(This post is a part of the Diversity & Inclusion blog salon led by Online Curator Jacqueline E. Lawton. Check out further Diversity & Inclusion interviews on Jacqueline’s blog. If you are interested in participating in this or any other Circle blog salon, email Gus Schulenburg.)
Diversity & Inclusion blog salon: Disability in the American Theatre
JACQUELINE LAWTON: First, tell me about the work you do as a theatre artist or administrator.
TYRONE GIORDANO: I’m a theatre artist who happens to be Deaf, which means I’m constantly having to educate. Fortunately, it’s in my blood: Both my parents worked in Deaf education, and I’ve taught college-level courses in California and in DC on American Sign Language (ASL) and Deaf Studies topics, including Deaf Theatre and Deaf and ASL Literatures. Aside from acting and teaching, I also work as an ASL and Deaf culture consultant and translator, notably on Cyrano, Deaf West Theatre’s collaboration with the Fountain Theatre in Los Angeles, and most recently with Studio Theatre’s Tribes in Washington, DC. I’ve also written, coordinated, directed, and produced collaborative work in theatrical settings, most especially at Deaf West. I guess you could say I’ve dipped a finger into almost every pot. It is not uncommon among Deaf theatre artists to have experience with a multiplicity of roles and responsibilities.
JL: Where do you live? How has your community addressed issues of disability for its theatre artists and administrators, and also its audience? How has this impacted your work?
TG: I live in DC right now. While I was born in New England, I consider myself DC-bred, having spent most of my life here before moving to LA at the turn of the millennium. Although my career began in DC, it was in Los Angeles where it bloomed (my career’s “formative years,” you could say), and I’m grateful to return to DC in the midst of a more-evolved arts scene especially in relation to Deaf artists.
Now, it’s interesting that you ask me about how “my community” addressed issues of disability. I am a member of the Deaf community first, and then there’s the physical community that I am surrounded by, whether it’s Los Angeles or DC. I could argue that on a certain level, I’d say that there are only two real communities for me: the Deaf community and the hearing community, and both intersect in my daily life, although the Deaf are immensely more cognizant of the hearing. So, when you say “my community,” I must first define what that means and then I can explain what has been and is being done.
That said, both LA and DC have sizeable Deaf communities living within the greater context of each city. The Deaf community is pretty much the original social network as there’s no real physical location where we are based, but certain physical locations allow us to form a network of ganglia. For example, in LA, there is Deaf West Theatre, which helps bring people interested in ASL and theatre to connect both onsite and on their own. Many friendships were formed there that still last to this day. And in DC, there’s Gallaudet University, the world’s only liberal arts college for the deaf and hard of hearing (and we do have hearing students, faculty and staff, as well). Gallaudet has its own Theatre Arts center, and is surrounded by the largest college degree-holding Deaf population anywhere. Both Deaf West and Gallaudet have engaged their surrounding communities to increase opportunities for Deaf, hard of hearing, and hearing artists and audiences interested in ASL and theatre by creating collaborations that help further the dialogue.
When I left DC, there were a few sparks of action: there was the Deaf Access program at Imagination Stage with Lisa Agogliati, which brought both Deaf and hearing children and professionals together; and also Nick Olcott had this idea to bring together a pool of diverse local actors to stage what I thought was a incredibly groundbreaking performance of The Miracle Worker at Arena Stage. I am extremely fortunate to have been a part of that production, because I was witnessing Nick doing things that I had never heard of or seen before: he incorporated color-blind casting while also putting ASL front and center at every performance with the addition of a sign language chorus, of which I was a member. This choral role essentially functioned as a performance sign language interpreter built into the show, participating both onstage and at the edges, and Deaf theatergoers could show at any performance and sit anywhere instead of in a designated area only at predetermined dates and times. What was especially interesting about this was that while the ASL functioned as an “accessibility feature,” it was intentionally built into the design of the show as an artistic feature, and even more so was the choice of staging in a theatre-in-the-round, meaning that both Deaf and hearing audiences faced each other and you could see who was watching what onstage. There was a kind of unspoken dialogue in this togetherness that I immensely enjoyed seeing, and it has remained with me to this day.
