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Concept Papers

The National Theatre of the Deaf Professional Theatre School for Deaf Theatre Personnel

Will Rhys
Artistic Director, The National Theatre of the Deaf

The National Theatre of the Deaf Professional Theatre School for Deaf Theatre Personnel (PTS) was established in 1967 through a grant from the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. The purpose of its establishment was and, remains to this day, to provide a training environment for Deaf Americans interested in pursuing careers in the professional theatre. A secondary focus of the program was training individuals who were interested in exploring teaching positions in programs providing preliminary or ancillary training in theatre arts disciplines to the Deaf (university drama departments, for example) or providing further training to enhance the work of those already engaged in a teaching capacity in such programs. Yet a third purpose of the PTS was to provide a training environment to Deaf individuals from foreign countries and to those hearing individuals specifically involved with or interested in theatre forms or training that focused on the Deaf and/or used American Sign Language (ASL) as a means of expression in productions or class work.

To put things in proper perspective, it must be understood that the PTS was the program that gave impetus to the founding of The National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD). From the moment that initial discussions began on the possibility and feasibility of a theatre that would employ, celebrate, and challenge Deaf individuals and utilize ASL as its driving language, it was believed that to have any successful professional theatre, it was first necessary to provide proper training for those who would be producing, acting, and/or directing the work. This training had to go well beyond any program of theatre study that was available in schools for the Deaf. Indeed, it had to go beyond anything anywhere that was offered including the well-established training programs at universities such as Yale, NYU, and their ilk, for how were such programs to negotiate a Deaf individual in their midst? The National Theatre of the Deaf and the professional training program developed to serve the needs of the professional company were both a part of the tremendous experimental and revolutionary theatre energy that was so notable in the mid-to-late sixties, but the traditional (i.e., hearing) schools that fed that energy with their students were not equipped to be so liberal in their thinking so as to have their training to include those who could not hear. Or, perhaps, it was just a case of not thinking of it at all.

Further, it was precisely this symbiotic relationship between training and the professional company (that would arise from such training) that sparked interest from the Federal Government. This led inspired and far- sighted individuals within the government to support the program, because the training would teach skills that would qualify people to enter a job market that, for the most part, had been previously unavailable to them. (To be sure, such relationships in the traditional theatre were already in place, with more being created, in the late sixties.) The bonus, of course, was that such support from the Federal Government was imaginative, provocative, and innovative without being in the least bit patronizing. There was never any question among those who lent their support to the creation of such a professional training program that there was any goal other than excellence. The school was to be staffed by a faculty of seasoned theatre and academic professionals whose own experience would lend credence to the idea of such a program, and whose individual skills and talent would provide the example of excellence for which the enrolling students would strive toward. Not surprisingly, however, 99% of the faculty was hearing--but more on that later.

It is certainly not overstating the matter to point out that when The National Theatre of the Deaf (NTD) and the PTS were founded, there was precious little theatre training of any kind for the Deaf. There was opportunity for organized theatre study at Gallaudet College (now Gallaudet University), but this was not in any sense thought of as training "for the profession." It was solely part of a liberal arts program. (Thank goodness for it's existence, however, because the overwhelming majority of early NTD actors and PTS students came out of, or had some contact with that theatre program.) To provide qualified and productive Deaf theatre artists to the theatre community at large, a rigorous and focused training opportunity such as PTS had to be created.

It is important to note that I said "theatre community at large" not "theatre for the Deaf." From the outset the goal was to train theatre artists in a wide range of disciplines. This would allow those completing the course of study to have an improved chance of finding work in arenas that were not just structured for the Deaf. However, in order to make headway into the theatre job market (a job market that, like the theatre training programs already in existence, had no history or tradition, let alone understanding, of the Deaf,) a structure had to be in place that would prove that the training and subsequent employment of Deaf theatre artists was possible, appropriate and viable. Thus, the need for NTD. It was a role model, an example of excellence and creativity in a theatre environment, as mentioned above, that was eager to find new ways of looking at theatre. Training individuals who were primarily interested in the program for what they could subsequently pass along from their study to interested Deaf individuals through community or educational establishments such as Gallaudet was never discouraged. However, "proving" oneself in the rigorous world that is the professional theatre was the ultimate test. The school established itself to supply the necessary performance skill vocabulary, both physical and verbal, for those hoping to enter the NTD touring company. It still had to be structured as if the training were for any individual interested in the theatre profession in general, and then enriched with those particular viewpoints, attitudes, and talents that can only brought from the Deaf community.

