Visible Language: how a show killed my faith in the hearing people, Part II
Some notes before we go on to my second part.
I was corrected by one of the members of the show that it was not the director that persisted the woman to sing Happy Birthday. It was the playwright.
I was forwarded the email from June when the director informed me that I would not be hired due to the fact that I cannot hear. You can find the full email from the director at the end of this blog. See how bizarre it was for yourself.
A short discussion with two other crew members of this show had reminded me what we were fighting about in the September production meeting. It is important to share what we were fighting about and I’ve blended that argument in a story in October below.
It was past midnight and I find myself sitting in the dark at the kitchen table of my cramped apartment. A hue of pale blue lit up my face as I read my email draft to The Company and the director.
I’ve finished the script and I’ve written up an email to the director regarding my resignation.
This would be a good time to tell you the plot of Visible Language.
The show went essentially like this — Alexander Graham Bell (AGB) bets Edward Miner Gallaudet (EMG) that he can teach Helen Keller spoken english by a specific deadline. The space between point A and point B contained a series of scenes that were absolutely void of significant deaf voice and a weak character development by EMG, a beloved figure in our community.
There were scenes of AGB teaching Helen Keller how to speak.
There was a scene of AGB giving a lecture on oralism to deaf students at Gallaudet University. ← In the playwright’s defense, this scene did have a half-heart attempt to defend the sign language education but it would never culminate in a strong message. That message was killed altogether at the ending.
There was a song scene that irked me and many others to no end but that comes later.
The play comes to an end with AGB revealing his work by having Helen Keller going up on a platform and giving a speech of some poem in spoken english. After the speech, the room would erupt into applause and EMG would find AGB to give him a wholesome handshake telling him that he was right all along.
Yeah. I should’ve finished the script, huh?
I discussed these concerns thoroughly with the assistant stage manager and I found that she shared my views. I would find out a long time after this production that many of us shared the same views. Most of us were afraid that if we’ve left the show, we would be leaving others alone in the show.
I brought this up to the Gally rep and he told me “Hey, we’re in this shit sandwich together.”
I thought about these two words for a while. From his point of view, the shit sandwich was clear. He had been on a sabbatical the previous semester and he was promptly dropped in a strange position. His shit sandwich was maintaining the theatre department’s reputation and preventing the show derailing into something much worse. In his credit, the production afforded great opportunities for a number of thriving Deaf thespians. None of us would have predicted The Company providing a full-blown audist playwright and a buffoon of a director.
I eventually figured out what my shit sandwich was. I became convinced that it was my moral obligation to remain on the production to provide a deaf voice. It was my duty to ensure we were represented well.
I deleted the draft and soldiered on.
We were halfway through our rehearsals and it is the slowest goddamn rehearsal I’ve ever went through. In my five years career as a thespian studying at Gallaudet University, I’ve never seen a set fully completed before we’ve done our first full run.
And here we were, standing on a fully completed set musing over the direction of the last third of the show. There were problems popping up left and right. Below are some of the problems we encountered.
The set was unique because it was designed to blend in a caption board. The caption board’s purpose, clearly, was to provide access for our deaf audience.
The playwright had an opposition to this.
She claimed that she wrote this play to capture an authentic experience of deafness. The idea is to leave the deaf audience entirely in dark during the voiced part as they would be in the 1880s when the hearing men fought for their education. Her justification for this borderline-constitutional-violation of a proposal was that the hearing audience would be in the dark during the signed scenes as well.
There aren’t enough adjectives to describe this pompous idea. If we went with this idea, the deaf audience would’ve been in the dark for the majority of the show. At first the signed scenes were quite low but this would later decay to an alarmingly low rate when the director decided to scrape most of AGB and EMG’s signed scenes. The main problem with this idea is that it would be in direct violation of the ADA laws and the very soul of Gallaudet University.
One of our actors, who had auditioned for EMG but was casted as Professor Fay, shouted “hearing people being excluded and missing out on dialogue is novel. There is nothing novel at all about not making dialogue accessible to deaf people! Nothing!”
We won the argument but the point here is that there had to be an argument about it.
The playwright attended almost all of the rehearsals. She firmly planted her roots in the show and began overriding the director’s decisions. Not like the director’s decisions were good, though.
This was when the assistant stage manager and I watched in horror as the signed lines slowly disappear. In addition to the deaf characters of the show, AGB and EMG would sign out the majority of their lines. This had proved problematic for a couple of reasons.
The Harvard star who played EMG found himself mentally exhausted for he tried an impossible trifecta — to speak, sign and sing. This caused a long process of repeating a song scene to the point where we reached a decision to have Ennals Adams shadow him and sign his songs. We now have an awkward and unnecessary entry by Ennals Adams to sign out an entirely different character’s struggles. It stained bad on the deaf viewers’ eyes.