Now, with Ethan Sinnott leading the charge at Gallaudet University’s Theatre Arts, and with the folks working on Fourth Wall Gone, there is a strong viable center that is continually building connections within the DC community. Gallaudet’s theatre students, graduates, and affiliates have worked on productions with the Studio Theatre, Synetic Theatre, Faction of Fools, Next Stop, and the No Rules Theatre Company, to name a few. Not only have they employed Deaf artists, many of these companies have dramatically increased their accessibility initiatives, offering captioned, audio-described, and sign-interpreted performances. We still have a long way to go, but the fact that these conversations are being had and partnerships are being formed is very heartening. What’s so interesting to see is the kind of things people say after these kinds of collaborations and partnerships—that they are somehow changed. I think the reason for this is twofold. One because this is the kind of community-building that allows the hearing community to be more cognizant of the Deaf. And I like to think that because interfacing in ASL requires a face-to-face interaction, we are finally facing each other—we see each other. There is a lot more to say, but I want to impress upon everyone that this kind of risk-taking is something I’d love to see more of from theatre artists everywhere, and we should keep doing this until it’s no longer “risky” to welcome Deaf artists and audiences into the fold, but something we do from which we all can draw something of lasting value. Isn’t that what art is supposed to be?
JL: Do we need disability based theaters and programs? What is gained by having stories of a certain community told by artists of that community? What is lost?
TG: Absolutely. The conversations we have surrounding disability are usually charged, and whether you subscribe to the medical or social models of disability, or both…they are necessary conversations to have. For as long as there is a need for acknowledgement of ways of living that differ from the “norm,” we must have these conversations. We are quite a ways from that, and when we get there, I’m very curious to see where we go next.
With the rise of scholarship and teaching in ASL and Deaf Studies (and Disability Studies), conversations are being had about how Deaf (and disabled) people can be of benefit to society (for example, the thinking behind Deaf Gain, where the focus is on how different ways of being Deaf confer beneficial perspectives and certain advantages), forcing a rethinking of how we approach people whose lives are very different from our own. I daresay that right now is probably one of the best times to be a living, breathing Deaf person, but things are not necessarily always going to get better. Technological progress, coupled with the idea of deafness as a disease, a defect, a stigma, a burden, all of that, has driven countless (and well-funded) efforts to correct, fix, and even eradicate deafness in the name of “progress.” This has led to a vast number of people who have experienced the shame and pain of this “assigned” stigma; yet, even in the face of all that, there is pride.
George Veditz, a past president of the National Association of the Deaf, said that sign language is the noblest gift that God has given to deaf people. I want to take that a step further and say that sign language is not just for deaf people—witness the explosion of interest in ASL by hearing people who want to teach their babies, sign songs in ASL, and just to talk with their family members who are deaf. I mention this because I believe that ASL is the linchpin of the Deaf community—it exists because of it, and because of it, Deaf people continue to exist. We have made ASL the center of our efforts to “educate” the public, and seeing that we have our own language and community has diminished the thinking that leads people to conclude we are somehow disabled. We have spent so much time and energy on educating others, fighting for acceptance, equality, equity, and recognition of our humanity that somehow, all of this capital spent has left us with a core in sore need of new stories to tell beyond these struggles. Many stories that try to showcase our humanity often end up as a sort of “inspiration porn.” While the need to educate is still there, we need to reenergize our Deaf core with more stories that show not only our humanity, or are about deafness, but speak of contexts that surround our disabling by society, the darker underbelly, or stories that envision a different sort of world. With the rise of Deaf Studies and ASL, we’ve been talking amongst ourselves, sharing and creating these stories, even stories about what it might mean for humanity without us. Because people worked hard (and are still working hard) to “fix” us, we are both responsible for these incredible advances in technology and victims of it. On the flip side, there are futurist, transhumanist stories in examples of disabled people taking back these technologies to make themselves “better than” as opposed to the goal of being “equal to” the rest. These stories need to be grown and evolved, and we need to be the ones to tell them.
