End Page 49] oppositional binaries. I prefer to adopt Paddy Ladd’s definition of deaf-hood as “the struggle by each deaf child, deaf family and Deaf adult to explain to themselves and each other their own existence in the world” in ways that may or may not align with clearly identified communities, cultures, or language practices (3). For Ladd, deafhood is a continuum of embodiments across auditory/linguistic/cultural spectrums. Throughout this essay, I use deaf in this more inclusive sense.

I also identify as deaf-plus, i.e. having an additional disabling condition. And I have what we in the community call voice privilege, meaning that hearing people find my voice intelligible. I use both ASL and spoken English socially and professionally, depending on the communicative context. When attending the theater, I rely on captioning or interpreting. All these aspects of my embodiment intersect in my theater spectator-ship and my critical perspective on language use, deaf performance, and representations of deafness.

Foregrounding my own experience as a culturally deaf audience member and scholar helps me draw attention to the assumptions about audience embodiment and accessibility made by the productions I analyze—themes that are central to disability studies. But the fit between deafness and disability, between deaf studies and disability studies, is not as straightforward as this critical move suggests. Within North America, refusing to view deafness as a disability has been an important strategy for deaf people in developing and arguing for a distinct cultural identity since the 1960s. Many in the community explicitly reject being called disabled, and instead define themselves as members of a linguistic minority. From this perspective, it is not deafness that is disabling, but the lack of language access. Thus, deaf studies focuses on what Nirmala Erevelles refers to as “the unique social, political, and cultural issues of Deaf communities, most of which cluster around the politics of language, communication, and representation and its implications for Deaf communities” (Erevelles and Kafer 212). But as Yerker Andersson points out, framing deafness as a disability is also politically useful: “Deaf citizens have gained power and opportunities because we’ve accepted the legal ‘label’ of disability” (200). Unlike disability studies, deaf studies has paid little attention to problems of intersectionality. Deaf studies scholars have tended to assume a particular type of embodiment, one that is rooted in the experiences of white “deaf of deaf ” graduates of state K–12 schools for the deaf (Fernandes and Myers 17, 23). As Carolyn McCaskill has shown, though, racial embodiment is a central part of Black deaf experience, identity, and language use (1, 8). The same is no doubt true for other BIPOC communities that [End Page 50] have not been the focus of deaf studies scholarship. Deaf studies has also largely ignored deaf-plus or deaf-disabled embodiment (Player; Ruiz-Williams et al.). The field has much to learn about intersectionality from disability studies. I regret that my article does not advance deaf studies much in this respect, for deaf actors cast in productions of Shakespeare by hearing theater companies are almost entirely white and able-bodied. I hope that future productions will create opportunities for more diverse deaf embodiments.

ASL/Spoken English Shakespeare Performance

Casting deaf actors who use ASL is a relatively new development in North American Shakespeare performance.3 The earliest example that I have located in my research to date is from 1987, when deaf actor Howie Seago appeared in the La Jolla Playhouse’s The Tempest. From the thirty-year period spanning 1987–2017, Tyrone Giordano and I have identified roughly thirty-five professional or community theater productions of Shakespeare featuring ASL and spoken English. Fifteen of these were produced by theater companies associated with or in the same area as two universities for deaf students (Rochester, NY and Washington, DC). Ten of these productions were produced by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival between 2009 and 2017, when then-artistic director Bill Rauch worked with Seago and deaf actor Monique Holt. That leaves around ten productions over thirty years by various other theater companies across the United States and Canada.