Clearly, what made the school unique was the emphasis placed not on what was being studied, but on how it was being studied: using ASL. This fact immediately gave rise to both physical and societal (cultural) adjustments to the program's structure. The whole thinking of the school had to be on a much more visual, physical level, with specific, pertinent accommodations to the needs of the students in areas such as light, space, and pace. Adjustments over the 31 years that the school has been in operation have led to even more emphasis on the very expressive nature and requirements of ASL. What was in the beginning a program that used an English-based visual language (almost Signed English especially in translation from English to the visual language) has, with the introduction of more Deaf instructors and interpreters skilled in ASL, become a program much more comfortable in ASL. ASL is now clearly the defining language of Deaf Culture. Basic theatre principals and disciplines can certainly transcend cultural lines, but the language with which they are articulated must be strongly culturally based, or at least have equal standing with a possibility for growth and expression with other languages. In other words, a theatre company and school set up to feature the talents of Deaf artists, and to celebrate the stunning visual language with which they work, needs to be comfortable with that very language. In PTS, this is now much more the case. The growth and understanding of the theatre emerging from the efforts of those who attend the school or of those who work with the program can now be explored in a much more interesting and revealing manner, I believe.

The basic structure of the professional training program at PTS is that of a conservatory. Students study in a number of disciplines that are chosen to provide a well-balanced exploration of basic theatrical techniques and to challenge the creative energies of the participant. This study is accompanied by a general exposure to the history of theatre, various philosophies of theatre study and practice, and practical information related to the "business" of the business. Conducted in a very intense, concentrated time frame (generally no longer than five weeks) this period is meant to expose participants to the rigors of the business and to emphasize the necessity of completely committing oneself to the challenges at hand. This period must be approached without compromise and without worry that there isn't enough time in the day to complete the tasks assigned. Strong self-discipline is required, as well as an appreciation of the need of going beyond the limits of the class structure to investigate other areas that are only suggested by material presented in class. An understanding of an individual's responsibility to the group is cultivated. This may all seem extraordinarily difficult, nay, impossible, especially to those who have had very little (if any) previous exposure to the demands of production and theatre study. However, it is a way of identifying best those individuals who should be asked to proceed to our next level of investigation--the creation of a piece for touring. The struggle to handle all of these demands is itself as important in some ways as any success in that endeavor. For those who go on to areas other than the professional arena, it is a time to hone discipline and see how uncompromising attention to the process at hand must be. That is not an inconsiderable lesson.

Approximately 25 students attend the PTS, and these students are divided into an entry level group and an advanced group consisting of all company members and members who have previously attended the PTS. Evaluation is done after two weeks and it is possible, upon favorable review, for individuals in the entry level program to be placed in the advanced group for the final weeks of the program. Classes are generally two hours in length and there are four classes each day. Evenings are set aside for class preparation, lectures, demonstrations, or special events such as performances both on and off the NTD "campus."

The two groups are encouraged to spend time together outside of class. One way this is accomplished is by providing meals, prepared at our facilities, to all participants. We have found that a great deal of information is exchanged and skills learned in these informal moments. It also contributes to the total energy of the program by placing everyone into a "company" of actors a company that is engaged in similar activity throughout the day (though individual experience among company members is greatly varied). I suppose this is not much more different than apprentices to seasoned actors, however, there is the emphasis on working and living together. In a learning situation, how the time spent outside of class is used can be as influential as the time spent in the class itself.

Performance experience is also a vital part of the program. No less than three public storytelling performances, created and directed by the Deaf staff, are scheduled during each PTS session. These performances, rehearsed during a class time specifically set aside for that purpose, are divided between the beginning and advanced groups. The performances are helpful for the exposure to the performance style of NTD. American Sign Language and spoken English occur on stage simultaneously. This exposure is vital to both the Deaf and hearing members of the performing groups, because it is oftentimes quite unlike anything previously encountered.

A unique approach to theatre training that concentrates on delivering and exploring a great deal of information in an accelerated period of time was implemented a year ago during another of the National Theatre of the Deaf's programs the National and Worldwide Deaf Theatre Conference. This approach is called "Theatre From Scratch" and is intended to give participants a rapid and intense soup-to-nuts experience in the creation of a production. The process includes such essentials as selection of material, casting, scripting, directing, performing, costuming, set design, technical design, and even such fundamentals as the correct direction of stage positions (i.e., stage right, downstage, and stage left.) This approach is constructed for whatever level the participants require from very basic for those just starting out to a spirited attack on complicated and provocative material by those with much more experience. This allows lessons and practicals to occur simultaneously. This approach occurs during the first week of the Professional Theatre School and the remaining weeks are occupied with the exploration of specific theatre disciplines such as acting, dance, acrobatics, development of the signing actor's "voice", music, improvisation, etc. As stated above, it follows a conservatory model.

