At the start of this project, there were two major topics to be explored—Deaf Culture and theatre. Both are related to my studies as a speech pathology and theatre student. But at first glance, the connections between these fields seemed limited and unlikely, but once I started exploring more specific questions I found a common base—storytelling. This foundation led to an exploration of storytelling, Deaf Culture, and theatre. I guided this search with several questions.
- Who tells stories? Why are they important?
- What are memoirs and how do individuals create or find him/her “self” in personal narrative?
- What connections are there to the physical body and self-identification? Does this influence storytelling?
On Deaf Culture:
- What defines Deaf Culture? Who interacts with it besides the Deaf and hard of hearing?
- What values are shared by members of the Deaf community?
- Does the language (American Sign Language) used by members of the Deaf Community impact the stories being told?
- How does theatre provide a unique arena for expressing oneself and identity?
- What elements/types of theatre allow for storytelling?
- How does the interaction between performer and audience enhance the connections between the content and the audience response?
Although these topics were researched separately, the final culmination of this project unifies these three seemingly distinct topics. As the research on storytelling, Deaf Culture, and theatre continued, the connections between these began to appear. Storytelling is closely linked to self-identity, particularly how a community can influence the development of this identity. With Deaf Culture holding a very unique set of traditions and habits, I was interested in seeing how the stories of identity within this community would unravel. Finally, it was important that these stories and experiences be portrayed in a way that is accessible to people of both the hearing and Deaf community, but still retain the accuracy and integrity of the stories being shared. Documentary theatre provides the ideal vehicle to convey these stories of the Deaf Community, while creating a point of access for many and maintaining the essence of the stories.
With this understanding of documentary theatre and storytelling, as well as research on the Deaf community, I used these findings to craft a play exploring the elements of selfhood and identity in the Deaf community. Combined with this research, I conducted interviews with people involved in the Deaf community, including audiologists, speech pathologists, educators, and Deaf people. These interviews reflected on the self and identity, as well as personal experiences and memories in this community. Blending these sources of information allowed for the creation of the character “Dee,” a Deaf adult. She opens the play by welcoming the audience to see her story unfold, as she presents a series of flashbacks chronicling her story from diagnosis, to her time in the education system, and finally her current career. Through the flashback scenes, the audience is introduced to her family, teachers, and peers as they tell the story from their perspective. Then, Dee offers her opinion in a brief monologue about her perspective on that particular moment. Sometimes the perspectives align and other times they couldn’t be more contradictory. Overall, Dee tries to provide a complete picture of the situation by offering multiple perspectives and alternatives.
The research on storytelling began with a Wallace Bacon quote about how literature and stories can help us learn “the otherness of others.” Many people seek books, movies, music, and stories to learn about others and their perspective. These stories create a more unified global community. Each person comes equipped with unique and distinct traits. When the community embraces those traits, we can learn what make another “other.”
In Paul Eakin’s book How Our Lives Become Stories, he explores the interactions between experience and identity, and how these differences impact the stories individuals share. Experiences dictate identity and personal narrative. He explains that the “higher order consciousness, as the ability to construct a socially based selfhood, to model the world in terms of the past and the future.” Humans are unique in this ability because of the developed language system we possess. The brain is constantly experiencing various events and actively creating impressions. However, every time a memory is recalled, the recollection differs based on the context and circumstances. Because human experience is so closely linked to language, it begs the question of “how these stories differ from language to language? And how can they be shared across languages?”
Eakin also discusses the roles played by disability and difference in shaping identity and creating unique stories. In his writing, Eakin mentions several interesting cases of the interaction between the physical body and the identity of self. One such case revolves around a male who injures his leg and as a result experiences an injury in his identity. No longer able to feel and utilize an essential part of his physical being, the man loses his sense of selfhood and identity. He expresses this feeling of loss through stories in his journal and writings. This idea of a sensory deficit leading to an identity deficit was confirmed in a study of congenitally blind children that developed the pronouns “you” and “I” much later than sighted children. Again, with this understanding of langauge development, we can ask “does this group tell stories that focus on others? Or do do their stories include recollections of “self” as an other?”
Even stories of “self” are not isolated from others, they are meant to be shared. Although Eakin closely analyzes the role of “self” in storytelling, he also emphasizes that “every experience takes place within a vast background of cultural presuppositions.” Even while conveying a story of identity and selfhood, there will be elements that are directly and indirectly influenced by our cultural background and understanding. This connection to cultural experience piqued my interest in the Deaf community. Knowing that the Deaf community has a unique and strong cultural component associated with their language quickly connected this storytelling aspect to the Deaf community.
When most people think of hearing loss or disabilities, it is viewed as a lacking or deficit. But that opinion doesn’t quite align with the people actually in the Deaf community. According to Gallaudet University, Deaf culture “centers on the use of ASL and identification and unity with other people who are Deaf.” The values and traditions of the culture include: “promoting and environment that supports vision as the primary sense used for communication; valuing Deaf children as the future of Deaf culture; and the inclusion of specific rules of behavior in communication.”