Spring 2019 thus saw an upsurge of ASL/spoken English Shakespeare, with two professional productions in Canada and two in the United States, including the first ever appearance of a deaf actor in a Broadway Shakespeare production. These four shows approached the incorporation of deaf actors and ASL in very different ways. Why Not Theatre’s Prince Hamlet, directed by Ravi Jain (hearing) and featuring deaf actor Dawn Jani Birley as Horatio, premiered in 2017 and toured across Canada in 2019. Jain’s appropriation of Hamlet is narrated by Horatio, so that Birley appeared on stage throughout the performance as either character or narrator. In Seattle, hearing director John Langs mounted Romeo + Juliet for A Contemporary Theatre (ACT) between 1 and 31 March 2019. Joshua Castille, a member of the critically acclaimed Spring Awakening Broadway cast, played Romeo, and Howie Seago played Friar Lawrence. ACT’s production thus offered a rare opportunity to see talented deaf actors from two different generations. On Broadway, hearing director [End Page 51] Sam Gold’s King Lear drew headlines for Glenda Jackson in the title role, but also included deaf actor Russell Harvard as the Duke of Cornwall. The production ran from 4 April to 9 June 2019 at the Cort Theatre. Hearing actor Aisling O’Sullivan, who played Regan, learned enough ASL to communicate onstage with Harvard, and hearing actor/director Michael Arden, who played Cornwall’s aide, signed the other characters’ lines for Harvard. In Edmonton, Canada, The Citadel Theatre hosted Josette Bushell-Mingo’s adaptation of The Tempest between 20 April and 12 May 2019. Although hearing, Bushell-Mingo was the artistic director for the Swedish deaf theater company Tyst for many years. She cast deaf actor Thurga Kanagasekarampillai as Miranda and deaf actors as four of eight Ariels.

Audience interactions

Drawing inspiration from Lauren Eriks Cline’s work on “spectator production” (Cline 113), I looked to performance reviews for evidence of how audiences generated meaning from the presence of ASL and deaf actors in these four productions. I searched for reviews in newspapers, online arts magazines, and commercial or personal websites. I also looked for reviews of the four shows published in academic journals. My searches turned up no reviews written by people who self-disclosed as deaf or who wrote from a deaf perspective. I have thus treated the reviews I discuss below as written by hearing authors.

Not surprisingly, reviewers expressed diverse responses to the incorporation of ASL and deaf actors. Some spectators were awed by the artistry of ASL performance; others found it distracting. Some found compelling thematic and dramaturgical meanings in the bilingualism and casting of deaf actors; others did not. Some came ready for a different approach to Shakespeare performance; others brought more traditional expectations about character embodiments. As a deaf spectator, I shared the responses of various hearing reviewers in some respects, such as the emotional impact of ASL as a stage language, or the thematic and dramaturgical potential of bilingualism. But my perspectives on the productions differed with respect to the actors’ linguistic artistry, the performative representation of deafness, and my experience of each performance’s accessibility.

Both hearing and deaf audiences can appreciate the artistry of sign language performance, though in different ways. Hearing people typically draw parallels with art forms such as dance or physical theater. Thus, reviewers commented on the performance of the deaf actors using [End Page 52] phrases such as “balletic,” “evocative,” “electrifying physicality,” and “similar to watching interpretive dance” (MacLean, Fairchild, Wexler, Elder, Gardner). As with other embodied art forms, hearing audience members responded to the emotional content communicated via movement and gesture (Dussome, Fairchild, Irwin). Reviewing Birley’s performance in Prince Hamlet, for example, Karen Fricker comments that “her whole body moves when she signs and her face is amazingly evocative.” Another reviewer remarks, “Part of me wishes I knew ASL so I could fully appreciate her performance, another part of me is moved with the experience of understanding her without quite knowing the words” (Qua-Hiansen).

I also enjoyed the emotional force and physical artistry of the deaf actors’ performances, but my knowledge of the language enabled me to experience the linguistic artistry as well. For example, Birley’s translation skillfully balanced clarity of expression with the poetic register of Shakespeare’s text. This is something with which many deaf actors struggle. If they try to express the complexity of Shakespeare’s language with densely poetic ASL, the translation can be difficult to understand in a single viewing. Following the lines of Shakespeare’s playtext too closely can also result in a translation that is not readily comprehended, due to the significant grammatical differences between English and ASL. Other common translation issues include mixing modern slang or prosaic sign choices with a more formal discourse register in ways that are inconsistent and jarring. Conceptually incorrect signs may also be used, such as the mimetic HOUSE to refer to the two families in Romeo + Juliet. Finally, actors may mouth English words rather than using grammatically correct ASL mouth morphemes. All of these elements contribute to the quality of the stage ASL and thus to my appreciation of the deaf actors’ performance.

