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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Deaf Side Story: Deaf Sharks, Hearing Jets, and a Classic American Musical

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For Diane, the notion of bringing the two schools together has been brewing for some time, born of watching her Mac actors use sign language to communicate backstage during past shows. Her immediate reaction is that the signing “should be onstage, not behind the scenes.” Intrigued, she contacts Rod Lathim, a Southern California director whose mixed company of deaf and hearing actors she’d seen last as a grade-schooler. She asks him what pitfalls to avoid should she embark on a project with deaf and hearing performers, and he tells her to be certain, above all else, to make the work collaborative. If, says Lathim, all you as a hearing person do is direct, you won’t achieve anything.

Closer to home, Diane has several reasons for thinking that stage work featuring deaf actors might be a success. First, Mac’s Deaf Education majors include many of the school’s finest students, most of whom have never shown much interest in theater, but Diane hopes that running a show in conjunction with ISD might give her sudden access to this heretofore untapped pool of talent. Second, strong ties already exist between Mac and ISD, which allows many of Mac’s Deaf Ed majors into its classrooms as they prepare to take on classes of their own after graduation. Third, Stephen Buescher’s commedia performance, although far from silent (he relies heavily on prerecorded swing music), is wordless. He does not speak, nor is he spoken to, yet he communicates brilliantly with the audience members, many of whom are deaf high schoolers from ISD, invited specially by Diane to attend Buescher’s shows. Their enthusiasm, combined with Diane’s own, cements her decision to work cast members of differing levels of hearing into an upcoming production.

The pressure for Diane to mount a full-scale musical has been escalating since her arrival, both among Mac’s students and also its alumni. The feeling is that only a musical will establish once and for all that Mac theater is back to stay. Unfortunately, Diane herself has little respect for the majority of well-known American musicals and has no desire to involve herself with Oklahoma!, Pajama Game, or their ilk. West Side Story, however, with its gritty story line of young, thwarted love, seems to her to offer a dose of artistic integrity. The fact that its music will have to be at least partially delivered by deaf or hard of hearing cast members only fuels her interest.

Did Diane have any concrete reason for believing such a production could be successfully staged? Her answer, given in retrospect, is an unadorned “No.”


February 11, 1999

At 2:25 p.m., the National Weather Service issues a tornado warning for Morgan County and Jacksonville in particular. A tornado has been identified fifteen miles southwest of the city, heading northwest at fifty miles an hour. Sirens begin going off as roiling clouds and fierce, gusting winds produce driving rain. Actual waves rise up on the larger puddles. Mac students in Rutledge Hall retreat to the basement under the supervision of their building resident assistants and they cower there, waiting for the alert to end. Many bring schoolwork, but they give up on this when the power abruptly goes out at 2:35. Mac is not the only site affected; most of Jacksonville loses power. The winds continue, tearing down trees, peeling the roof off Kmart, and knocking rural barns from their foundations. The actual tornado never arrives, and the alert officially ends at 3:00.

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