The actor who played AGB had no prior background in sign language. He was picking up quite quickly but it was a tremendous pressure on the actor and it largely contributed to our slow pacing. As we approached the opening night, almost all of his signed lines would be scraped save for his tutoring sessions with Helen Keller. Even the scenes where he spoke to Helen Keller, we would resort to the actress who played Anne Sullivan interpreting for her. Now, remember Helen Keller was blind. This means the actress (who also had learned sign language only recently) had to interpret AGB’s lines with Helen Keller’s hands on her hands.
This was painful because the deaf viewers had to use the caption boards during a dialogue that would’ve been orchestrated in fluent sign language if the real AGB and Helen Keller were present. It was an insult that we couldn’t see our history books come alive without relying on text.
The final product had a dangerously low number of signing scenes.
The playwright (and the director) had turned Helen Keller into a toddler.
To be clear, Helen Keller was 12 years old in this play. It is reasonable to see the actress capture the essence of a 12 years old.
Unfortunately, her lines were written in a way where she lost the power of her voice as a deaf-blind woman. Sure, she was only 12 years old but she would go on to be a outspoken advocate of our community and this is a play where “all the dull moments have been cut out.” There should’ve been some lines to show a rigorous activist blooming.
In an early scene, Helen Keller was introduced to AGB as they would start their speaking lessons soon. Helen Keller had a line after AGB’s line on the future of oralism — “Oh doggies! Can I pet them?!” The actress was forced to get in touch with her 4 year-old self as she acted out this line. The direction of her character was pretty much a downhill from this moment.
I cannot recall it vividly enough but I do remember that Helen Keller’s first entry contained a brief comical chase interlude as Anne Sullivan frantically searched for her lost blind pet.
The biggest song with deaf lead (and the only deaf-led song) in this show was titled “I want to communicate.”
In this scene, the AGB had just given a lecture on oralism completed with diagrams of the mouth and tongues. The diagrams actually was cool because it was a replication of the real stuff from the 1880s.
AGB left the lecture and the deaf students erupt in a debate along themselves whether oralism or signed language was better. In this debate, they break into an interlude of spinning chairs and singing. I don’t remember the lyrics but a staggering 3/4 of it was just repeatedly yelling “I want to communicate.”
This was the peak of the deaf voice in the entire show.
The students serve as a subplot to the main plot of Helen Keller learning how to speak. Without reading the script, you’d safely assume that they would be a strong voice for the manualism (sign language) argument of deaf education. It would make an excellent plot for us to follow Helen Keller’s achievements in learning how to speak english as the students of Gallaudet University show us that even though learning how to speak is achievable, sign language is actually the better way to go. The history of the deaf community is heavy with proofs that sign language is a far greater benefit for us. How cool would it be for us to see AGB’s method failing in the culture sector?
That didn’t happen. In a plot where oralism paves their road to victory, the sign language representation of this show sulked around the lecture room and whined that they really want to communicate. What exactly did they want to communicate? That oralism would go on to be a leading factor in the dark ages for our community? No. They just wanna to get their words out and, given the plot, it was interpreted that they were thirsty for any possible way to get their words out and that oralism can quench that thirst.
It was straight-up highway robbery of the deaf voice. This, however, was not the ultimate insult in the show.
Our lighting designer would later on dub this show as a great satire of communication for there were little to none communication from the deaf side.
In addition to these problems, the production team had came to rely on the stage manager and an actor to facilitate communications between the two sides. They’ve chosen to neglect the stage manager’s comments that she was not qualified to be an interpreter and that they needed to hire a certified one.
Here we stand, void of our voice among amateur interpreters.
Not that I’m questioning the stage manager’s talent in sign language— we love you and you were a tremendous anchor of our sanity in the run of this show.
Wednesday, October 22, 2014.
The night before the opening night.
I sit far back in the audience seating in the dark. We’re doing our second full-run of a preview performance. Costumes, lights, and all.
I watched the run with heavy dread and took notes. My notes at this point was mostly worthless seeing how they’ve ignored almost all of my pleas and comments in our rehearsals. I’v failed my moral obligation of ensuring a deaf voice.
No, they’ve robbed me.
We’re now at the ending of the show and I nearly cried when I saw this.
Helen Keller goes up a platform to give a speech that AGB had taught her how to speak. In the script, she is speaking some poem. Somewhere during our rehearsals, the director, with the playwright’s support, decided that Helen Keller would not give a comprehensible speech achieved by lip syncing nor she would give a speech without audio. Instead, she would spew out literal gibberish.
