Michelle Tanner was looking for a way for deaf students in Utah to experience theater — and when suing the state’s most prestigious theater festival didn’t work, she decided to start her own.
Thus began the National Deaf High School Theater Festival — which is celebrating its second year, but the first of in-person performances. The festival takes place Thursday through Saturday in Salt Lake City.
The festival will draw students ages 14 to 18 from 10 schools across the country – including Texas, Minnesota and Oklahoma – to perform drama, dance, storytelling and visual slang.
Students will participate in a mix of workshops, training courses and other social opportunities, said David Kurs, artistic director of Deaf West Theatre, a Los Angeles-based troupe that bills itself as “the bridge between the deaf and hearing worlds.” designated. ”
On Saturday night, the general public will be able to see performances by the students and the stars who helped train them. The performance will take place Saturday at 6:00 p.m. at the Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind Salt Lake City campus, 1655 E. 3300 South, Salt Lake City. Free entry. The performances are also streamed live on deafwest.org.
Audiences attending Saturday’s performances will be fully immersed in the deaf theater, Tanner said. Interpreters will be available for introductions and basic explanations, but not during the performances themselves, she said.
“People who come to see it and observe it will sense it in the native language, the natural language in which it was developed,” Tanner said. “To experience different performances in this way I think will be a great experience for those listening to people who also don’t speak sign language.”
One of the guest stars is Daniel Durant, who won a Screen Actors Guild award last month as part of the ensemble cast of “CODA.” This film — about a Massachusetts fishing family whose only hearing member (Emilia Jones) learns she has a talent for singing — won four awards at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival and is nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture.
Actors who perform sign language feature in two of this year’s Oscar nominees for best picture. Alongside CODA, which also stars Supporting Actor nominee Troy Katsur and former Academy Award winner Marlee Matlin, the Japanese film Drive My Car includes a character who communicates in Korean Sign Language — and through sign language, she holds it Closing speech of the film, as part of a performance of the classic “Uncle Vanya”.
It was the classics—and the lack of access to them—that prompted Tanner, deputy deaf director at Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind (USDB), to start the high school festival in the first place.
For years, USDB students attended the Utah Shakespeare Festival in Cedar City, entering and sometimes winning the festival’s high school competitions. Tanner said she complained that the judges didn’t criticize the deaf student actors, but rather the interpreters who voice the actors’ dialogue.
Tanner said that for years the Shakespeare Festival provided American Sign Language interpreters so that their students could see the festival’s professional performances. In 2019, she said, organizers told the school they needed to start providing their own ASL interpreters. Instead, USF provided tablets on which subtitles were streamed.
USF Executive Producer Frank Mack said in a statement this week: “The festival features live performances with subtitles for every track we produce each season. Live closed captioning is fully compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act.”
Tanner pointed out that it is difficult for deaf students to read subtitles while paying attention to the visual performance on stage. Also, she said, Shakespearean English is difficult to understand, whether you’re deaf or not.
USDB, another school, and the Utah Association of the Deaf sued USF, Mack, and Southern Utah University in 2019, alleging that the festival violated the ADA by not providing sign language interpreters. A judge dismissed the lawsuit the day after it was filed.
After losing in court, Tanner took a different route. She thought there should be some high school level drama competitions for deaf kids, but there wasn’t. Tanner said her reaction was, “Keep playing, we’ll do it.”
USDB initially partnered with Sunshine 2.0, a professional traveling theater company from Rochester, NY, later signed by Deaf West.
These groups, Tanner said, offer their students more than the Shakespeare festival. “They don’t know it from a deaf perspective, they don’t know what it’s like. They cannot give that advice. You can’t teach my students that while Sunshine 2.0 and Deaf West can,” she said.
Plans for the new festival were put on hold by the COVID-19 pandemic, which forced organizers to hold last year’s inaugural season as a virtual event.
Kurs, the Artistic Director of Deaf West, said: “Before the pandemic hit, we were doing this type of work here in the Los Angeles area on a smaller scale with various schools and programs in the area. We would send teachers to different campuses to teach and give classes and then put on performances.”
When the pandemic began, Kurs said they realized Zoom calls would allow the force to scale up.
Tanner said that having the students work with real deaf actors provides a level of “prestige and professionalism” that helps the overall competition — and gives the students a chance to become well-rounded individuals.
“In schools, we used to focus on academics, academics, academics. But kids are much more than just academics,” Tanner said. “They are a whole being and they have a whole aspect to develop and cultivate.”
For this year’s festival, student actors from the participating schools have been taking part in weekly online workshops since January. They have also written their own works and blocked and rehearsed them to perform in Salt Lake City.
There are no common themes in what the students write, Kurs said, but the process is “intriguing.”
“If you think about deaf children coming together, [you’d think] They usually write about their culture and language, but that’s not the case,” Kurs said. For example, a group develops a science fiction work. “When you have full access, everything else really falls away,” he said. “The deaf side of things, all that language. It’s more about ‘I want to tell my story in the setting that I want to provide.’”
Kurs said theater is a natural place for people who are deaf.
“We’re natural communicators,” Kurs said. “We know how to communicate naturally with our hands, face and body and we don’t use these skills often enough and it breaks my heart every time a deaf child gives up one dream like this and another makes the decision.”