All too often, able-bodied performers play the role of a disabled character, and win accolades for them. Hearing people have been playing deaf characters and winning numerous awards for what many of us feel are incomplete portrayals. I say that we need to be the ones to tell them because even today, if we dare speak out against the practice of able bodies inhabiting disabled characters, we run the risk of being branded as “unappreciative,” or “against artistic expression.” After all, we understand acting to be the art of inhabiting a life different from yours. If that were true, then someone needs to come forth and show me a single example of a deaf person playing a hearing role, and winning an award for it. Good luck with that.
JL: What practical action steps and/or resources would you recommend to local, regional and national theatre companies who would like to address issues of accessibility for its artists and administrators, and audiences?
TG: Aside from not providing enough access, we don’t think enough about the access we do provide. We are perfectly happy saying, “Look, we have a wheelchair ramp! Look, interpreters! Captioning!” without really stopping to think about what it means theatrically. It’s not the same show we are seeing. Each of these avenues of “access” only allow us part of the experience that one would have going to the theatre without these technologies. For example, we don’t think about the fact that not every deaf patron knows ASL, and many of us who do know ASL might want to enjoy the playwright’s words in the original language through captions. This sort of access is incomplete, since these technologies function as a “window” to the theatre performed onstage when what we really need is a door. Integrate these technologies into the design from the very beginning. Don’t just place them off to the side, making us sit in a special section, and only at designated times and dates. I’ll use the Faction of Fools as an example. They built captioning technology directly into the set–it looks like a window, until you activate it. It was really nice to be able to go to the theatre whenever I would like to, as opposed to waiting for a set date. What if I had a conflict? I don’t have the same freedom of choosing when to go to a show that another person might. This kind of integration is key to bringing in diverse audiences, and when you have these audiences at the theatre, conversations can be had leading to greater understanding.
JL: Why is it important that we continue to have these conversations to address issues of disability in theatre?
TG: I’ll state a fact here: according to a 2010 U.S. Census report, at least 1 in 6 Americans identifies with having a disability. That’s just covering the ones that claim it. It’s amazing that with so many that do identify as having a disability, that there is still a certain stigma attached to it. You can see this clearly in the stories we tell about disability. You can also see this in how little disability is shown in our media and onstage. Imagine if the proportion of disability in these outlets matched real life. We’re all caught up in the diversity debate, but there’s still very little mention of disability, even within discussions about diversity. Why is that?
It’s difficult to fight to change this, especially considering that the number of characters themselves with a disability is less than 2%, according to the I AM PWD campaign fact sheet. I am unsure of how many of these characters are played by actors with an actual disability, which is another separate issue. Of those actors that are playing a disability, there is tremendous pressure on them to perform the job well, and many fear that asking for anything such as an accommodation might reflect poorly on their ability to do the job. So, they remain hidden, or do not ask for the things they need. This kind of climate is not conducive to our collective advancement, and by “our,” I mean all of humanity.
JL: As an advocate of disability in the theatre, can you recommend plays that I should be reading or playwrights I should be following?
TG: I’ll keep it simple: just think about everything that you’ve already read or seen—start thinking outside the box: “Could this role be cast with a Deaf actor?” Every time you run into a “no,” ask yourself why not?
Tyrone Giordano is an actor and translator that wears many other hats of the theatrical sort. Tyrone is best known for his work with Deaf West Theatre, playing the lead as Huck in the Tony-honored Big River on Broadway in 2003, earning a Drama Desk nomination for Outstanding Actor in a Musical and also in the title role of Pippin at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Tyrone has also acted on television and film, notably in The Family Stone, A Lot Like Love, The Next Three Days, and CSI. He is currently working at Gallaudet University.
Jacqueline E. Lawton received her MFA in Playwriting from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener fellow. Her plays include Anna K; Blood-bound and Tongue-tied; Deep Belly Beautiful; The Devil’s Sweet Water; The Hampton Years; Ira Aldridge: Love Brothers Serenade, Mad Breed and Our Man Beverly Snow. She has received commissions from Active Cultures Theater, Discovery Theater, National Portrait Gallery, National Museum of American History, Round House Theatre and Theater J. A 2012 TCG Young Leaders of Color, she has been nominated for the Wendy Wasserstein Prize and a PONY Fellowship from the Lark New Play Development Center. She resides in Washington DC and is a member of Arena Stage’s Playwrights’ Arena. jacquelinelawton.com