I do not know what she sounded like but I imagine a broken hearing aid going “EEE-EEE-EEE!”
The playwright had justified this as a victory for the signed language side of the battle. You see, oralism did not work out after all!
Ok, but why the fuck would the proceeding events to be a room erupting in applause and EMG admitting he was wrong to AGB. This decision by the director and the playwright was a pathetic attempt at reviving the deaf voice after ignoring us all month long. In the script, this justification is nowhere to be found and it is clearly written to show an actual victory for AGB’s side.
This was the ultimate insult. They wanted to show that sign language was better but instead they showed us that a deaf person couldn’t achieve spoken english and would remain forever thirsty for a feasible way to communicate orally.
They’ve somehow managed turn Helen Keller into Benjamin Button as she aged backwards from a toddler to a newborn crying gibberish.
I, in my stupidity, held my peace.
The show ended. The actors went home. The production crew remained to discuss some last minute tweaking.
The meeting went on for some time and the interpreters (yes, there were actual interpreters present at this meeting) politely informed the production manager that they were reaching the max of their paid hours and had to leave.
As I held my notes in hand waiting for my opportunity to share my thoughts, the production manager dismissed the deaf crew members and announced a meeting among the hearing members including the second assistant director.
The camel’s back had broke.
My last remaining puddle of voice in this show had dried up at last.
I lost it.
I threw my notebook down and exploded in a rant that would lead to a hour-long hot argument between me and the playwright. Shots were fired at all sides. No bullets remained at the end of the argument.
I was surprised that the Gally rep had let me get it all out without halting the debate. Looking back, I think he wanted me to say it for we all felt the same way.
Thank you for letting me.
I went on to outline everything that was wrong with the show and accused the playwright of being an audist. I screamed at the director for the discriminatory email back in June. All of the problems written above were churned out of my blood-boiling red hands. You can imagine what were said and what went down.
I only remember one thing clearly from this argument — I told Mary, the playwright that she had no place writing about the deaf people. She then proceeded to defend herself by telling me her deaf neighbor had approved of the show. It became clear that her perspective on the deaf community is based on one lone member of the deaf community. For all we know the neighbor could’ve been a staunch believer in oralism or the neighbor could’ve been overwhelmingly under-qualified to represent a significant turning point in deaf history.
Lady, I don’t give a shit about your neighbor’s approval — you clearly are not qualified to capture our voice.
This was not the worst part of her justification. She went on to explain a weird concept. She outlined an imaginary box that exists in our modern day society. This box had been installed by the minorities and it greatly limited her ability to speculate and write about communities that she does not live in or contribute to. She compared writing about the deaf people to writing about the black people. She asked me whether the fact that she was white would limit her opportunity to write about the black people.
Yes. You are not entitled to write about the black community. Yes. Because you are white. This is exactly how it works.
Everything now became crystal clear to me. The reasoning behind the fuckclad of a show is because an opponent to the newly found social justice movement is at the helm of the show. Her argument gave me confirmation that she is an ignorant audist.
Was she an active villain of our community? No. But, she had planted her nose in an community that she had little to none knowledge of and she had the audacity to put on a musical about a painful part of our history.
I quit. Just as I was about to walk out, the production manager asked me “do you want your name on the program?”
The show is almost done with their run.
I was standing outside of the Elstad auditorium in the dark. I could see the bustling activity of running a show through the windows of the Elstad annex.
I was there because I had made a habit of parking my car at Gallaudet University before riding the bus to Ford’s theatre for my internship.
I found myself figuring out ways to bypass the auditorium without being sighted by one of the production members. I had even memorized their schedule so I would know whether they would be all huddled insides the blackbox or they would be able to afford an opportunity to go outside for a smoke break and seeing me.
This show had put me in a bad place. I am now avoiding a building that I considered a second home throughout my five years of studies at Gallaudet University. Many of my turning points and achievements were done in that very building. I am now afraid of this building.
I was depressed as hell.
This time I had to walk all the way around the back and streak through the grassy hills in the dark because it was about the time that the audience would come breaking out the doors and one of the actors would probably be taking his smoke break.
As I climbed the barrier leading to the parking lot, my mind wandered back to a conversation of I just had that evening.
I was at a bar with a renowned deaf actor who is a former hollywood star and an active voice in the deaf theatre community. I asked him what he thought of Visible Language. He was afraid to response. This was when I’ve learned that my resignation had not made the circulation of news and that my name had remained on the program.
I told him my story. Holding my beer, I sighed regretfully at the fact that I didn’t leave the show sooner.
