Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks,
Hearing Jets, and a Classic American Musical
Despite its recent monetary woes, Mac has proved a difficult beast to kill. It has struggled valiantly back from its former insolvency, and in 1997, Mac’s trustees hired a new president, Lawrence Bryan, former head of Kalamazoo College in Michigan. Larry Bryan––unrelated, so far as he knows, to William Jennings Bryan––brought with him a sense of direction and optimism that has, by all accounts, been lacking amongst the school’s faculty and staff. Mac, for the first time in decades, appears to be going places.
Concurrent with Bryan’s arrival, Mac decided to revitalize a number of moribund programs, including drama. They hired Diane Brewer, a recent Ph.D. graduate of UCLA, and charged her with directing two productions a year, teaching all theater classes, and resurrecting the drama major. Diane is a small woman with small features, and during her first six months on the job, people frequently mistook her for a student. She has straight, brown hair that falls in a line to her shoulders; she prefers informal clothes and eschews makeup. She has no fear of telling offbeat stories in public or supporting these with elaborate facial expressions. If she can’t talk with her hands, she often stops talking.
The overall impression is hardly academic, but Mac nonetheless entrusted her with both the job and a nearly abandoned dance studio for a performance space. In her first two years, she produced and directed Glowacki’s Antigone in New York, Brecht’s A Good Person of Setzuan, and Moliere’s Tartuffe. She also brought in Stephen Buescher of California’s Dell’Arte Players Company as artist-in-residence for the month of January 1999. Stephen, an ebullient, tremendously talented performer, turned out to have strong ties to the Deaf theater community (the capital D implying a cultural and political sensibility whereby the deaf person in question identifies himself or herself primarily with a community of other deaf or hard-of-hearing people). In 1995, Stephen answered an ad in the magazine ArtSEARCH placed by Sunshine Too, the touring theater troupe from the National Technical Institute for the Deaf (NTID) in Rochester, New York. As a guest artist, Stephen joined the company (typically three deaf and three hearing actors) and stayed for three years, eventually taking on writing and directing duties in addition to acting. Stephen, who is hearing, remembers most performances as being “very much in the variety show range,” and he worked hard to incorporate the physical techniques of clowning and commedia dell’arte with the equally physical work of sign language––a natural match. In Laundry, the vignette Stephen remembers best, he and the other actors portrayed the various stages of washing clothes, running through “rinse,” “wash,” “sort,” and so on. Other segments revolved around racism and Gallaudet’s Deaf President Now movement (see chapter seven).
Late in Stephen’s MacMurray stay, Diane has an idea––what she describes as little more than a spark, a flash––for the show she will do in the spring of 2000 (still a year away): West Side Story.
A musical, especially a performance like the one she envisions, will require a far greater commitment of time, resources and logistics than any show she has attempted before. From the very beginning, Diane’s goal is not merely to put on West Side Story, the musical, but to build the show as a joint production between Mac and the Illinois School for the Deaf (ISD). The ISD campus sits on the far side of town, sprawling across fifty acres of residence halls, classrooms and playing fields. It is the nation’s tenth oldest school for deaf students, founded in 1846. Enrollment hovers around the three hundred mark and includes both residential and day students. It boasts an accredited curriculum for kindergarten through twelfth grade, with an emphasis in later grades on vocational, technical, and college preparatory classes. ISD’s presence has given rise to a sizable Deaf community in Jacksonville, and for the most part, the town’s hearing populace does not bat an eye when encountering a person whose level of hearing does not measure up to their own. Not surprisingly, ISD’s proximity to Mac is a major reason why the latter school has had such success (and motivation) in developing its prominent Deaf Education programs.