History of Theatre in the Deaf Community

Deaf Theatre has been around for generations and serves a dual purpose: deaf culture entertainment for deaf audiences and education about deafness and sign language for hearing people. When deaf theatre began, it was deaf people performing for deaf audiences; today it is deaf and hearing together.

empty theater
Thorney Lieberman / Getty Images

History of Deaf Theatre

The National Theatre of the Deaf, which has been instrumental in the founding of many deaf theatre groups, led the way for modern deaf theatre beginning in 1967, but deaf theatre's history goes back much further. It has its roots in drama presented at deaf schools and colleges such as Gallaudet as far back as the 1860s.

The National Technical Institute for the Deaf produced its own well-known deaf theatre group, Sunshine Too. From the early '80s through the late '90s, Sunshine Too had traveled around the country, educating hearing audiences and amusing deaf children.

Video Recordings

Few of Gallaudet University's early plays are preserved on video (viewing limited to people on campus). One that is available in Gallaudet University library archives is The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark presented by The Gallaudet College Dramatic Club, Washington, D.C., March 26-29, 1951. There are selections from My Third Eye, a National Theater of the Deaf 1973 presentation, and a low-quality recording of Sign Me Alice, a 1973 Gallaudet play.

Archival Deaf Theatre Items

The Gallaudet Library Archives is also home to many theatre-related items:

  • News clippings on:
  • National Theatre of the Deaf
  • Chicago Theatre for the Deaf
  • Children's Theatre of the Deaf
  • Circuit Playhouse Theatre of the Deaf
  • Dayton Community Theatre of the Deaf
  • Lights On Deaf Theatre (Rochester, NY)
  • Minnesota Theatre of the Deaf
  • Musign Theatre Company
  • New Dominion Theatre of the Deaf
  • North Carolina Theatre of Gesture
  • Quiet Zone Theatre
  • Readers Theatre for the Deaf
  • Sign of the Times Community Theatre Group (Springfield, Massachusetts)
  • Spectrum Deaf Theatre
  • Sunshine Too
  • An extensive selection of news clippings on defunct deaf theatre groups.
  • A collection of theatre materials (1959-1986) from the Hughes Memorial Theatre, a theatre group that had entertained audiences in Washington, DC.
  • Rare posters of deaf theatre performances, most from the Hughes Memorial Theatre.

In addition, in the 1990s there was a black deaf theatre group, Onyx Theatre Company of New York, founded by Michelle Banks. It appears that this company no longer exists.

Deaf Playwrights

One of the best known deaf playwrights is Willy Conley. Some of his works have been published in a deaf literary anthology, The Tactile Mind magazine. At the time this article was written, one of his plays had appeared in the Autumn 2002 issue. Another is Raymond Luczak, whose websites include a list of his plays. Yet another is Bernard Bragg, who through his estate has supported the Bernard Bragg '52, Endowed Chair: Deaf People in the Theater Arts endowment at Gallaudet University. According to a report in the newsletter On The Green (November 11, 1998) this Chair will not be filled until the endowment reaches $1 million.

In the 1990s, there was an American Deaf Play Creators festival held in Rochester, New York. Held at least twice, this event offered deaf playwrights the chance to practice their craft. Deaf playwrights such as Shanny Mow and Chuck Baird participated.

Deaf Theatre Bibliography

Willy Conley has a short bibliography of deaf theatre on his website at Gallaudet University.

More Books

In addition to the books, articles, and theses included in Conley's bibliography, Gallaudet University Press published Deaf Side Story, a book that examines the production of a deaf/hearing version of West Side Story at a small college in Illinois. Another book is Signs of silence: Bernard Bragg and the National Theatre of the Deaf by Helen Powers (1972, out of print). Another out of print book is The National Theater of the Deaf: Flying Fingers and Terrific Talent, by Patricia Bosworth (1973). Sign-Language Theatre and Deaf Theatre: New Definitions and Directions by Dorothy S. Miles and Louie J. Fant (mid '70s) is another book. In the early '90s, the National Theatre of the Deaf published The National Theatre of the Deaf: Twenty-Five Years.

Doctoral Theses

Gallaudet University has a few doctoral theses on file:

  • The Unique Contribution of the National Theatre of the Deaf to the American Theater by George D. McClendon; thesis done at the Catholic University of America in 1972.
  • The Theatre of the Deaf in America: The Silent Stage by John M. Heidg. Thesis done at Southern Illinois University.
  • Non-Traditional Casting in Deaf-Related Theatre by Elisa L. Buckley. San Jose University thesis.

Deaf Theatre Groups Today

Information to Go maintains a listing of deaf theater groups. These are only the best-known ones; several smaller ones exist. A web search turned up the following smaller groups:

  • Alabama - The Sign Painters of Huntsville, Alabama is a mixed deaf/hearing group that uses sign and music to entertain and educate. [note: this group may not exist anymore]
  • California - The L.A. Bridges Theatre Company of the Deaf is primarily a consulting organization that places deaf actors, but also produces its own productions. It is unclear from the website if the organization still exists.
  • Illinois - The International Center on Deafness and the Arts in Northbrook, Illinois include the CenterLight Theatre, and the Story&Sign Touring Theatre.
  • New York - The New York Deaf Theatre website states they are the third oldest deaf theatre group in the U.S., going back to 1979.
  • Tennessee - InterAct Children's Theatre for the Deaf in Knoxville. A children's theatre group in Knoxville, Tennessee, that presents in sign language and educates hearing audiences.

Deaf Theatre on Broadway

The National Theatre of the Deaf made a Broadway appearance in 1968. Another deaf theatre group that was on Broadway is Deaf West Theatre, whose production of Big River, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn on Broadway made headlines in 2003. The play, with roles played by deaf and hearing actors together, was critically claimed, award-winning, and at the time this article was written, toured the nation.

Education in Deaf Theatre

Gallaudet University has a Theatre Arts Department that offers two majors, one of which is in production/performance. In addition, the National Technical Institute for the Deaf Performing Arts department, while it does not offer a major, does provide education in theater. The National Theatre of the Deaf also continues to offer training periodically.

Was this page helpful?