The Broadway stars who have never heard music

A wonderful (and short!) documentary educates the hearing about the vibrant world of sign language theatre

Austin P. McKenzie and Sandra Mae Frank in Deaf West’s revival of Spring Awakening

I had the pleasure of seeing Spring Awakening on Broadway this past week. I have been obsessed with the soundtrack for years now and I was excited to finally see a professional performance of it. But I was even more excited knowing I would be seeing the revival of Spring Awakening, which has been praised for breaking boundaries by featuring a cast of eight deaf actors and eight hearing actors, including the first woman in a wheelchair to ever grace a Broadway stage. A majority of the cast members, in fact, are making their Broadway debuts in this production (which sadly ends its run today).

“If you think about it, it’s crazy. Music and deaf people? It doesn’t seem like it would fit together at all. But I think sign language is a natural fit for a musical actually.” — DJ Kurs, artistic director of Deaf West Theatre

When I really thought about what I was witnessing, I couldn’t believe how easy the actors made their jobs look. There were hearing actors who were singing while simultaneously signing in a language they had just learned a year ago, if that. There were deaf actors who were moving around the stage with the beat of the music, yet they couldn’t hear a thing. I began to wonder… how did these deaf actors even figure out that they had a passion for acting? For acting in a musical, no less?

It’s so rare, I think, to see deaf actor in plays, TV, or movies. There are a few shows that come to mind… Switched at Birth on ABC Family (now ‘Freeform’), for example, features several deaf actors, many of whom are in the Spring Awakening cast.

But after watching a wonderful American Theatre Wing documentary on YouTube [“Working in the Theatre: Sign Language Theatre”] about sign language theatre, I wonder… why is it so rare? In the video, Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress who won an Academy Award at the age of 21, said “there are Deaf actors out there who are just as talented as hearing actors … or even better.” (She then gave the camera a sassy smirk, which I loved.)

You can watch the video above. It’s really inspiring. Really. It allows you to “follow members of the cast of Spring Awakening, Gallaudet University, and others as they explore the creative process, the history, and the joy that comes from sign language theatre.”

“Among all the theatre programs, we stand apart in that we are Deaf centered. We bring a Deaf heart to the space.” — Ethan Sinnot, director at Gallaudet University’s Elstad Auditorium

Gallaudet University, by the way, is a leading undergraduate institution for students who are hard of hearing. They have a theatre program — I had no idea one even existed — which is “the most prominent international hub” for deaf performing arts, according to their website.

I urge you to check out the documentary. It provides cool behind-the-scenes looks at Spring Awakening rehearsals and White House performances and it’s only 30 minutes — just think of it as an episode of The Mindy Project. It also features several deaf actors and prominent people (both hearing and not) who are involved in the National Theatre of the Deaf and Deaf West, which is a California-based deaf theatre company that Spring Awakening was born out of. “I love good theatre. I want theatre to be in my language. I want to see the beauty of sign language on stage. And that’s Deaf West Theatre,” said DJ Kurs, the artistic director of Deaf West Theatre.

In the documentary, they talk about how deaf actors thrived in silent movies. How the affect of music can be expressed through choreography, through lighting. How American Sign Language has changed over time, just as English has. And how the two languages are not analogous.

“I’ve been happy to discover a hidden talent that I’d been completely unaware of. … I grew up never understanding music. I’m sorry. I’m deaf. I don’t hear words, beats, music. Nothing.” — Daniel N. Durant

Before you press ‘play’ I will leave you with this important quote from Sandra Mae Frank, who is the lead actress in Spring Awakening:

“People would typically ask me, ‘As a deaf actor, how do you do it? How do you dance?’ … And I said, ‘Just like any other actor, deaf, hard of hearing, hearing, someone in a wheelchair.’ We are actors. That’s my skill. That’s my talent. We all have strength and we all have weaknesses. We need to give deaf actors that opportunity. It doesn’t matter who that actor is. There needs to be that exposure, that education as to how to work with deaf actors rather than just moving forward with the status quo.”

P.S. I found out she’s dating a fellow cast member. So cute.