But the quality of the stage ASL is not just an artistic matter. It is also an accessibility issue. If hearing actors who sign on stage have no prior experience with ASL, their sign production may be unclear even with intensive practice. They are also unlikely to master essential grammatical features of signed languages, such as facial expressions, intonation, and prosody, in the typical rehearsal time span. The result can be stage ASL that is difficult for deaf audiences to understand, if not incomprehensible. In Prince Hamlet, for example, the jarring difference between the clarity of Miriam Fernandes’s signing and the indistinctness of Hannah Miller’s prevented me from having full access to the play-within-the-play scene. In Romeo + Juliet, the two hearing actors who signed with Castille and Seago also differed significantly in their expressive abilities. While Lindsay [End Page 53] W. Evans’s sign production was clear, more ASL-grammar influenced, and easy for me to comprehend, Chip Sherman’s was less distinct, more English-grammar influenced, and more difficult for me to understand.

In each of these four productions, the presence of ASL and deaf actors had thematic resonances. I agreed with hearing reviewers who noted themes such as the shaping of stories by those who tell them; the struggle to find meaning in the unfamiliar; the power, limitations, and intricacies of language; and the complexities of communication access (Fricker, Langston, Long, McKeown, and Weir). The lack of voicing at times in Birley’s narration in Prince Hamlet, for instance, was described as a statement about language politics and accessibility (Acharya and Bhat).

In other respects, however, my thematic interpretations differed sharply from those of hearing spectators. Several reviews emphasized themes of miscommunication and isolation that reflect negative stereotypes of deafness and fail to recognize it can be a valued socio-cultural identity (Fairchild, Romano, Parissa). Director Sam Gold himself described actor Russell Harvard’s deafness as tied to the play’s motif of absence; “an exploration of that thematic nothingness” (Dowd). From a deaf perspective, however, ASL represents access to a community and an environment where deafness is not disabling. As Marlee Matlin has remarked, “I don’t live in sad isolation. It’s just a situation I’m used to. I don’t like to be left out in conversations. And yet, the truth is, if I’m with a bunch of deaf friends who are signing I feel 100% at home because everybody’s speaking the same language” (Brillantes). Given that the deaf characters in all four productions have hearing friends or family who also sign, I did not interpret their presence as signifying social estrangement or loneliness. In King Lear, for example, Cornwall signed with Regan and his aide. Having these conversations in a language not known by other characters could just as easily have been interpreted as highlighting the intimacy of Cornwall’s relationship with his wife, and their conspiracy against Lear, as it could have been taken as expressing miscommunication, isolation, and thematic nothingness. The fact that hearing audiences tended towards the latter interpretation shows how pervasive cultural narratives of disabled embodiments can be. This “representational conundrum,” as Carrie Sandahl terms it, demonstrates “the importance of exploring disability as lived experience, metaphor, and narrative device” (135).

In the case of King Lear, the heuristics of deafness as silence are doubly ironic because actor Russell Harvard can voice clearly. In an interview, Harvard shared that he initially imagined Cornwall being a highly skilled lipreader and speaker. But Gold asked him to use ASL only “to keep [End Page 54] things consistent for the audience” (Holt). Apparently, Gold felt that hearing audiences would be confused by a deaf person using both ASL and spoken English, though many of us do just this. As this interview makes clear, Harvard was not just a deaf actor performing but a deaf actor performing a representation of deafness as envisioned by a hearing person. Gold’s King Lear unfortunately reinforced the pervasive cultural narrative of deafness as an experience of complete silence. In reality, deaf people have varied experiences with and relationships to sound and speech.