For those in the acting company, the production process for the touring works (rehearsals, adjustments to accommodate technical matters, even costume fittings) is also considered training. Research on period and character background, more intense physical training and translation of the written English into ASL are further opportunities for development that occur outside the rehearsal day. The tour of the play itself is, yet again, an opportunity for further exploration. Though fully intended to be seen by an audience, these productions can also be considered "works in progress" as the company fine-tunes the work. With precious little actual time in class, the NTD tours become classrooms as well.

PTS, and its fortunate benefactor, The National Theatre of the Deaf, is a balancing act of a very fine nature with a hidden "restrictor plate" (to use NASCAR terminology) in the structure. The theatre benefits from the school, but because of production schedule and needs, there is little room for expansion of the training program apart from the tour experience that I've just described. This is especially true of training that could occur at a more leisurely, less intense pace. Everyone is charging along under the same power, and that is exciting and vital to the training process, but depth of study (unless one is actually selected for the touring company) can be sacrificed. This does not alter the tangible benefits gained from time at PTS, but it does make one wish for a bit more. Perhaps NTD and PTS need to become affiliated with another program at a more traditional school that would allow for a more in- depth approach. A thought (desire?) for the future. But an even more pressing problem confronts us. More and more, the need for a professional training program is being supplanted by the need to bring a younger generation of the Deaf into the very beginnings of the theatrical process and experience. I am certain that this is also true of a younger hearing generation as well. However, the number of role models that are available to hearing young people and the knowledge that these role models actually make a living in the theatre is far greater than that afforded a young Deaf individual. Seeing Marlee Maitlin or Linda Bove on TV is not the only example that should be open for view. A visit by the National Theatre of the Deaf to a community that has a significant Deaf population occurs only so often, and if the date is filled with other conflicting opportunities, that performance will, too often, be missed. Is there a tradition among Deaf families of going to performances at Deaf West or Cleveland SignStage? I don't think so. So how does any Deaf youngster know of the possibilities of work within the profession? How does any Deaf youngster get turned on by the creative process?

Even in this era of extreme cutbacks in the arts, the tradition of the school play or the community theatre (in Deaf or hearing schools and communities) continues to be an avenue of expression. It is hoped that participation will stimulate further interest on the part of the participant. But without examples of what can later be accomplished, interest flags and another road taken. This is especially true for the Deaf. Who would think of theatre as a profession, if there was no such experience to look up at? Bernard Bragg, instrumental in the establishment of NTD and it's training program, was an actor in spite of prevailing thinking (though he did work primarily in mime rather than the language-based style that NTD employs). He had to decide to do what he did (before NTD) based upon observation of someone outside his community (Deaf) experience. It was an act of will born out of a need to create, yet he had absolutely no way of fulfilling that need other than the work offered through the productions staged at Gallaudet College. I suggest that this situation was a result of a combination of reluctance coupled with ignorance on the hearing theatre's part to engage a Deaf artist, as well as there being no tradition of Deaf artists. If there was, the tradition was so tenuous that it was considered special rather than practical.

Now there are increasing opportunities that allow creation and training in theatre, but still the tradition of the Deaf performer is tentative; I say that even after 31 years of the NTD tours and professional school. There are opportunities for work, but the range of those opportunities is, nonetheless, extremely limited. So what to do? I believe that the professional training program of the NTD has to be expanded to include an opportunity for young people to experience the energy of such a program without it being specifically deemed as training for work in the profession (though, obviously, it is hoped that interest will lead to that later). There must be an opportunity for Deaf youngsters in high school to witness and participate in a community of theatre that is exemplified by NTD's professional school. Only in this way will the example of others be immediate, direct, and perhaps even spark a dream.

Thus the very success of the program developed to provide a premier atmosphere of training for those Deaf interested in theatre as a profession has led us to realize we must broaden our base and reach ever further. The high quality of the programming must continue, the use of the programming to provide actors, technicians, and directors for the company must continue. But we now must let the school serve as an introduction to the very idea of a career in the theatre as a goal for one's life. Without it, I fear that the Professional Theatre School will be too specific to support itself.

Other Papers in this series - "Training Models"

© 1998, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
Reproduced by permission.
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