I also shared my disappointment in the theatre critics of Washington, D.C. When the show opened in October, I religiously searched through all of the reviews and pieces written about this show. There was not one sensible criticism of the show and nearly all of them praised Helen Keller.
To be clear, the actress who played Helen Keller was, in no doubt, an excellent actress but it is the essence of the character that she was forced to adapt that was a straight up insult.
This was also when I understood that there is a fundamental difference between movie critics and theatre critics. Movie critics are allowed to write a scathing review because Hollywood isn’t a community. Theatre critics, on the other hand, does their best to offer an insightful review while supporting their own community.
Understandable. But, this told me that the hearing people had no idea what they were seeing. This was the first time they would learn bits of our history and it had to come from that fucking playwright.
Our voice is now void in the entire city of Washington, D.C.
My bar companion shared his opinion on the show and I learned that I’ve underestimated the harmful effects of this play by far.
He looked in my eyes and said the show was plainly “racist, sexist, and audist.”
Somewhere between November and January, Gallaudet University had a open discussion about this show.
I was contacted by the actor who played EMG for my input. I wrote a long open letter outlining my horrible experience with this show.
He replied with regret that he had not know about it… and under no circumstances that this letter is to be shared.
Being a stupid recent graduate, I complied and never shared the letter.
I didn’t even have the support of the man who played Edward Miner Gallaudet.
I can’t find the letter today and the email was exchanged via my Gallaudet email. So, that is long lost.
In a series of bad luck, I found myself living in Minnesota. I had to leave Washington, D.C. at the end of November because I found myself unable to afford to live in the city. Nobody was hiring me or Valen and my internship at Ford’s theatre didn’t pay.
I was sitting at my Dad’s dining table which was decorated with Christmas-themed linen.
I had just received a text from the second assistant director of Visible Language. After my angry rant against the playwright, he showed tremendous understanding and support for me and we remained friends.
He told me to sit down and turn on the Helen Hayes awards live stream.
I watched my laptop screen in disbelief as the actress who played Helen Keller claim her Helen Hayes award.
My emotions were in a turmoil. Torn in half, I wanted to support the talented deaf actress for her victory but I couldn’t believe that the city of Washington, D.C. had awarded her for a character that was written as an insult to the deaf community.
This was how Visible Language had killed my faith in the hearing people.
A single show robbed my representation of the deaf community. They had raped my voice. All of this happened without large-scale support from the hearing people. The theatre critics had responded with a obligatory support for the show and they handed them an award.
I now teach history at Texas School for the Deaf and today marks my fourth year of theatre drought.
While living in Minnesota I took all steps to achieve an audition in the robust Minneapolis theatre community but I never followed through because of the damage this show had brought on me. I was afraid to work with a hearing crew and cast.
Just three weeks ago, I was cast in a show for Vortex theatre — a Austin company. I declined the opportunity with a truthful reason. I am working with two other deaf men to start a business and I had no time for the rehearsals. But, among the biggest factor of my turning down that opportunity is that I am not ready to work with the hearing people again.
In the past three years, I’ve posted a lot of angry rants against the hearing people. I’ve reminisced on the daily struggles of being deaf. Many of my posts scared my hearing co-workers and they’ve came to believe that I am a strange version of a misanthrope who hates the hearing people. One of my posts had triggered an employee of my school to file out a report against me. I had a meeting with the human resources about this.
I was dubbed an extremist. An extremist as in a staunch nationalist who would lead the deaf into establishing their own country.
All of these rants can be traced back to Visible Language. The show had not only drove me away from the theater but it had convinced me that the entire hearing world was against me.
Today, looking at the title of the show is a searing insult that never goes away. Visible Language. What visibility did we, the deaf, had? Fucking zero.
I truly appreciate the comments I received from those who was in the show with me after releasing the first part of this story. I’m happy to hear that I am not alone in this.
As promised, here is the email I received in June from the director.
“ Charlie —
It was very nice meeting you as well.
I have not been able to secure a sign interpreter for our meeting tomorrow, which raises an important issue: I myself do not sign, and so I am really looking for an assistant director for Visible Language who is both hearing and fluent in sign, to act as my interpreter during rehearsals and meetings. I guess I did not make this clear to [Gally Rep] when he recommended you, and I apologize for the misunderstanding. I truly enjoyed your performance in Titus Andronicus and would welcome you to audition for VL, but alas, your Grand Tour of Europe (which sounds awesome) will mean that you will be away when I begin seeing people in the next few weeks. Unlucky timing, I guess. Maybe we should just plan to stay in touch and you can contact me after you return, just to see if anything has changed or we still have some openings among the cast or crew.
Sorry it’s unlikely to work out this time, but it’s great to get to know your work, and hopefully we can find a project to work together on in the future.