In addition to thematic functions, the incorporation of ASL and deaf actors in the four productions served dramaturgical purposes. Some of these were accessible only to hearing audience members. Reviewers of King Lear, for example, viewed Michael Arden’s double function as Harvard’s aide/interpreter and the servant who tries to stop Cornwall from gouging Gloucester’s eyes out as adding depth to this relationship (Hopkins 435, Jones, Rooney, Mandell). Reviewers described how the voicing of the signed lines shaped their experience of the performances, adding greater emphasis or doubled meaning. One reviewer interpreted Birley’s narration in Prince Hamlet as revealing the inner feelings of characters whose lines were spoken in English, while a reviewer of ACT’s Romeo + Juliet found that the voicing of Josh Castille’s lines by other actors lent more pathos to his death scene (Qua-Hiansen, Rich Smith). Michael Shurgot discussed how voicing in Romeo + Juliet may have influenced audience perceptions of deaf performance. Because audiences typically experience theatrical performance primarily through the voices of the actors, Shurgot writes, “[t]he embodied character becomes the spoken voice of the actor playing the character, as well as the accumulation of that actor’s physical movements around the stage” (3–4). For this reason, Shurgot felt that having multiple actors voice Joshua Castille’s lines undermined his performance while the use of a single actor to voice Howie Seago’s lines was more successful in allowing spectators to focus on the deaf actor’s talents (3–4). Other reviewers recounted how the use of signing without voicing at key moments in the play invoked their memory of lines from Shakespeare’s plays to powerful effect (Hopkins 435, Qua-Hiansen).

Hearing reviewers tended to respond negatively to the incorporation of ASL and spoken English if they were unable to discern a dramaturgical purpose. Some reviewers felt the use of ASL and deaf actors excluded hearing audience members and distracted from the hearing actors’ performances (Hoile, Leung, McNeely). Keith Garebian writes that the incorporation of ASL in Prince Hamlet “impedes the dramatic rhythm, delays or interrupts the spoken dialogue in virtually every scene, and frustrates [End Page 55] anyone yearning for the story to be told clearly.” Kyle Smith remarks that “Cornwall is considerably less frightening when the actor playing him has a disability.” Lucy Komisar writes that the casting of Harvard in King Lear was “a major distraction,” while Elizabeth Ahlfors wonders about the “dramaturgical need for a hearing impaired actor, Russell Harvard, to play the ambitious Cornwall, although Michael Arden speaks and signs effectively for him.”

These comments reveal that not only are ASL and deaf performance perceived as secondary to able-bodied performance, but that the latter is taken as the default. The reviewers expected casting to follow the conventions of realism: to match actor bodies with character bodies and to assume white, abled embodiment in the absence of textual specificity. Drawing on the work of performance scholar Natalie Alvarez, Roberta Barker calls this “the logic of iconicity, which laminates the character’s body onto the actor’s” (224). The reviewer comments quoted above support Barker’s argument that performance bodies which “resist iconicity, overtly marking their difference from dominant cultural images of Shakespeare’s characters,” are typically viewed as aesthetic failures (222).

Unlike hearing actors, deaf actors are expected to be cast for thematic or dramaturgical purposes, rather than for their acting talent alone. While inclusive casting movements have opened up new opportunities for actors of color to play Shakespeare characters other than Aaron, Morocco, Cleopatra, and Othello, reviewers still seem resistant to viewing disabled embodiments the same way. Scholar Amy Cook’s discussion of Harvard’s performance in King Lear exemplifies this resistance. Cook’s short book Shakespearean Futures: Casting the Bodies of Tomorrow on Shakespeare’s Stages Today discusses how “casting that privileges realism reinforces existing power structures by refusing to let us see them as something we can change,” and asserts that “casting differently abled actors in roles that have not been traditionally marked as ‘disabled’ or different can expand the community of people included in the telling of critical stories right now” (21, 36). But her discussion of deaf actors using ASL in Shakespeare productions prioritizes thematic and dramaturgical purposes for their casting. Writing about the separation of Cornwall’s voice/body and lines/part, Cook remarks, “As fascinating as I found this, I couldn’t connect it to anything else in the staging of the play” (39). Cook feels the translation of Cornwall’s lines “upstage[s] the fall of the kingdom, in addition to disrupting the pacing of the spoken lines” (40). She wonders why spoken lines even need to be signed while Harvard is on stage: “I started thinking about the actor, who might need the lines translated the [End Page 56] first time but surely knows the play by now. Can’t the translator take a rest until it’s his cue?” (40). I find this comment very odd—it is as if she sees Arden’s presence on stage as serving accessibility purposes only, rather than as part of the imagined play-world in which a deaf Cornwall would most definitely need his translator to give him access to what is being said. Cook does reflect on her own reaction—“Perhaps I shouldn’t ask ‘why’ Cornwall is now deaf, just as I don’t ask why he wasn’t before”—and also critiques her own “condescending compassion” for a disabled actor in another Shakespeare production (37, 40). But the fact that she includes these responses to deaf and disabled embodiments, but not towards the other forms of non-traditional casting she explores, underscores Petra Kuppers’s observation that it is difficult for disability embodiment on stage to be about anything but disability itself. For many hearing reviewers, deaf performance in Shakespeare is a representational conundrum that confronts them with their own aesthetic nervousness about disabled embodiment. Deaf actors should have the privilege to simply be onstage without needing a reason, just as white, cisgendered, and able bodies do. This does not mean that disability cannot have thematic, aesthetic, or dramaturgical purposes: only that the lack of such meaning should not be taken as a casting or production flaw.

