To celebrate Stephen Sondheim’s 90th birthday in March, actor and director Garrett Zuercher attended a Zoom party. The plan was to watch the original production of Sweeney todd with a group of deaf and hearing friends, but as soon as the stream started, Zuercher realized it wasn’t meant for him.
The captions for the video were straightforward, rarely stating which character sang which line; Sondheim’s lyrics of concessions set the on-screen text in a lost race, lifting in the wake of the music. For Zuercher, who is deaf, the spectacle was suddenly opaque – the captions only showed how he didn’t get it.
“Deaf participants […] ended up asking our hearing friends for clarification and we found ourselves saying over and over again, “Oh, is that what THAT means?” Zuercher wrote in an email. “Oh, I always thought the other character said that!”
Zuercher’s frustration quickly turned to clarity: The only way to make musical theater truly accessible, he said, is to provide access to visual language. In a show performed in American Sign Language, the deaf actors sign without relying on the rigid constraints of captions, which can omit not only words, but nuances.
Three weeks after the Watch Party, Zuercher – with stage director Miriam Rochford and actor-performer Kimberly Hale – called for a revamp, this time presenting Sweeney todd with an entirely deaf cast. Angela Lansbury was still belted onscreen, but the actors signed next to her, their expansive movements encroaching on the borders of the Zoom boxes. For a few hours, the two languages echoed and the theater collective now known as “Deaf Broadway” took root in reverberation.
Over the next six months, Deaf Broadway performed seven musicals and posted five, most of them directed by Zuercher; their last, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, is currently broadcast on YouTube. Each production uses Zoom recordings to interpret existing shows, often playing captioned videos side-by-side as the actors sign. As Deaf Broadway walks on a familiar cannon (taking musicals like In the woods and The revenge of a blonde), the result is something almost unprecedented: theater “for the deaf, by the deaf,” Zuercher wrote.
“It’s incredibly rare to see an entirely deaf cast, especially in a musical,” said Joey Caverly, a deaf Broadway artist and director of artistic sign language (DASL), in an interpreted conversation. “A cast of professional actors completely, entirely deaf […] in the same room, so to speak, working on a show doesn’t happen.
Zuercher agreed: onstage opportunities for deaf actors are scarce, even as visibility increases. Performs as Tribes by Nina Raine, I Was Most Alive With You by Craig Lucas and The Broadway Revival Children of a Lesser God the same year included deaf characters and themes, but these are the exceptions that prove the underlying rule.
Meanwhile, according to Deaf Broadway performer Harold Foxx, deaf theater professionals generally respond to hearing from superiors – creative “independence” is not always financially achievable. And even when companies feature Deaf performers, many said the community can feel transient, concentrated in a city for the duration of a performance.
In some ways, the pandemic has made all the rules unnecessary. When your stage is cyberspace, there is no need for a middleman; on the contrary, the collective acts as a connective tissue. Their Rocky horror is a partnership with ASL Rocky NYC, a New York-based group that produces the show twice a year. Deaf’s Broadway version features actors not only from New York, but also from California, Texas and even Toronto, the result of an open casting. This cohesion was not possible before COVID-19, although Rochford said the seeds still exist.
“The deaf theater community is already small and strong and people know each other, but it’s like the auditory theater community: you have friends, but you don’t see them often,” Rochford said. “It’s exactly the same in the deaf theater community, but the opportunities to work together are even rarer.
Now Deaf Broadway can access a variety of performers – allowing them to “dream” roles, in Rochford’s words – and performers can access each other. It is a symbiosis, threaded through a screen.
Since the reach of Deaf Broadway is widespread, this access applies doubly to members of the deaf audience. Zuercher’s experience with Sweeney todd was an unexpected boost, but far from unique; Deaf people often half-consume media, receiving “crumbs at the children’s table,” he writes. During the pandemic, accessibility is a particularly difficult battle: the world has flattened to adapt to the internet, and although recorded shows like those from Disney + Hamilton fill a theatrical void, they don’t come with visual language access.
Deaf Broadway shows what musical theater can look like, even if it is confined to two dimensions. After their production of In the woods, a mother of three – two hearing and one deaf – contacted the collective, Rochford said. Her deaf child had seen the recording and had fallen in love: the 2014 film adaptation was her siblings’ favorite, and she could finally understand why.
While Deaf Broadway’s work is primarily aimed at the deaf community, performer and DASL Heba Toulan thinks everyone benefits. Because interpreting shows in ASL is a creative process – the lyrics don’t translate verbatim – familiar musicals transform, their meaning deepening by default.
“I’ve seen productions where everyone looks exactly the same, a cookie cutter. And then the language is the same, ”said Toulan in an interpreted conversation. “And that doesn’t bring the production to life.” Before the pandemic, she performed in several Shakespeare plays and received the same comments from the hearing audience, like a mantra: “I never understood Shakespeare until I saw you sign him.”
“It’s time for us to be invited to the table, not just as actors, but as producers, directors, writers, designers, etc. We have many stories to tell.“
– Garrett zuercher
That understanding is ongoing: Although Deaf Broadway’s origin story is tied to COVID-19, Zuercher hopes his mission continues when theaters reopen the rusty doors. The productions prove what deaf theater professionals can do, even with sometimes poor Wi-Fi – they should have more opportunities, but Zuercher believes those opportunities should start at the top. “It’s time for us to be invited to the table, not just as actors, but as producers, directors, writers, designers, etc.,” Zuercher wrote. “We have many stories to tell.
For now, Deaf Broadway will continue to perform beloved classics – they have started confirming permissions with Musical Theater International, expanding their potential repertoire. It’s a slow process, but whatever the speed, Deaf Broadway productions are a rare constant.
According to Hale, Broadway musicals typically only offer one or two performed shows, which don’t include a full cast of performers. The deaf audience watches the drawbacks masquerading as a fit – an unconvincing performance, all pathetic. With every download, Deaf Broadway offers an alternative.
“For deaf theater or deaf performance, we don’t have to wait for people to give us the opportunity,” Deaf Broadway performer Pamela Wright said in an interpreted conversation. “Deaf Broadway didn’t wait. They went ahead.
This momentum is imbued with every Zoom recording. The first act of “Into the Woods” ends with the ensemble number “Ever After” – it’s meant to be an expiration before the chaos to come, a brief interlude from Sondheim. In Deaf Broadway’s version, the actors signed different translations, each performing their own version of the song.
While Deaf musical theater often requires unison, the 2015 Deaf West production on Broadway Spring awakening used choreographed ASL – Deaf Broadway allowed for disparate movements, the actors “coming together and going apart,” Zuercher said. A hearing director might not have understood the effect, which looked like a burst barrage of movement. But for Zuercher, each word resonated in a different key.
“For the first time in my life,” he wrote, “I understood the concept of harmony.”
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