The Deaf community relies heavily on American Sign Language for communication between members, as well as in other settings. Recently, members of the Deaf community have expressed that cochlear implants (CI) are an affront to their culture and community. As ASL users, they do not rely on speech or sound to communicate and they do not view deafness as something to be “cured.” For pre-lingually deaf (deafness before language learning occurs) children, the implant is most effective before age one or as young as six months. In this case, children are not deciding to get implanted but rather a parent is making that choice. Because they cannot decide for themselves, the Deaf community fears that the CI affirms deafness as a disability rather than allowing deaf children to learn sign and develop a sense of Deaf culture and pride.
The Deaf community is closely linked to their language. It sets them apart from speakers, but also connects them to one another. The Deaf community has a huge sense of pride related to their language and their culture. Although Sign Language is used by less than 1% of the U.S. population as a primary language, the Deaf community is not entirely removed from the rest of the speaking and hearing population. Their stories are still valuable to the hearing world; it is these stories that connect an individual to a community or a Deaf community to a hearing community. But how can these two worlds share a space and exchange stories?
Theatre can serve as a universal language for communication. Together in a space, both audience and actor are invited to participate in this ephemeral experience of storytelling. The direction and scenic choices can portray a story that is accessible to all.
Theatre encompasses various styles and genres, allowing for several ways to create excellent theatre. In An Ideal Theatre: Founding Visions for a New American Art, Todd London complies various articles, essays, and manifestos from the most transformative writers and visionaries of American Theatre. Through this text, there was a thorough analysis to deepen the understanding of what elements create a “great theatre.” The genres of realism and naturalism most frequently express memoirs and autobiographical aspects of writing, similar to the notion of storytelling as self-identity. The arrival of realism in American theatre coincides with Freudian studies of psychology and self-reflection. This simultaneous development is often credited for the increase in slice-of-life biographical plays during this period. Again connecting the theatre to the self through stories.
While realism and naturalism often tell autobiographical stories, there is another form of theatre that not only tells stories but can also open a dialogue between parties with differing viewpoints. Documentary theatre relies wholly or partly on pre-existing materials and documents to serve as source material for the script. By portraying various viewpoints and perspectives on a situation, documentary theatre serves as an opportunity to promote social change and shed light on difficult situations. Combined with existing sources and information, documentary theatre also collects interviews and antecdotal evidence to be incorporated into the play. Although the origins of documentary theatre are often credited to the Federal Theatre Project and its branch of the Living Newspaper, the concept did not end with that era. The style still thrives in contemporary plays such as The Laramie Project and Fires in the Mirror.
In Anna Deveare Smith’s Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities, she complies interviews taken after the Crown Heights riots of 1991. All of the monologues are recorded verbatim from various people that were impacted by this uprising in Crown Heights. The interviews included members from the Jewish community and the African American community that were affected by these riots. The monologues are grouped into themes that explore the ideas of differences and similarities in race, appearance, and identity. Smith highlights parallels between these groups and opens up a dialogue within this community.
This model of documentary theatre is a way to promote and encourage social change, while still providing accurate information about events and occurrences. It supports a story with credible information and sources and allows that story to be told through multiple perspectives. These different viewpoints allow the stories to be shared between communities, promoting an understanding between these groups.
The Process and The Play
In addition to the research on storytelling, Deaf culture, and documentary theatre, it was necessary to get into the field collect stories and information from the source. Using personal connections and resources available through my academic department, I was able to speak with several people involved in the Deaf community. These interviewees included the hearing impaired, speech pathologists, audiologist, and educators. Some used sign language, and others did not. During these interviews, I asked about experiences with Deaf Culture. I also asked questions about identity by having interviewees “list 3 words they would use to describe themselves and 3 words others have used to describe them.” In addition to the stories of interviewees, there were several blogs and online forums that were incorporated into the creation of the play. These personal blogs and interactive forums often used first-person narrative and experience to give insight to this community and its members.
After researching the community and collecting stories, it was time to craft the play. First, a storyboard was created to guide the process, giving a scene-by-scene breakdown of what would occur. In addition to a drawing of the scene and a brief description, sources were listed for each scene to build the bibliographic information. Using the storyboard as a guide, the play was written to share the story of “Dee” in a series of flashbacks chronicling her experiences. These experiences were sometimes told directly through Dee’s involvement and other times the moments were portrayed by her family, friends, and teachers. With multiple perspectives on the story, Dee was able to open a dialogue about the expectations and assumptions about Deaf Culture. At the conclusion of the play, Dee asks the audience to share their story and contribute to the conversation.
In order to keep the conversation going and encourage the audience to share their story and perspective, the eportfolio that houses this play also allows for contributions. Audience members or site visitors can add their “story” with a song, picture, poem, document, video, etc. directly on the eportfolio. The website can then display these stories for other site visitors, encouraging a conversation between these contributors. In addition to the play and the contributors’ page, the eportfolio also holds a complete bibliography. This page includes references used in the research and in the play that can serve as a resource for people interested in these topics or experiencing things related to Deaf Culture.
At times the research and writing process of this project were stressful and demanding, but completely worthwhile. Aside from working on writing and research skills, I was able to engage with a community that is so closely related to my field and interests. I was able to pursue my passions of storytelling and theatre, while learning the importance of community and acceptance. While some of the writing process was tedious and challenging, I was able to experience the characters hopping right off the page and teaching me something that I hadn’t seen in my research—everyone has stories and these stories are important and valuable and worth sharing. So after a year of work on this project that will truly serve as springboard to my future endeavors, I now have something new to add to my story. And I promise, it’s not the end yet.