Finally, these four productions offered different models for incorporating deaf actors and ASL. To incorporate means to contain something as part of a whole, but also to be corporate or to have a bodily form (“incorporate”). Each of these four productions deploys deaf bodies on stage in relation to the production as a whole. But not all are integrative or inclusive, which would involve deaf embodiment on- and offstage having equal access to and equal presence in the dynamic interactions that create the meanings of theatrical performance. Some hearing reviewers considered this issue of inclusion and accessibility, remarking on how the production they were discussing challenged conventions and practices. For example, Bushell-Mingo’s The Tempest was described as “a leap into complex inclusivity” (Nicholls); ACT’s Romeo + Juliet as “deaf-accessible” (Fairchild); and Harvard’s casting as going “a huge way in terms of inclusivity” (Gordon). Other reviewers considered how accessible the productions were to deaf audiences. Michael Strangeways wondered whether deaf spectators would be able to see Castille and Seago’s signing in ACT’s Romeo + Juliet, given the in-the-round staging. He goes on to observe, “It’s not really deaf theater; it’s theater that uses deaf characters in an interesting way but not always in a way that will necessarily benefit deaf audiences.” Similarly, CurtainUp reviewer Elyse Sommer writes that unless Harvard were [End Page 57] onstage throughout King Lear, his casting was “hardly more than a half-measure to make theater more accessible for deaf audiences” (Donovan and Sommer). Some reviewers of Prince Hamlet also recognized that the production’s bilingualism meant deaf and hearing audiences were having two different performative experiences. One remarks, “I am not sure how the deaf people in the audience felt about the production. Are they pleased and honoured that such loving attention is paid to their mode of communication? Or do they prefer their Shakespeare done in their own language exclusively?” (Karas). And in one instance, the deaf audience itself became part of the performative meaning of the production itself, as the reviewer described watching them watching the show (Slotkin).

As a deaf audience member, accessibility is essential to how I interact with a production’s incorporation of deaf actors and ASL. This experience begins well in advance of the actual performance. I assess a theater’s inclusiveness in its front-of-house aspects. Is it clear from the website which performances are captioned or interpreted? Does the scheduling of these performances indicate a genuine desire to attract deaf patrons (not, for example, the day after a major holiday or the middle of the work week)? Are accessible performances included in promotional sales offerings? Have the box office staff been trained to handle calls from relay services? Are they knowledgeable about the accessibility options for deaf and hard of hearing patrons? If open captioning is on offer, do the staff know where the captioning box will be located onstage? Are seats reserved for deaf and hard of hearing patrons in areas with optimal sightlines? Are the seats in premium locations available at a reduced price, since deaf and hard of hearing people can’t take just any seat? If a closed captioning system is used, does it avoid split visual attention (in other words, can the stage and the captioning be seen simultaneously)? Answers to questions such as these reveal whether a theater is making minimal efforts at accessibility to satisfy legal obligations, or whether it truly welcomes deaf bodies in its audiences. In my experience, it is rare to find a theater that models genuine inclusiveness.

