When we talk about the ‘small ones’ in theatre, we must never forget those among us who may, by some metrics, be considered less fortunate, whom are often silenced and left without a voice. And yet, in a world which may seem so cruel to them, there is always a silver lining, a microphone left to those who wish to sing out.
The National Theatre of the Deaf, or NTD for short, is one of the oldest theatre companies in America—not only relative to theatre companies that cater to the deaf, but outright too. Based in Connecticut, they’ve been performing since the 1960s and, while operating somewhat out of the limelight relative to the able-bodied dominated theatrical establishment, they’ve had a massive influence on theatre not just in the US, but worldwide.
Conceived by Edna Levine and with the support of various influential people within the theatre and deaf communities, including Helen Keller’s teacher Anne Sullivan, actress Anne Bancroft, and Broadway set designer David Hays, the company was founded in 1967 with just 12 actors, 11 of which lacked formal training. The theatre company, whose first performances were at Wesleyan University, initially got off to a rocky start with the deaf community—the ASL used was hard-to-understand, while the material (mostly existing works translated into ASL) failed to explore issues relating to the deaf community itself, concerns which still sound familiar to those working in deaf theatre and theatre with disabilities even today.
However, as the theatre company matured, deaf artists moved into leadership roles and the company began producing not just translations, but entirely original works too focusing on the deaf community and deaf culture. Recognizing the aesthetic and visual qualities of sign language, the company left behind the traditions of realism and naturalistic theatre, moving towards a performance style dominated by the spatial aspects of communication. They branched out from the theatre too: collaborating with the Children’s Television Workshop, they’ve worked with TV shows such as Sesame Street to bring deaf awareness and understanding to the next generation.
Employing both deaf and hearing artists, the company caters to both the deaf and hearing communities—they often make use of shadowing, where deaf actors portray a role via ASL with a hearing actor standing either close by or off stage to speak or sing lines in English, allowing a diverse audience to understand their onstage art. Via outreach programs, they spread knowledge and encourage a sort of human connection only the theatre can provide. They train countless deaf artists, helping them hone their art; actors and performers who have passed through NTD’s doors have gone on to do truly great things, opening their own deaf theatre companies and spreading understanding of the deaf community further (Deaf West comes to mind).
NTD was, is, and will always be a pioneer in the theatrical industry and the deaf community in bringing together those without a voice and giving them a platform they were once denied. And in a world where people are so often silenced, one can only be glad they’re here.