Considering these accessibility questions, three of the four productions made sincere efforts to create an inclusive performance structure. Both ACT and The Citadel Theatre brought in consultants to train their staff in how to interact with deaf patrons prior to the production opening. The Berkeley Street Theatre, The Citadel, and ACT had designated seating that offered optimal views of the stage ASL. Additionally, The Citadel provided information about the production in ASL videos that played in the lobby area, along with displays to educate hearing patrons [End Page 58] about ASL and the local deaf community. The lobby also had resources for blind and low-vision attendees as well, such as large print programs and tactile displays of costumes and set elements, modeling inclusive front-of-house practices.

My experience with the Shubert Organization prior to attending King Lear, in contrast, was unwelcoming. I was not able to attend a performance with closed captioning until a month after the show’s official opening. I understand from friends who work on Broadway that this is standard, but it restricts the options for deaf patrons. Furthermore, the box office did not block any particular seating area for deaf and hard of hearing attendees. When I emailed the Audience Services representative to ask where to sit, I was informed that “you are able to experience the signing from anywhere in the house” (Hajjar). I responded that “experiencing” the signing and being able to see it well enough to understand it are two different things. My email encouraging the Shubert Organization to adopt the best practice of reserving seats with optimal sightlines for deaf patrons went unanswered. Without any guidance about where to sit, I bought a ticket in the second row as close to center stage as possible. Due to the theater design, this put me looking almost straight up at the signing, which is not an ideal sightline. Finally, the Shubert Organization uses the Gala Pro captioning system at all of its theaters. Essentially, this is a phone-sized handheld device that scrolls two lines of text at a time. You can imagine how satisfying it was to pay Broadway ticket prices to stare at a screen in my lap for most of the show.

Within the performance “proper,” how deaf patrons have access to spoken English lines is a key element of accessibility. Of the four productions I discussed, The Citadel’s The Tempest again provided the best model. ASL and voice interpretation were blended together, and centrally positioned via the deaf and hearing Ariels (who often appeared onstage together) and the bilingual chorus. ACT’s Romeo + Juliet was also successful in how it provided access to deaf audiences. I attended one of the captioned performances, and the system used allowed me to position the device so that both the performance and the captioning were in my field of vision. This enabled me to follow the scenes with only spoken dialogue fairly well. The hearing actors also signed rather than speaking when interacting with Castille and Seago. Thus, I did not have to “ping pong” between Castille and Seago signing and the captioning for the spoken English lines. However, the blocking often placed the actors too far apart, so that I could not see them all at the same time. As a result, I lost a few seconds of each actor’s lines while locating the new interlocutor at each turn of the dialogue. [End Page 59]

Blocking can affect accessibility considerably by splitting the visual attention of the deaf patron or by reducing the visibility of the signing. In Prince Hamlet, for example, Birley’s dual function as both character and narrator provided access to the spoken English lines throughout the performance. However, the blocking sometimes placed her at the opposite end of the stage from the other actors. While hearing audiences could watch Birley and listen to the actors speaking at the same time, I had to choose where to look. The scenes in which Birley was close enough to the actors that both were in my field of vision offered better accessibility. Other artistic decisions can impact accessibility for deaf audiences. At ACT’s Romeo + Juliet, for example, I had difficulty seeing the ASL lines when actors signed through a chain link fence and during the dimly lit apothecary scene. Costume, set, and lighting design can all decrease the accessibility of a production unless made with the criterion of visual language in mind.

Both front-of-house and artistic decisions convey how the audience for a production is conceptualized. As Kirsty Johnston writes, “When directors make choices about play selection, venue, casting, design, marketing and accessibility, who do they imagine in their artistic teams, communities, and audiences?” (2–3). The directors of Romeo + Juliet, Prince Hamlet, and The Tempest clearly imagined their audiences as both hearing and deaf. And whether by directorial charge or box office manager/house manager oversight, front-of-house operations supported this artistic vision. In contrast, it was evident that Sam Gold had hearing audiences in mind when directing King Lear. Take, for example, the casting of Michael Arden as Harvard’s aide/interpreter. Not only is Arden not a skilled signer, he was also frequently positioned with his back to the audience. Arden’s role in the performance was simply to interpret for Harvard; he was not there to provide access for deaf patrons. With ASL only sporadically visible on the stage during Harvard’s scenes, I had to either (a) constantly ping pong between the handheld captioning device and the signing on stage, or (b) ignore the captioning and watch Harvard without knowing what the hearing actors were saying. Combined with the poor reception I received from the Shubert’s Audience Services department, King Lear left me feeling entirely unwelcome. This performance was for hearing audiences, not for me, even though my language and someone from my community was onstage. When I later interviewed Gold via email about his directorial choices, it was clear he had good intentions. He cast Harvard because he was impressed by the actor’s talent and because he appreciated the “imagistic” quality of ASL (Gold). Nevertheless, the end result was an [End Page 60] appropriation that excluded those who use the language and identify with the socio-cultural identity represented on stage.


Throughout this essay, I have used my embodied spectatorship to explore deafness as lived experience, thematic amplifier, and dramaturgical device, thus demonstrating the importance of deaf perspectives on productions of Shakespeare integrating deaf actors and ASL. Reviews of Prince Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and King Lear yield insights about how ASL and deaf embodiment signify in performance for hearing audiences. My own reviews reveal different perspectives on ASL as a visual language, stage representations of deafness, and accessibility. I show how the incorporation of ASL and deaf actors can reinforce socio-cultural assumptions that devalue deafness as a positive identity and exclude deaf spectators from experiencing the performance fully. My experience underscores the need for hearing directors who want to cast deaf actors to adopt an ethics of care, considering the impact of their thematic and dramaturgical decisions on the experience of deaf audiences. As Rustom Bharucha writes when contemplating Peter Brooks’s 1980 The Ilk, theater-makers must ask questions of ethics as well as production and performance; “not just ‘does it work?’ But also is it right?” (2). If we accept W. B. Worthen’s argument that the theatrical event is not merely what happens on stage, but the overall signifying structure in which actors, spectators, and practices interact, then such ethical questions must also be asked of the entire performative experience.

What does an ethical approach to incorporating deaf actors and ASL look like? As I have outlined throughout this essay, one aspect is stage representations of deafness as a valued socio-cultural identity, rather than a physical limitation with connotations of loss and isolation. Another aspect is the level of engagement with the unique accessibility needs of deaf audiences. As Erin Julian and Kim Solga write in reference to gender-inclusive performance at the Stratford Festival, a genuine commitment to “equity and diversity as conditions of theatrical production and reception” requires changes at every level of a production, from creative decision making to marketing and audience engagement (192). Disability care work offers a useful model of mutual support and advocacy for this change process, especially in the call to involve people in decision-making that affects them. And if, as Alexa Alice Joubin and Elizabeth Rivlin have asserted, Shakespeare performance studies has an ethics of care and [End Page 61] advocacy for “others” (3), then scholars must attend not just to the bodies on stage and their performative meanings, but also to audience bodies. Shakespeare scholars who write about ASL and deaf actors should ground themselves in such an ethics of care, moving beyond the actors, the stage, and the hearing audiences to include deaf spectators as well. For we are an essential part of the performance and its meanings.

Jill Marie Bradbury
National Technical Institute for the Deaf, Rochester Institute of Technology


1. Prince Hamlet, directed by Ravi Jain, for Why Not Theatre; Romeo + Juliet, directed for A Contemporary Theatre by John Langs; King Lear, directed by Sam Gold; The Tempest, directed by Josette Bushell-Mingo.

2. Disability scholars have criticized research on care work for representing those receiving care as passive and dependent. As Teppo Kröger argues, however, scholarship on the ethics of care emphasizes interdependence as a central condition of human life (402).

3. Shakespeare in sign language is not new, however. One can find mentions of such productions in British newspapers in the late 1880s (Bradbury and Drawdy).

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